How Funny is Bill Bryson?

Funny.

Like wickedly funny. I’m always forwarding excerpts from In A Sunburned Country, his document of Australia, which has three especially funny passages, now here in one place.

A Tour of Sydney

The only time I had seen anything at all of the real city was some years before, on my first visit, when a kindly sales rep from my local publisher had taken me out for the day in his car, with his wife and two little girls in back, and I had disgraced myself by falling asleep. It wasn’t from lack of interest or appreciation, believe me. It’s just that the day was warm and I was newly arrived in the country. At some unfortunate point, quite early on, jet lag asserted itself and I slumped helplessly into a coma.

I am not, I regret to say, a discreet and fetching sleeper. Most people when they nod off look as if they could do with a blanket; I look as if I could do with medical attention. I sleep as if injected with a powerful experimental muscle relaxant. My legs fall open in a grotesque come-hither manner; my knuckles brush the floor. Whatever is inside—tongue, uvula, moist bubbles of intestinal air—decides to leak out. From time to time, like one of those nodding-duck toys, my head tips forward to empty a quart or so of viscous drool onto my lap, then falls back to begin loading again with a noise like a toilet cistern filling. And I snore, hugely and helplessly, like a cartoon character, with rubbery flapping lips and prolonged steam-valve exhalations. For long periods I grow unnaturally still, in a way that inclines onlookers to exchange glances and lean forward in concern, then dramatically I stiffen and, after a tantalizing pause, begin to bounce and jostle in a series of whole-body spasms of the sort that bring to mind an electric chair when the switch is thrown. Then I shriek once or twice in a piercing and effeminate manner and wake up to find that all motion within five hundred feet has stopped and all children under eight are clutching their mothers’ hems. It is a terrible burden to bear.

I have no idea how long I slept in that car other than that it was not a short while. All I know is that when I came to, there was a certain heavy silence in the car—the kind of silence that would close over you if you found yourself driving around your own city conveying a slumped and twitching heap from one unperceived landmark to another. I looked around dumbly, not certain for the moment who these people were, cleared my throat, and pulled myself to a more upright position.

“We were wondering if you might like some lunch,” my guide said quietly when he saw that I had abandoned for the moment the private ambition to flood his car with saliva. “That would be very nice,” I replied in a small, abject voice, discovering in the same instant, with a customary inward horror, that while I had dozed a four-hundred-pound fly had evidently been sick over me. In an attempt to distract attention from my unnatural moist sheen and at the same time reestablish my interest in the tour, I added more brightly, “Is this still Neutral Bay?”

There was a small involuntary snort of the sort you make when a drink goes down the wrong way. And then with a certain strained precision: “No, this is Dover Heights. Neutral Bay was”—a microsecond’s pause, just to aerate the point—“some time ago.”

“Ah.” I made a grave face, as if trying to figure out how we had managed between us to mislay such a chunk of time.

Quite some time ago, in fact.”

“Ah.”

We rode the rest of the way to lunch in silence.

Rugby

“It is eight-hundred miles from Canberra west to Adelaide,” and a lot of it through “the ghastly blink,” a term for the desert expanse of central Australia.

As if to emphasize the isolation, all the area radio stations began to abandon me. One by one their signals faltered, and all those smoky voices so integral to Australian airwaves—Vic Damone, Mel Tormé, Frank Sinatra at the mindless height of his doo-beedoo phase—faded away, as if being drawn by some heavy gravity back into the hole from which they had escaped. Eventually the radio dial presented only an uninterrupted cat’s hiss of static but for one clear spot near the end of the dial. At first I thought that’s all it was—just an empty clear spot—but then I realized I could hear the faint shiftings and stirrings of seated people, and after quite a pause, a voice, calm and reflective, said:

“Pilchard begins his long run in from short stump. He bowls and…oh, he’s out! Yes, he’s got him. Longwilley is caught leg-before in middle slops by Grattan. Well, now what do you make of that, Neville?”

“That’s definitely one for the books, Bruce. I don’t think I’ve seen offside medium-slow fast-pace bowling to match it since Baden-Powell took Rangachangabanga for a maiden ovary at Bangalore in 1948.”

I had stumbled into 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.

