Review: Down Under

Down Under is travel writer Bill Bryson’s account of Australia, based on a number of visits over what feels like a year or so. He covers the major cities, crosses the outback by train, plane and car, and makes friends with a range of people in remote places. There is, apparently, Humour.

I have a chequered history with Bryson’s work: while I love Notes from a Big Country, his book of columns about life in New Hampshire, I found Notes from a Small Island, an account of his farewell tour of England, chauvinistic and pompous. And not funny.

Down Under falls, I think, somewhere in the middle. Bryson describes Australia right from the get-go as a kind of earthly paradise:

Let me say right here that I love Australia – adore it immeasurably – and am smitten anew each time I see it…The people are immensely likeable – cheerful, extrovert, quick-witted and unfailingly obliging. Their cities are safe and clean and nearly always built on water. They have a society that is prosperous, well ordered and instinctively egalitarian…

Which may well all be true, so long as you aren’t queer, female or a person of colour. Australian society is famously homophobic, and the Australian government is famously anti-immigration. (We’ll get to Indigenous Australians in a bit.) But then Bryson is more than a little bit racist himself, which might be why he and Australia get on so well together:

One of the effects of paying so little attention to Australia is that it is always such a pleasant surprise to find it there. Every cultural instinct and previous experience tells you that when you travel this far you should find, at the very least, people on camels. There should be unrecognisable lettering on the signs, and swarthy men in robes drinking coffee from thimble-sized cups and puffing on hookahs and rattletrap buses and potholes in the road and a real possibility of disease on everything you touch – but no, it’s not like that at all.

This book has aged badly, to put it mildly.

At least Bryson does eventually get round to discussing the plight of the Indigenous Australians, although it does take him about ten chapters, and he’s appalled at the way they’ve been treated by white Australians. But at no point does he make the effort to meet, interview or talk to anyone Indigenous; they’re always in the background, presented as sad, damaged figures without agency or narrative.

Which is all to say that Bryson experiences Australia very much as a white straight man, which is occasionally problematic but mainly just a particular lens. It does have the effect of making this not very interesting to me? Bryson isn’t really looking at the things I’d be interested in, or the things I’d need to know about as a queer woman if I visited Australia. And it’s not that funny to me, either – but then humour is a subjective thing, after all. Sometimes books and readers just don’t hit it off, and this was one of those times.

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