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Monday, 1 August 2016

Book Review: 'Neither Here Nor There' by Bill Bryson

The next category in my continuing quest to read more widely was ‘travel/memoir’. Under these circumstances, my former tutor, Ian Marchant sprang to mind. Unfortunately, Waterstone’s didn’t have any of his books in stock, and I was reluctant to lose momentum waiting for a delivery (however, if you like beer, and you’re looking for a book which is well informed, erudite and funny, you could do worse than look up The Longest Crawl).

So, with this plan thwarted, and with and impatient fiancée in tow, I settled for probably the biggest contemporary name in the genre. In spite of the old cliché, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t influenced by the cover – a vintage travel poster style drawing of the Hagia Sophia, its domes and minarets dwarfing the houses huddled below, while two silhouetted figures look on across a busy straight of sunset orange water.

Neither Here Nor There meanders across Europe. We join Bryson en route to Hammerfest, a small city in the far north of Norway with a name which sounds like it should be a metal festival (and, as it turns out, is), and follow him across fourteen countries (more if you count using modern borders) ending in Istanbul. Bryson is an engaging guide – irreverent, but still able to find glory in his surroundings. He somehow balances a wide-eyed everyman persona with a casual understanding of art, architecture and history, transitioning seamlessly between laughing at smutty paintings in the Louvre, and being awestruck by the grandeur of Charlemagne’s cathedral in Aachen.

One reason that this approach seems to work is that Bryson constantly positions himself as an outsider. He is as lost in these unfamiliar cities as we are, and his ignorance of European languages is not from a bullish tourist arrogance, but because of an almost Romantic addiction to this outsider status. Bryson revels in happy accidents and unexpected turns of events. This is reflected in his somewhat shambolic approach to his journey, which sees him zigzagging in and out of Germany, and deciding on a whim to skip over half the continent to get from Stockholm to Rome. He is also honest about the mundanities of travel, and we spend almost as much time looking at industrial complexes from the windows of slow, over crowded trains and perusing the lacklustre menus in mediocre restaurants as we do in historic buildings or overlooking sublime alpine landscapes. For Bryson, this is all part of the adventure, and his slapdash attitude to travel is contagious. Within a few chapters, I found myself looking up cheap flights to Bruges in my break at work (unfortunately they weren’t quite cheap enough).

Of course, a solo trip around Europe does have the potential disadvantage that most of the narrative tension comes from finding hotel rooms or train tickets. Bryson remedies this by including anecdotes from a much earlier European adventure with an old school friend, Stephen Katz. Katz acts as a foil to the young Bryson’s enthusiasm, unimpressed by his cultural experiences and more sensitive to the discomforts of travel. The two young men do share a late-pubescent preoccupation with sex and drinking, but by the end of the trip they are barely speaking. The extent to which this tension is exaggerated for literary purposes is unclear, but it seems that the friendship was not unsalvageable, as Katz turns up again in a latter Bryson book, A Walk in the Woods.

Part of me would have liked more exploration of the potentially interesting tension in retracing a gap-year style journey as a mature adult, but despite his willingness to share amusing and potentially embarrassing anecdotes, Bryson chooses to keep the primary focus of the book on the joys and trials of travel itself. That is not to say that it is without more serious moments. For example, Bryson’s depiction of Bulgaria at the end of the communist regime, hit by hyper-inflation, and with an almost complete lack of consumer items stifling its nascent capitalist economy. The book often treats the poorer areas of cities as being equally interesting and worthy of our attention as the historic and economic centres, but it is here where Bryson explores the problems with this position and the glamour of being an outsider is replaced with guilt at his privileged position. He can retreat from the bleakness of the town into a hotel which bars local people from even entering. He is desperate to spend some money in the city, but can find nothing to buy.

While Bryson displays his liberal-leaning social conscience here, his depiction of women sometimes seems a little old fashioned. This is less problematic it the sections with Katz, where it perhaps reflects the attitudes of two adolescent men in the 1970s, but becomes a awkward when we find the fourty year old Bryson’s leering at ‘the sort of bottom that made your palms sweat’ attached to a woman in the tourist information office in Amsterdam. I do not think that Bryson in a misogynist, but this perhaps illustrates how society has changed since the book was written in the early 90s. Bryson’s attitude towards the Germans is also indicative of his age and the time the book was written. Like Basil Fawlty before him, he seems unable to look at Germans without being reminded of the war. Given recent events, I was curious to find out what Bryson’s attitude to what was then the EEC and was a little surprised to find that our Europe-loving guide was a Eurosceptic, albeit primarily due to a fear of homogenisation which clashes with his Romantic sensibilities.

Compared to my last two choices, this was an easy book to read – I flew through it in about a week – but Bryson delivers more than melt-to-nothing candyfloss. With humour and lightness of touch, Neither Here Nor There touches on issues of globalisation, and international politics, but overall, it stands as a love letter to Europe, and to the variety of human culture, and to the urge to explore. 

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