When the world’s getting you down, you can’t go far wrong in picking up a Bill Bryson book. I did as much recently, and whilst Down Under swept my mind firmly away from war in Europe to the relative peace of Australia, I was dismayed to find it brought about quite a different problem. That is: knowing what we know now about the climate in 2022, is it still possible to read and enjoy travel books bursting with the ignorance that helped get the climate into this mess? Are we reaching a tipping moment in our morality, in which we view the environmentally harmful actions of the generations before with reprehension?
Down Under was only published in 2000, and yet a mere 22 years on – even between all the wit and charm of the world’s most loved travel writer – it is hard not to jar on all the flippant references to absurdly long cross-country drives and international flights. Bryson’s travels in Australia were intermittent: he would jet in in between other commitments before, say, flying to the United States to pick up his walking gear – as if it were just around the corner – and then board a plane to Damascus for a charity walk. A few more flights later and he would find himself back in a hire car, bumbling across a continent he describes in his typically hilarious and lucid style. A case in point:
“Australians are very unfair in this way. They spend half of any conversation insisting that the country’s dangers are vastly overrated and that there’s nothing to worry about, and the other half telling you how six months ago their Uncle Bob was driving to Mudgee when a tiger snake slid out from under the dashboard and bit him on the groin, but that it’s okay now because he’s off the life support machine and they’ve discovered he can communicate with eye blinks.”
Bryson is obsessed with the lethality and omnipresence of Australia’s exotic wildlife. But what a travel writer in the year 2000 is unable to fully grasp is quite how lethal his own species is. Reading of all Bryson’s air miles in 2000 might have inspired wanderlust, envy and admiration in a reader. Reading him in 2022 it is – at best – a little uncomfortable, knowing what we know now about the impending climate catastrophe. If somebody were to read him in the year 2100, well, all those air miles may well fly off the page and slap them in the face. Sadly, as wonderful and funny as this book is, it smacks of a naïve time.
Because 2000 was naïve, wasn’t it? The combination of the numbers 9 and 11 had no meaning, the global economy was still years away from the crash of the century, pandemics were a thing of science fiction, environmental concerns remained fringe issues at most, and war in Europe was as likely as an alien invasion. 2000 was a time when even Bryson himself could waltz off to Damascus (the capital of war torn Syria) for that charity walk, blissfully unaware of the fires and horrors that lay ahead for that city. Indeed, it was a time so naïve that Francis Fukuyama had declared the ‘end of history’, assuming western liberal democracy was somehow immune to all the problems that had befallen empires of the past.
One cannot blame Bill for any of this, of course. His literary gift is a gift to his readers, and I have passed many a happy hour reading his books. Down Under is up there with the best, and follows his typical approach to travel. Guided by whim and instinct, and forever failing to grasp the distance between Australian towns, Bryson whisks us across the nation with him. Armed with a determination to visit an array of destinations, from the inane and the bizarre to the fun and the fashionable, he drops in to whatever town or city seems vaguely auspicious according to the map. He then throws a bag into a hotel room before turning on his heel to head out into the heat of the afternoon. After a few dry observations about an invariably dry town he seeks sanctuary in a cool bar with a cool beer, where he’ll entertain reader and writer alike with tidbits from a history book, or musings of a map spread across the table before him.
It is this casual and enviable rhythm permeating the page that makes Bryson so wonderfully readable. Along with a happy dearth of knowledge, humour and vocabulary he carries the reader across the Australian vastness with an ease matched by few other writers.
“Australia is mostly empty and a long way away. Its population is small and its role in the world consequently peripheral. It doesn’t have coups, recklessly overfish, arm disagreeable despots, grow coca in provocative quantities, or throw its weight around in a brash and unseemly manner. It is stable and peaceful and good. It doesn’t need watching, and so we don’t. But I will tell you this: the loss is entirely ours.”
To my mind, to not read any Bill Bryson would also be a loss entirely belonging to the person so foolish as to not pick his books up. But as we accelerate through the 21st century, it is worth bearing in mind that Down Under will not read in 2022 as it was intended to be read in 2000. It simply cannot be – too much has changed – but that fact hasn’t stopped me picking up more of his books, and nor is it ever likely to.
Nonetheless, as the climate crisis becomes an ever larger problem in our lives, it will always be hard to look back on these travel books without wondering to what extent they were a symptom of naivety, and to what extent they were to blame.
I leave you with this last quote from Down Under, that echoes eerily to us now through the tunnels of time.
“Perhaps it’s my natural pessimism, but it seems that an awfully large part of travel these days is to see things while you still can.”