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kerrypolka

Kerry

Hello! I live in London, and I like reading about history, travel and literature. I also like good non-fiction about things I don't know about yet, and adventures.

Currently reading

Eurydice Street: A Place in Athens
Sofka Zinovieff
Escape Routes: Control and Subversion in the 21st Century
Vassilis Tsianos, Dimitris Papadopoulos, Niamh Stephenson
Introducing Fascism: A Graphic Guide
Litza Jansz, Stuart Hood
Women, Travel Writing, and Truth
Clare Broome Saunders
Progress: 37 %
Harry Potter à l'école des sorciers
J.K. Rowling, Emily Walcker, Jean-François Ménard
Progress: 10 %

"Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe", Bill Bryson (1991)

Neither Here Nor There - Bill Bryson

I reread Neither Here Nor There last night, one of the books that I used to think of as one of the best examples of humorous travel writing. Bill Bryson is probably the world's most popular travel writer (he takes four of the top five slots of Goodreads' most popular travel books), and he is in fact very funny very often. But I found myself liking the book a lot less than I used to. Possibly that's because I've heard the jokes already, but I still laughed at them; my problem with it was that Bryson is a lot more mean-spirited than I remember.

 

His best quality as a writer is his very open enthusiasm for new experiences and places, but as I read I discovered that was limited to a certain kind of new experience. Bryson is basically socially progressive but culturally conservative, which isn't too terrible. He describes Sweden as "rich and socialist at the same time, two things I believe everyone ought to be", which I thoroughly agree with, and holds up the welfare state as one of Britain's greatest achievements, which I also thoroughly agree with. He also wishes that terrible architecture didn't happen in the middle of beautiful cities, and don't we all.  

 

But the generosity and solidarity those positions imply doesn't extend to fat people, for example, or gay people or women. Bryson writes in detail every few dozen pages about the disgust he feels looking at a fat person in his line of sight (including occasionally himself in shop window reflections). He expects the reader to share his condescending contempt at accidentally walking in on a gay couple's hotel room as they're having sex, and shares his sexual fantasies about teenage girls and bare breasts uncomfortably often.

 

He also wishes, eg, Italian police would simply "force" Romanis off the streets of Italy, and while I do genuinely think he believes they should be allowed access to state help, he doesn't explicitly say so; he writes more along the lines of "get these annoying brown people away from my nice European cobbled streets" and imagines them feasting on "truffles and Armagnac" on their supposed begged fortunes. And a joke that "veiled women and Arabs in nightshirts" are sacrificing a goat as part of a regular banking transaction is particularly delightful (read: racist).

 

I do think Neither Here Nor There is still worth reading if you haven't yet. Bryson travelled in the late '80s, so the Dalmatian coast was still "Yugoslavia" and Sofia was still Communist, and the stories about these places near the end of the book are the most interesting, describing worlds that simply don't exist any more. The sections about Italy are romantic and well observed, and made me want to go to Capri immediately, which is a good thing for travel writing to do. It's also, again, still mostly very funny, even if Bryson badly misjudges the targets of some of his jokes. But I don't think I'll read it again.