I had ignored the warning on the cover of Bill Bryson's Notes From a Small Island. "Not a book that should be read in public, for fear of emitting loud snorts", said a blurb from the The Times' review. But I was reading it not in any ol' public place, but in one of the very busy lounges at the Frankfurt international airport. There was not a chair to spare as far as the eye could see. Passengers were milling about, the chairs, stacked closed to each other, did not even lose their warmth as one passenger left and another took his place, there was a steady buzz in the area from many conversations – in short, it was as public as a public place could get.
I had started reading the book a couple of days earlier and was now almost at the end, trying desperately to subdue a snort that had started at the pit of my heaving stomach from exploding out of my nose. I really should have heeded the warning because I am, very famously, given to snorting when laughing.
I had valiantly suppressed a rather long stretch of giggles until then, only the gentle shaking of my body, the swishing noises coming out of my mouth and tears running down my face betraying my helpless condition. In the end, it was no use. The snort exploded any way. Before I could recover from that one, another one followed and then another.
I put my head down, resting my forehead in my palms. That was no help at all. I stole a quick glance around my immediate vicinity. There was a Scottish woman talking in earnest to my husband about her trip, her lilting Scottish accent only slightly eroded by years of living in Canada. That was it. I couldn't take it any more. I slapped the book shut and rushed to the bathroom to compose myself. Five minutes and repeated washing of my face later, I made my way back to my seat and picked up the book. I wasn't done yet.
I picked up where I left off, with some trepidation, but I could not stop myself. Bryson's trip around Britain is coming to a close in Glasgow, Scotland. As he is wont to do in all of his trips at the end of a long day traipsing around town and wandering in museums, parks and market places, Bryson fancies himself a drink and a sitdown at a pub. What follows is entirely to blame for the snort fest.
He enters the bar, which he describes as dark and battered and spies two "larcenous"-looking men sitting together and drinking in silence. He waits at the other end of the bar to be served but no one comes out for a long time. He does all the things people do when they're trying to express impatience – he puffs his cheeks, drums his fingers on the bar, and "makes assorted puckery shapes" with his lips. Then follows some brilliant-as-usual introspection on why we do the things we do when we're waiting for someone. He adds cleaning-of-nails-with-thumb-nail to his routine, but still no one comes.
Eventually I noticed one of the men at the bar eyeing me.
"Hae ya nae hook ma dooky?" he said.
"I'm sorry?" I replied.
"He'll nay be doon a mooning." He hoiked his head in the direction of a back room.
"Oh, ah," I said and nodded sagely, as if that explained it.
I noticed that they were both still looking at me.
"D'ye hae a hoo and a poo?" said the first man to me.
"I'm sorry?" I said.
"D'ye hae a hoo and a poo?" he repeated. It appeared that he was a trifle intoxicated.
I gave a small apologetic smile and explained that I came from the English-speaking world.
"D'ye nae hae in May?" the man went on. "If ye dinna dock ma donny."
"Doon in Troon they croon in June," said his mate then added: "Wi' a spoon."
"Oh, ah." I nodded thoughtfully again, pushing my lower lip out slightly, was if it was all very nearly clear to me now.
Then the bar man comes out and he's in a foul mood.
"Fucking muckle fucket in the gucking muckle," he said to the two men, and then to me in a weary voice: "Ah hae the noo." I couldn't tell if it was a question or a statement.
"A pint of Tennent's please," I said hopefully.
He made an impatient noise, as if I were avoiding his question. "Hae ya nae hook ma dooky?"
"Ah hae the noo," said the first customer, who apparently saw himself as my interpreter.
"Interpreter" was where I had sunk my forehead into my palms.
You might say that this passage is the written version of slapstick, and I might agree, but it is also a sterling illustration of why Bryson's books exist in that rarefied atmosphere reserved for wildly successful and popular writers of travel memoirs. I am certain that this is not a faithful rendition of what transpired in that bar, but, as he says, his writings are faithful to his memory and perceptions of that day, and give the reader a wonderful sense of a place – which is what I'm looking for when I crack open a travel memoir. If I want straight facts and a report of what a city is all about, I'd reach for a travel guide.
Bryson's books are a heady combination of many factors, each one of which, on its own, is praise-worthy. He conveys facts in terms that help you grasp them instantly (for example, in Down Under (also published as In a Sunburned Country), while rendering facts to illustrate how scantily populated Australia is with its population of 19 million, he compares it to the fact that China grows by more than that amount each year). He approaches all the things he sets out to see with an endearing sense of wonder – he might end up being disappointed in them, but he will hardly hesitate to tell you that.
He leaves himself wide open to all experiences, pleasant or unpleasant. His enthusiasm and appetite for travel — which after a while can approximate the daily grind — are nothing short of infectious. His books are filled with passages resulting from insight into and introspection about the human condition, a virtue we could all do with a little bit more of. To top it all, all this is conveyed with a remarkable sense of humor and comic timing.
I'll leave you with this passage from Down Under. Bryson is listening to cricket commentary on his car radio on a lonely drive from Canberra to Adelaide on Sturt Highway. Ironically, you will need to understand cricket to enjoy the point of view of a man who was born and grew up in a non-playing country. After two whole pages of some rather insightful thoughts on cricket ("there's nothing wrong with the game that the introduction of golf carts wouldn't fix in a hurry", "I don't wish to denigrate a sport that is enjoyed by millions, some of them awake and facing the right way", "It actually helps not to know quite what's going on. In such a rarefied world of contentment and inactivity, comprehension would become a distration" and many such gems), including a passage in which he compares cricket to baseball for all his American readers, he carries on.
Neasden, it appeared, was turning in a solid performance at square bowel, while Packet had been a stalwart in the dribbles, though even these exemplary performances paled when set beside the outstanding play of young Hugh Twain-Buttocks at middle nipple. The commentators were in calm agreement that they had not seen anyone caught behind with such panache since Tandoori took Rogan Josh for a stiffy at Vindaloo in '61. [A sentence which conveys Bryson's perception that the bowling run-up is long.] This was repeated four times more over the next two hours and then one of the commentators pronounced: 'So as we break for second luncheon, and with 11,200 balls remaining, Australia are 962 for two not half and England are four for a duck and hoping for rain.'
I may not have all the terminology exactly right, but I believe I have caught the flavor of it.
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