Imagine a form of baseball in which the pitcher, after each delivery, collects the ball from the catcher and walks slowly with it out to center field; and that there, after a minute’s pause to collect himself, he turns and runs full tilt toward the pitcher’s mound before hurling the ball at the ankles of a man who stands before him wearing a riding hat, heavy gloves of the sort used to handle radioactive isotopes, and a mattress strapped to each leg. Imagine moreover that if this batsman fails to hit the ball in a way that heartens him sufficiently to try to waddle forty feet with mattresses strapped to his legs, he is under no formal compunction to run; he may stand there all day, and, as a rule, does. If by some miracle he is coaxed into making a misstroke that leads to his being put out, all the fielders throw up their arms in triumph and have a hug. Then tea is called and everyone retires happily to a distant pavilion to fortify for the next siege. 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.

But it must be said there is something incomparably soothing about cricket on the radio. It has much the same virtues as baseball on the radio—an unhurried pace, a comforting devotion to abstruse statistics and thoughtful historical rumination, exhilarating micro-moments of real action—but stretched across many more hours and with a lushness of terminology and restful elegance of expression that even baseball cannot match. Listening to cricket on the radio is like listening to two men sitting in a rowboat on a large, placid lake on a day when the fish aren’t biting; it’s like having a nap without losing consciousness. It actually helps not to know quite what’s going on. In such a rarefied world of contentment and inactivity, comprehension would become a distraction.

“So here comes Stovepipe to bowl on this glorious summer’s afternoon at the Melbourne Cricket Ground,” one of the commentators was saying now. “I wonder if he’ll chance an offside drop scone here or go for the quick legover. Stovepipe has an unusual delivery in that he actually leaves the grounds and starts his run just outside the Carlton & United Brewery at Kooyong.”

“That’s right, Clive. I haven’t known anyone start his delivery that far back since Stopcock caught his sleeve on the reversing mirror of a number 11 bus during the third test at Brisbane in 1957 and ended up at Goondiwindi four days later owing to some frightful confusion over a changed timetable at Toowoomba Junction.”

After a very long silence while they absorbed this thought, and possibly stepped out to transact some small errands, they resumed with a leisurely discussion of the England fielding. Neasden, it appeared, was turning in a solid performance at square bowel, while Packet had been a stalwart in the dribbles, though even these exemplary performances paled when set aside the outstanding play of young Hugo Twain-Buttocks at middle nipple. The commentators were in calm agreement that they had not seen anyone caught behind with such panache since Tandoori took Rogan Josh for a stiffy at Vindaloo in ’61. At last Stovepipe, having found his way over the railway line at Flinders Street—the footbridge was evidently closed for painting—returned to the stadium and bowled to Hasty, who deftly turned the ball away for a corner. This was repeated four times more over the next two hours and then one of the commentators pronounced: “So as we break for second luncheon, and with 11,200 balls remaining, Australia are 962 for two not half and England are four for a duck and hoping for rain.”

I may not have all the terminology exactly right, but I believe I have caught the flavor of it.

Burke and Wills

Australians love their explorers, despite–because of?–the obstacles they faced, most often their own incompetence.

The supreme emptiness of Australia, the galling uselessness of such a mass of land, was something it took the country’s European settlers a long time to adjust to. Several of the earliest explorers were so convinced that they would encounter mighty river systems, or even an inland sea, that they took boats with them. Thomas Mitchell, a soldier who explored vast tracts of western New South Wales and northern Victoria in the 1830s, dragged two wooden skiffs over three thousand miles of arid scrub without once getting them wet, but refused to the last to give up on them. “Although the boats and their carriage had been of late a great hindrance to us,” he wrote with a touch of understatement after his third expedition, “I was very unwilling to abandon such useful appendages to an exploring party.”

Reading accounts of early forays, it is clear that the first explorers were often ludicrously out of their depths. In 1802, inone of the earliest expeditions, Lieutenant Francis Barrallier described a temperature of 82.5° F as “suffocating.” We can reasonably presume that he was recently arrived in the country. His men tried for days without success to hunt kangaroos before it occurred to them that they might stalk the creatures more effectively if they first removed their bright red coats. In seven weeks they covered just 130 miles, an average of about 1.5 miles a day.

In expedition after expedition the leaders seemed willfully, almost comically, unable to provision themselves sensibly. In 1817 John Oxley, the surveyor-general, led a five-month expedition to explore the Lachlan and Macquarie Rivers and took only one hundred rounds of ammunition—less than one shot a day from a single gun—and hardly any spare horseshoes or nails. The incompetence of the early explorers was a matter of abiding fascination for the Aborigines, who often came to watch. “Our perplexities afforded them an inexhaustible fund of merriment and derision,” wrote one chronicler glumly.

