Wednesday, February 3, 2010

In a sunburned country - Bill Bryson

What does it take to be a great travel writer?

Curiosity: During his stay in Adelaide, Bill Bryson sees a large crowd walking towards a stadium. A cricket match, someone tells him. His first reaction? "Where can I get tickets?" Bill Bryson doesn't know cricket. He doesn't follow the game, know its rules, recognize any players. But his first reaction is still - "where can I get tickets?" That is what makes Bill Bryson a great travel writer. He is curious, really curious, about things that might define a place, a people.

An outsider's eye: There is one subject sure to kill the free flowing conversation with Australians, Bryson informs us - the status of Aborigines. Time and time again in In a Sunburned Country, Bryson brings up the subject of Aborigines. The responses he gets range from the fringe lunatic ("shoot them all") to the guiltily shamefaced ("er... mm ... it's a problem"). Bryson is never less than polite, never ungracious, but he leaves the reader with a clear impression - the Australians aren't proud of the status of Aborigines in the country and rightly so. He shows us how every history book in Australia starts the story of the country in 1770, with the arrival of James Cook, and most seem to end in the early 1930s. (Reminds me in a way of Indian history books that all seem to end around 1950, as if history stopped being made after independence.) Bryson looks at Australia in a way only an informed, independent outsider could. That is what makes Bill Bryson a great travel writer. He is immersed in Australia, but still his own man.

Affection: Paradoxically in some ways, a travel writer's life is a rather lonely one. He is the one travelling in the train by himself, asking for a table for one every night, walking in the park alone. He is an observer, looking at a people. In a Sunburned Country looks at Australians in a way that makes you feel constantly that Bryson is going around the country with a silly, satisfied smile on his face. Like someone gave him some free candy. That he likes Australians is soon obvious. And it gives him the license to make the ocassional critical comment without seeming ungrateful. That is what makes Bill Bryson a great travel writer. He radiates an affection for people that makes him an insider in a strange land.

Patience: I wrote a blog post a long time back where I talked about sites that are not the hottest tourist attractions but should be, given their staggering significance in terms of the earth's evolutionary history. (Historic sites - on an evolutionary scale) #1 on my list was shark bay on the western coast of Australia, where one can see living stromatolites - among the very first forms of life to emerge on planet earth - earth as it looked 3.5 billion years ago (yes, with a 'b'). This place takes some getting to. Miles of driving in a hot, unforgiving desert, followed by a long hike, into a place with practically no human inhabitation, no tourist infrastructure. A long, many hour trip. To see a gray, shapeless mass that you can't even tell is living. That is what makes Bill Bryson a great travel writer. He makes the trip.

A child inside: Harold Holt was the Prime Minister of Australia in the '60s. He went for a swim in the ocean one day, and never returned. A prime minister. Of a large, highly developed country. Disappeared. Presumed drowned. Australians today barely even know him. How odd is that? This is the kind of odd tidbit Bryson fills In a Sunburned Country with. That is what makes Bill Bryson a great travel writer. He has an eye for the odd, and a temperament that gets more excited the odder his finds.

A sense of humor: Driving 600 kilometers to see a large rock isn't at #1 on my list of 'things I would do only if someone put a gun to my head'. But it is close. Here is the thing though - When Bryson does it, he makes it seem like a load of fun. And that is what makes Bill Bryson a great travel writer. His sense of humor makes light of the horrors of traveling, and polishes the great parts to shine ever brighter.

A friend of Brick and Rope is a professional quality photographer. He showed me pictures the other day of Yellowstone National Park. Now I have been to Yellowstone, and recognize every site he showed me in his pictures. But here is the thing - his pictures were so darn beautiful, it was as if he and I had visited two completely different places.

I have never been to Australia. In a Sunburned Country makes me itch to start looking for tickets. When I get there though, I hope I can see it with the same eyes that Bryson is able to see it through. I want to see Australia, but I want to see Bill Bryson's Australia.


  1. Beautifulll very well written J.. And your blog is making me itch to read the book !!

  2. Hi,
    The anecdotes you describe sound like 'Down Under', another Bill Bryson book about Australia. Has it been reprinted with just a new tagline or have more chapters been added to the book ?

  3. @ Vish: Vish, if you end up reading one extra book this year because of Brick and Rope, you will make me a very happy man!

    @ Zen: Yes, 'In a Sunburned Country' is the same book as 'Down Under'. The book was published with a different name in the US and Canada only.

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