Bill Bryson is a name I perpetually confused with Bill Bailey all through school. It wasn’t until a public humiliation in an English lesson that this changed. Since then I’ve wondered about his work and heard a great deal of positivity about it, yet I’d never endeavoured to read any of it.
I recently picked up “Down Under: Travels in a Sunburnt Country” which chronicles, in some rip-roaringly funny detail, his road trip across the vast emptiness of Australia in the 1990s. The inanity of many of the charming anecdotes in the book reflect this emptiness, yet Bryson manages to repeatedly add addictive humour to them, in such a way as if you’d experienced the moment yourself.
I’m but halfway through the book and I want to share with you my favourite story:
In the 1950s, a friend of Catherine’s moved with her young family into a house next door to a vacant lot. One day some builders arrived to put up a house on the lot. Catherine’s friend had a three-year-old daughter who naturally took an interest in all the activity going on next door. She hung around on the margins and eventually the builders adopted her as a kind of mascot. They chatted to her and gave her little jobs to do and at the end of the week presented her with a little pay packet containing a shiny new half crown, or something.
She took this home to her mother who made all the appropriate cooings of admiration and suggested that they went to the bank the next morning to deposit it in her account. When they went to the bank, the cashier was equally impressed and asked the little girl how she had come by her own pay packet.
“I’ve been building a house this week,” she replied proudly.
“Goodness!” said the cashier. “And will you be building a house next week, too?”
“I will if we ever get the fucking bricks,” answered the little girl.
-Bill Bryson, “Down Under” p169.
See, told you he was charming. I’m joking, in all honesty, the book is chock full of very funny and candid stories, and I highly recommend it; for those interested in Australia, in travel, and in genuinely eloquent and funny literature.
Not that Bryson really needs my endorsement.
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