It was into this tradition of haplessness that Burke and Wills improvidently stepped in 1860. They are far and away the most famous of Australian explorers, the antipodean equivalents of Lewis and Clark, which is perhaps a little curious since their expedition accomplished almost nothing, cost a fortune, and ended in tragedy.

Their assignment was straightforward: to find a route from the south coast at Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the far north. Melbourne, at that time much larger than Sydney, was one of the most important cities in the British empire, and yet one of the most isolated. To get a message to London and receive a reply took a third of a year, sometimes more. In the 1850s the Philosophical Institute of Victoria decided to promote an expedition to find a way through the “ghastly blank,” as the interior was poetically known, which would allow the establishment of a telegraph line to connect Australia first to the East Indies and onward to the world.

They chose as leader an Irish police officer named Robert O’Hara Burke, who had never seen real outback, was famous for his ability to get lost even in inhabited areas, and knew nothing of exploration or science. The surveyor was a young English doctor named William John Wills, whose principal qualifications seem to have been a respectable background and a willingness to go. On the plus side, however, they both had outstanding beards.

Although by this time expeditions into the interior were hardly a novelty, this one particularly caught the popular imagination. Tens of thousands of people lined the route out of Melbourne when, on August 19, 1860, the Great Northern Exploration Expedition set off. The party was so immense and unwieldy that it took from early morning until 4:00 p.m. just to get it moving. Among the items Burke had deemed necessary for the expedition were a Chinese gong, a stationery cabinet, a heavy wooden table with matching stools, and grooming equipment, in the words of the historian Glen McLaren, “of sufficient quality to prepare and present his horses and camels for an Agricultural Society show.”

Almost at once the men began to squabble. Within days, six of the party had resigned, and the road to Menindee was littered with provisions they decided they didn’t need, including fifteen hundred pounds (let me just repeat that: fifteen hundred pounds) of sugar. They did almost everything wrong. Against advice, they timed the trip so that they would do most of the hardest traveling at the height of summer.

With such a burden it took them almost two months to traverse the four hundred miles of well-trodden track to Menindee; a letter from Melbourne normally covered the same ground in two weeks. At Menindee they availed themselves of the modest comforts of Maidens Hotel, rested their horses and reorganized their provisions, and onOctober 19 set off into a blank ghastlier than they could ever have imagined. Ahead of them lay twelve hundred miles of murderous ground. It was the last time that anyone in the outside world would see Burke and Wills alive.

Progress through the desert was difficult and slow. By December, when they arrived at a place called Cooper’s Creek, just over the Queensland border, they had progressed only four hundred miles. In exasperation Burke decided to take three men—Wills, Charles Gray, and John King—and make a dash for the gulf. By traveling light he calculated that he could be there and back in two months. He left four men to maintain the base camp, with instructions to wait three months for them in case they were delayed.

The going was much tougher than they had expected. Daytime temperatures regularly rose to over 140oF. It took them two months rather than one to cross the interior, and their arrival, when at last it came, was something of an anticlimax: a belt of mangroves along the shore kept them from reaching, or even seeing, the sea. Still, they had successfully completed the first crossing of the continent. Unfortunately they had also eaten two-thirds of their supplies.

The upshot is that they ran out of food on the return trip and nearly starved. To their consternation, Charles Gray, the fittest of the party, dropped dead one day. Ragged and half delirious, the three remaining men pushed on. Finally, onthe evening of April 21, 1861, they stumbled into base camp to discover that the men they had left behind, after waiting four months, had departed only that day. On a coolibah tree was carved the message:

DIG 3 FT. N.W. APR. 21 1861

They dug and found some meager rations and a message telling them what was already painfully evident—that the base party had given up and departed. Desolate and exhausted, they ate and turned in. In the morning they wrote a message announcing their safe return and carefully buried it in the cache—so carefully, in fact, that when a member of the base party returned that day to have one last look, he had no way of telling that they had made it back and had now gone again. Had he known, he would have found them not far away plodding over rocky ground in the impossible hope of reaching a police outpost 150 miles away at a place called Mt. Hopeless.

Burke and Wills died in the desert, far short of Mt. Hopeless. King was saved by Aborigines, who nursed him for two months until he was rescued by a search party.

Back in Melbourne, meanwhile, everyone was still awaiting a triumphal return of the heroic band, so news of the fiasco struck like a thunderbolt. “The entire company of explorers has been dissipated out of being,” the Age newspaper of Melbourne reported with frank astonishment. “Some are dead, some are on their way back, one has come to Melbourne, and another has made his way to Adelaide. . . . The whole expedition appears to have been one prolonged blunder throughout.”

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