If you are studying in Durham it is a bit hard to avoid the shadow of Bill Bryson. The man, I think, is present only occassionally in person but his spirit lurks frequently because he is “Chancellor and official head of the University”…as the relevant page on the uni website says. The library has come up with the idea of Bill Bryson bags to make a bit of cash and Waterstones has prominent displays of his books. So it is that this author enters your consciousness whether you intend him to or not…..and eventually it is inevitable I guess you will give in and read some of his stuff, including that book.
Yes, it’s happened to me. It started when friends….who knew about the Bryson thing discovered I’d never read any of his stuff. They supplied me with a couple of good quality 2nd hand copies of Neither here Nor there Travels in Europe and Shakespeare, which I used as train reading when I was doing my commuting to work earlier in the year. I have to say I was hooked as soon as I started going through the first travel-log. This was clearly a book for intelligent people who don’t take life too seriously and see it how it actually is. It was a book for those of us who will arrive in some places and gasp in wonder at the beauty of it, enthusing a bit too much because this place has got us hooked and yet will arrive in other places and say “don’t know what all the fuss is about, this is a bit of a shit hole….where should we go instead?” It’s a book for those of us who don’t treat art galleries like libaries but rather laugh at the funny stuff, and take the mickey out of the crap stuff and also out of the pretentious types around us sometimes.
Moving onto Shakespeare it’s cynical popularist history. Giving you lots some information you don’t know but telling you more why you can’t trust alot of stuff you thought you did know there is a refreshing honesty in the book. It spends most of the time saying actually we know bugger all about Shakespeare, apart from his plays which were brilliant, and anybody who says different is using a whole lot of conjuncture or is plain and simply making it up.
Anyway, having had the commute removed I have decided to try and keep up with the one or two chapters a day of non-academic reading….and have discovered the joys of keeping a book by the bedside. Anyway, so it is that I am currently making my way through that book , or rather the omnibus edition, The Complete Notes, which also includes Notes from a Big Country.
Now, for those of you who wonder why I keep referring to it as “that book” let me explain. In Durham it has an almost mythical status. To be honest I couldn’t understand until I started reading…and yes I did skip through to find the bit relating to Durham first. The first reason it has such a status around these parts relates to what he actually says about the place. Quotes include “I couldn’t believe that not once in twenty years had anyone said to me, “you’ve never been to Durham? Good God, man, you must go at once! Please-take my car”.” and so he enthuses in this vein.
However, the reasons I think he has got the reception he has in Durham goes beyond what he may have done for the local tourist industry. Within the book, I am discovering, he pretty much trashes Oxford and Cambridge….and there are some around this city for whom that would be relevant. Personally, I struggle with it as I absolutely adore Cambridge and the old fashioned, slightly worn at times, market. For me it’s all a bit different I guess as my failed attempt to study there was when I didn’t get the A Level grades I needed to take up my place at the poly…or whatever the correct term for the New University is. Thus I don’t have the chip on my shoulder many a rejected Oxbridge candidate appears to have.
Anyway I digress, back to Mr. Bryson and that book. I’m still working my way through, but it is a gem. It takes you around the country, to locations you might vaguely remember visiting yourself. Thus you find yourself comparing his experiences to your own. It’s a book which will make you laugh, affirm (as in the “too right” type comment) and want to go out exploring. It’s also, though, a book which is fun because it allows the worst aspects of regional rivalries to come out in you. I was almost sitting there cheering when he decided Norwich wasn’t worth heading off to after all and so he headed up to Nottinghamshire instead.
To conclude then, even if you are not in Durham, I would recommend you head to the nearest library or second hand book shop at once to obtain a copy of one of Bryson’s books….and if you English (oh, and even if you’re not) that book is definately worth getting hold of.