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Bill Bryson

Neither Here nor There

Category: Miscellaneous | Published: 1991 | Review Added: 26-06-2019

Rating: 3 - Worth reading

After Notes from a Small Island, I was disappointed by this earlier book by Bryson. It is the account of an erratic journey through Europe, and while it has some of the wit of his later works, it has a great deal more of the misanthropy. Bryson emerges as such an embittered and unendearing narrator that the reader finishes the book unsurprised, but perhaps a little satisfied, that he made no real connection with anybody he met in a trip that lasted several weeks.

Bryson starts in Hammerfest, the most northerly town in Europe. Having originally intended his whole trip to take place in the spring, he had to move the first segment of his travels forward to winter, in time to see the Northern Lights. His description of the Lights is enthusiastic, but the enthusiasm does not set the tone for the rest of the book, which, excepting qualified endorsements of Copenhagen, Amsterdam, parts of Italy, and, of all places, Bulgaria, is largely a litany of complaints.

Whether it's importunate beggers, a hotelier's lack of appreciation of a witlessly sarcastic joke, or the Swiss people's sterile orderliness, Bryson takes almost every opportunity to mock the ways of Europeans. He even feigns shock that modern Germans - most of whom weren't born till after the Second World War - are allowed to visit Belgium with impunity:

Germans who had once slaughtered women and children in these villages could now return as tourists, with cameras around their necks and wives on their arms, as if it had all been just a Hollywood movie.

Lest one imagine that this is the comment of a defender of the underdog, here he is on the streets of Florence:

It was the gypsies who got to me the most. They sit along every street calling out to passers-by, with heart-breakingly filthy children of three and four stuck on their laps, made to sit there for hour after hour just to heighten the pathos. It's inhuman, as scandalous as forcing the children to work in a sweatshop...

As it happens, he has his wallet stolen by a deft-fingered gypsy child, which at first one interprets as just desserts - until the penny drops that, more likely, the foregoing rant about the gypsies (and the Italian police who don't investigate petty theft) is simply a pointless attempt to deliver private justice.

I've never read a travel book in which the writer seems to be having such a miserable time. One wonders why Bryson made the journey at all: a solitary tour of Europe was never going to be a barrel of laughs for somebody who speaks no language other than English, especially when he won't even to condescend to use a phrase-book. Maybe his purpose was simply to give his publisher something to put out. There is a lot wrong with every country on Earth, but so often Bryson starts with his prejudices and runs with them, blind to potential compensations.

By the end of the book, one almost feels sorry for its author, who comes across as decidedly ill at ease with himself. Few people Bryson meets seem keen to make his acquaintance, and given his irrascibility, and his apparent habit of getting drunk every evening, it's no surprise. Perhaps at the time of writing the book, he was still struggling to break free of the boorish cynicism he'd picked up from working in newspaper offices.

There are enough insights and decent one-liners to make Neither Here nor There worth reading, but it is lacking the open-mindedness that makes for really good travel writing.

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