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America’s favourite critic assesses England’s favourite, Bill Bryson

Friendly fire

It is a characteristic of nations that they only accept criticism from within. Rare exceptions are made for outsiders who aim mainly friendly fire. In the same way that Americans worship my views on their democracy, the dry, deprecating humour of Bill Bryson is welcomed by the British.

Bill and I allow countries in which we were not born to feel good about themselves. Our broadly supportive views must be valid, they tell themselves, because we are not biased by being born there. We seem detached observers with no axes to grind. Nevertheless, if you look hard enough, you will spot our attachments. Our words are influenced by where we actually were born. To praise a country other than your own is implicitly to criticise your birthplace. Bill and I are better known and liked where we went than where we came from. There are reasons for that.

Bill Bryson is a man of Des Moines, Iowa, who has chosen to settle at the old Norfolk rectory of Wramplingham in Eastern England. An ironic decision, in the literal sense. Bill's barbed and insightful sense of irony infects all his books. It's an infection to which Iowans are immune but the English are rife with  it. At home, Bill has never felt at home. He explains it this way:

"I can remember when I first went there [England] thinking: These people are really funny. I like this. It was as if I was sort of wired for this but the connection had never been made. In Iowa you didn't get that kind of humor."

Modern ego:

William McGuire Bryson, OBE

Prima ego:

Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville

Image attribution

Photo: Bill Bryson, guardian.co.uk

Photo: de Tocqueville, biography.com  

Photo: Bill Bryson in field, guardian.co.uk



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de Tocqueville’s opinion was interpreted by Will Coe, February 2012

Feel free to comment on this article..

The ironic American protecting Rural England!

There was no horrendous turmoil that drove Bill Bryson out of America. Simply a feeling of disconnection. America is not his spiritual home. Even when he comments on modern America, he does so as an onlooker. He (or his publisher) acknowledges this in the title of one of his well-received books: 'I'm a stranger here myself' is the American title for what is sold in England and Australia as 'Notes from a Big Country'.
By contrast, I did not leave France because I noticed a humour vacuum there (I don't deny that there might have been one, simply that I was not aware of it). My commitment to France was as strong as you would expect from a man whose family had helped William of Normandy conquer the English. I spent two years in America  because as an aristocratic opponent of Louis Philippe I was politically isolated. I liked what I saw abroad but unlike Bill I was not inspired to settle there (Chateau Tocqueville had too strong a pull). My own frequently quoted, and even more frequently misquoted, views on the virtues of American democracy stem from my concerns at what was happening in France. My parents were nearly guillotined and I regarded the July Monarchy as the last throes of aristocracy in France. To quieten my inconvenient arguments as a parliamentary deputy for Manche, the monarchists sent me to America to find out about the penal system there. I didn't spend too much time in prisons because I had a greater objective than prison reform. I wanted to use the American experience to help my country emerge from the confusion caused by the confrontation between a fading aristocracy and an emerging democracy.

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Bill Bryson Alexis de Tocqueville Bill Bryson, President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England
If I over-praised what I found, it was not out of undue deference to my congenial hosts but to point a better way forward for France. However, I was not uncritical of the anti-intellectual and materialistic tendencies of American populism, warning of a likely descent into political mediocrity. Nor was I mindless of the difficulties that lay ahead in assimilating the black population. My prescience affords me no pleasure.
Bill Bryson takes more pleasure from what he observes and how he describes it than I was able. Essentially, the pleasure in what he finds is what separates us more than history. I don't think Bill Bryson started out with a higher political purpose. He reports what he sees in order to entertain not to educate.
The British recognise themselves in Bryson's gently critical prose. He allows them to accept their eccentricities and enjoy them without guilt or embarrassment. Americans seek more than acceptance and feel a greater need to feed their sense of righteousness. Everywhere he looks in Britain Bill finds incongruity. The affection the British have for small pleasures like rock cakes. Their constipated view of distance. Their hosepipe bans in spite of a relative abundance of rain. Their acceptance that a single ticket can cost more than a return ticket. Strangely grateful that an articulate foreigner not only understands these foibles but warms to them, they have met irony with irony. They have made a man who shies away from becoming a British citizen a Commissioner for English Heritage and President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England.
This is remarkable since the British rarely let foreigners manage anything in their countries unless they have run out of Scots to manage their football clubs.