Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Notes from a small-minded island

Bill Bryson confirmed my long-held suspicions today. Beneath that bluff, avuncular exterior is a grumpy, nay angry middle-aged man. That much was clear in the typical chapter of his travel books, when he would detail with loving care all the quirks of the folk he encountered - Americans, Australians, and especially us Brits, who he has taken to his heart.

But you knew what was coming as you neared the end of each chapter.

He'd relate some encounter, say, with a rude or pig-headed checkout assistant, and you knew that an expletive was forming. Bill Bryson in other words, is NOT someone who is "too good to be true". He does NOT have the patience of a saint, and the situations he meets can put him on a short fuse.

So it comes as no surprise to read in this morning's Telly that he's giving up writing to become a kind of Litter Czar. Yes, he loves Britain dearly - its countryside, pubs etc - but is in despair at our growing indifference to litter and fly-tipping. We are fouling up his paradise as well as our own.

Spiritually, I am with him every step of the way. But a word of warning, Bill, if I may be so familiar. Brits can be very severe on anyone who gets too passionate on the subject of litter.

I once knew someone who moved to a new town and was appalled at what he saw in the high street - not just fresh litter, but litter that had lain there for months, got turned into papier maché through several storms, and then congealed around every bit of street furniture. So when the local heritage society asked for volunteers to turn up in the main carpark one Saturday, bringing with them a broom and spade, he willingly volunteered.

Only half a dozen or so turned up, if that, but within an hour the town began to look transformed. It acquired a grace, a dignity, a sparkle, instead of advertising unkemptness and self-neglect.
But then the insults began. "Hello baby face. Why are you doing that then ? Why are you doing the work of a roadsweeper ?", and later " You are SO naive. Can't you see that you are being used to make a political point ? "

Later, one of his work colleagues, no less said, only half in jest, " You know, I'm beginning to have second thoughts about the wisdom of moving to that town of yours. I mean, volunteering to sweep a high street. How naff can you get ?"

You can probably guess who the volunteer was !

Anyway, more power to your elbow, Bill Bryson. You have entertained for years with your books, and charmed us with your quaint anglophilia. But you must know too about our unacceptable face: feting newcomers, turning them into celebrities, filling up column inches, all so we can gleefully knock them down again.

There will be those who will now portray Bill Bryson as someone in the throes of a midlife crisis (indeed, he may be) , who is now revealing himself as a closet Victor Meldrew. There's only one way to counter that: keep your sense of humour, because, believe me, you are going to need it.

Postscript: A short while ago I said on a Telly blog it was high time Bill Bryson was knighted. Back came an email, reminding me of my own description of him as the Thunderbolt Kid from Des Moines. Hadn't I forgotten something, the emailer said, like where Des Moines is ? The implication was clear: I was triply ignorant, in not knowing where Des Moines was, that Bill Bryson was still a US citizen, and that the Queen does not knight non-UK citizens.

And there I was, thinking that Des Moines was London suburb, that Bill Bryson was Yorkshire born and bred, and that it was unthinkable for a non-Brit to be knighted. Bob Geldof (Sir) - an Irishman. Or the philanthropist, now deceased, John Paul Getty Jr.(Sir) who took British citizenship late in life.

You know, there are times when I despair at the tendency of folk to speak first, think later. It tends to bring out my Bill Bryson end-of-chapter mode. Best then to stop at this juncture, me thinks ....
emails still welcome (in spite of everything):