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Saturday, March 1, 2014

In a Sunburned Country


I am a fan of Bill Bryson's because every time he walks out the door, memorable travel literature threatens to break out. I bought a copy of his book In a Sunburned Country in my favourite op-shop but found it oddly déjà vu.

The nice things about going senile is that you can read the same book twice without realising it because I had read the exact same book under its other title Down Under. Don't let that happen to you!

Still, it was an enjoyable (re-)read and I felt being right back in Sydney again where I used to take the ferry from Circular Quay to Manly and mingle with commuting Sydneysiders when reading Bryson's description:

'These are people who get to live in a safe and fair-minded society, in a climate that makes you strong and handsome, in one of the world’s great cities – and they come to work on a boat from a children’s storybook, across a sublime plane of water, and each morning glance up from their Heralds and Telegraphs to see that famous Opera House and inspiring bridge and the laughing face of Luna Park. No wonder they look so damned happy.'

He even agrees with my assessment of cricket, quite possibly the most boring sport known to mankind:

'I had stumbled onto the surreal and rewarding world of cricket on the radio.

After years of patient study (and with cricket there can be no other kind) I have decided that there is nothing wrong with the game that the introduction of golf carts wouldn’t fix in a hurry. It is not true that the English invented cricket as a way of making all other human endeavors look interesting and lively; that was merely an unintended side effect.

I don’t wish to denigrate a sport that is enjoyed by millions, some of them awake and facing the right way, but it is an odd game. It is the only sport that incorporates meal breaks. It is the only sport that shares its name with an insect. It is the only sport in which spectators burn as many calories as players- more if they are moderately restless. It is the only competitive activity of any type, other than perhaps baking, in which you can dress in white from head to toe and be as clean at the end of the day as you were at the beginning.

[...] Now imagine all this going on for so long that by the time the match concludes, autumn has crept in and all your library books are overdue. There you have cricket.'

By Chapter 6, Bryson has made it to Canberra, the famously boring home of the Australian federal government. There was a competition to find a name for it. Luckily, the winning name was the one that had been in use all along but close runner-ups where Shakespeare, Myola, Wheatwoolgold, Emu, Eucalypta, Sydmeladperbrisho (the first syllables of the state capitals), Opossum, Gladstone, Thirstyville, Kookaburra, Cromwell, and the ringingly inane Victoria Defendera Defender. I shudder to think what my business card would've looked like:

Canberra Computer Accounting Systems
GPO Box 2159, Sydmeladperbrisho A.C.T. 2601

Bryson also feels compelled, for some reason, to take a swing at the Australian prime minister:

‘[...] John Howard is by far the dullest man in Australia. Imagine a very committed funeral home director – someone whose burning ambition from the age of eleven was to be a funeral home director, whose proudest achievement in adulthood was to be elected president of the Queanbeyan and District Funeral Home Directors Association – then halve his personality and halve it again, and you have pretty well got John Howard.’

Now ordinarily I love a good slagging, but this is simple abuse. Presumably Bryson has met Howard (whereas I certainly haven’t) and genuinely feels this way, otherwise it is difficult to imagine where this obviously deep antipathy springs from.

He also, more deservedly, has a go at all things big, like the Big Lobster:

'The Big Lobster, you see, was something- or more properly a species of something- that I had longed to see ever since I had hit the road.

One of the more cherishable peculiarities of Australians is that they like to build big things in the shape of other things. Give them a bale of chicken wire, some fiberglass, and a couple of pots of paint and they will make you, say, an enormous pineapple or strawberry or, as here, a lobster. Then they put a cafe and gift shop inside, erect a big sign on the highway (for the benefit of people whose acuity does not evidently extend to spotting a fifty foot high piece of fruit standing beside an otherwise empty highway), then sit back and wait for the money to roll in.'

One thing that I particularly liked about the book was that Bryson makes a lot of stops in small towns in the middle of nowhere and manages to find something cool about each one of them. An old friend of mine had once had an accountant's practice in a place called Macksville where he spent most of his time helping cow cockies fill out unemployment claims. I was interested to read Byron's fitting description of the place:

'It is possible, I suppose, to construct hypothetical circumstances in which you would be pleased to find yourself, at the end of a long day, in Macksville, New South Wales - perhaps something to do with rising sea levels that left it as the only place on earth not underwater, or maybe some disfiguring universal contagion from which it alone remained unscathed.

[...] I don't want to disparage a community that 2,811 people proudly call home (and what a miraculous notion that is), but [...] my disappointment was real.

So my mood as I strolled into town from my motel was, let us say, restrained. Macksville wasn't so bad really. Set on the bank of the swift and muddy Nambucca River, it was essentially just a pause in the highway: a tentacle of neatly gardened bungalows and small office buildings leading to a very compact town center.

[...] At the heart of the modest community stood the large and fading Nambucca Hotel, and I stepped in, glad to escape the heat. It was a roomy place but nearly empty. Two older guys in tank tops and battered bush hats propped up one end of the long bar. In a side room a man and a woman sat in silent absorption amid the soft, mechanical glow of pokie machines. I procured a beer, stood long enough to establish that no one was going to take any interest in me that might lead a conversation, and retired to the central portion of the bar where I parked myself on a stool and idly watched the evening news on a silent TV mounted on the wall.

[...] According to a sign on a door across the room, the Nambucca had a restaurant, so I wandered over to investigate, but the door wouldn't open.

"Dining room's closed, mate," said one of the two guys at the bar. "Chef's crook."

Crook means ill.

"Must've ate some of his own cooking," came a voice from the pokies alcove, and we all had a grin over that.

"What else is there in town?" I asked.

"Depends," said the man, scratching his throat thoughtfully. He leaned toward me slightly. "You like good food?"

I nodded. Of course I did.

"Nothin', then." He went back to his beer.

Does this bring back memories, Ian? ☺