America week by week
Notes from a Big Country by Bill Bryson Doubleday 318pp, 16.99 in UK
When Bill Bryson and his English wife moved back to America after many years of residence in England, somebody at the Mail on Sunday decided it would make an entertaining newspaper column if the travel writer were to send back weekly despatches comparing life in, as the cover blurb has it, "the world's richest and craziest country" with the sanity and good old-fashioned ambience of, among other places, the Yorkshire dales. This book is a collection of said columns, in which Bryson applies himself with zeal to such topics as the American justice system, junk food, junk mail, the weather, the death penalty and the arrogance of airline employees. Most of these are, as topics, so blindingly obvious that you begin to wonder if he deliberately set himself a series of challenges - "your mission for this week, Bryson, is to make three amusing pages out of yesterday's family outing to the beach" - but it has to be admitted that he generally succeeds. I say generally: the column devoted to the family's trip to the beach is a bit of a bummer, actually, as is the one devoted to the trip to the cinema and the one which leafs through American guidebooks to see what information they provide for prospective tourists to Britain. Still, three bum weeks out of an 18-month column is a pretty impressive batting average, and the rest of the time (particularly in October and November - like the New Hampshire landscape, Bryson seems to be at his best in the autumn) he comes up with a generous quantity of the wry observation, curmudgeonly complaint and agreeable lunacy which has become his trademark. On a visit to the barber's: "I notice he is looking unhappily at everything above my eyebrows." On the American fondness for the motor car: "Not long after we moved here we had the people next door round for dinner and - I swear this is true - they drove." On radio interviews: "At one station the interviewer covered the microphone with his hand just before we went on and said: `Now tell me, are you the guy who was abducted by aliens or are you the travel writer?' " Or my particular favourite, from a column on the dumbing-down of America; the reply a woman who shall be identified only as Miss Alabama gave in a "Miss Universe" contest, when asked if she would choose to live forever: "I would not live for ever, because we should not live for ever, because if we were supposed to live for ever then we would live for ever, but we cannot live for ever, which is why I would not live for ever."
Where does he find these things? In the same column he reports that according to an opinion poll, 13 per cent of women in the US cannot say whether they wear their tights under their knickers or over them, and in another, that every person in America receives 34lbs - 500 pieces - of unsolicited junk mail a year. Such assiduous unearthing of statistics suggests a level of application, not to say dedication, to the cause of turning out a worthwhile column which belies the easy, relaxed tone Bryson manages to sustain throughout the book.
From the examples quoted above you will gather that the tone is also, for the most part, light-hearted - though when he turns his attention to such matters as the US government and its dealings with individuals or the application of the death penalty (he's against both), Bryson can make a serious point with the best of them. Environmental protection, or the lack of it, exercises him most: "If global temperatures rise by four degrees Centigrade over the next half-century, as some scientists confidently predict, then all of the trees of Shenandoah National Park and the Smokies, and for hundreds of miles beyond, will die . . ."
As a Bryson fan of some standing I was cruelly disappointed to find that this was a collection of columns and not a "proper" book like The Lost Continent or A Walk in the Woods or Made in America. When I discovered that the columns were from the Mail on Sunday - a newspaper I have not yet forgiven for failing to send me the cheap airline tickets promised a couple of months ago to any reader who clipped enough coupons but not, evidently, any reader misguided enough to live in the Republic of Ireland - I was positively enraged. As the weeks turn, however, and the weather in New Hampshire moves from an autumn "splashed with every sharp shade that nature can bestow: flaming scarlet, lustrous gold, throbbing vermilion, fiery orange" to the bracing cold of minus 28 degrees - "unless you have a particularly vivid imagination, or are reading this in a chest freezer, you may find such extreme chilliness difficult to conceive", notes Bryson, before giving a description of the effects of such temperatures on the human body which leaves nothing to the imagination - as we read of friendly neighbours and the wonders of Thanksgiving, there is a real sense of time passing which compensates, in some measure, for the somewhat staccato brevity of the chapters. In the end I was charmed by Notes from a Big Country: but not so charmed as not to recommend that, if you're one of the dozen or so people left on the planet who haven't yet read this man's books, and you want to start now, you should buy one of the "proper" books in paperback first.