In A Sunburned Country

In A Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson
Book Review

In A Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson

In A Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson. Broadway Books, 2001. 335 pages. Click here to buy it online!

My mother lived in Australia before she was married and one of my best friends lives in New South Wales as I write this review. But I do not know very much about the country. Mel Gibson lived there for a while, there’s shrimp on the Barbie, they drink Foster’s (although all the Foster’s we get in the United States is a product of Canada—check the label), the Aussies got killed in Gallipoli in World War I and held on to Tobruk in World War II. There was a writer—Patrick White—from Australia who won the Nobel Prize. Add a few things, and that would be it.

So reading In A Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson gave me some insight into Australia. Bryson points out that Americans all but ignore the country. He demonstrates this by pulling out the New York Times Index for 1997. In that year the Times ran 20 articles about Australia. “In the same period,” Bryson writes, “the Times ran 120 articles on Peru, 150 or so on Albania and a similar number on Cambodia, more than 300 on each of the Koreas, and well over 500 on Israel. As a place that caught our interest Australia ranked about level with Belarus and Burundi.”

Bryson thinks that this is an injustice. Australia captivates him. Every single one of the world’s deadliest snakes is Australian. The deadliest is the taipan. According to Bryson it is lethal enough to kill an adult before he can finish a sentence. But the taipan is outclassed by the box jellyfish. How poisonous is the box jellyfish? A young man went swimming off the Pacific coast, specifically, the community of Halloways Beach. Ignoring the warning he jumped into the sea and was stung by the jellyfish and floundered back to the beach. The paramedics arrived almost immediately and put him in under sedation. But even when he was unconscious he was still screaming. This is pain so profound it becomes sublime. Australia is also home to the funnel web spider “the most deadly insect in the world,” according to Bryson. (But the spider isn’t an insect, is it?)

Bryson has a gift for discovering the unusual facts and anecdotes about the towns and countries he visits. Did you know, for example, that in 2000, there were forty Aussies playing professional baseball in the United States and that five of them are even in the major leagues? Bryson found out, although he doesn’t name them. Bryson argues that this shouldn’t be surprising—Australia has a passion, maybe an obsession for sport, particularly contact sports. Even though Australia is the 52nd most populous nation on the planet, it won the fifth largest amount of medals in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, translating into 3.78 medals per million Australians. This is five times better than the United States.

Bryson reveals hidden trivia about two Australian cultural bulwarks, The Sydney Opera House and Waltzing Matilda. The Opera House ended up costing A$102 million—more than fourteen times its estimate. The man who brought the pressure to build the Opera House—Sir Eugene Goosens was kicked out of Australia after being caught with a copious amount of porno. He was also the conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. The designer of the edifice, Joern Utzon (a Danish architect), has never seen it in its completed form. He left in the middle of the project because of a financial dispute.

Waltzing Matilda, “Australia’s unofficial anthem,” according to Bryson was written by Banjo Paterson. Its lyrics are nonsense to anyone who doesn’t know Australian bush lingo. But even if a person decides to learn the lingo, Bryson argues, it still is gibberish. But Bryson never bothers to learn any more than the first verse. When he gets bored with this he improvises dirty verses to its melody.

Bryson, being Bryson, is able to find the weird in anything or anywhere. According to him many rural radio stations in Australia specialize in playing the oldies. No, not the Beatles, and Wilson Pickett or even Elvis and Buddy Holly. Patti Page, Julie London (known to me as the nurse from Emergency—one of the Doctor’s was played by Bobby Troupe—the composer of “Route 66”), Doris Day, and Peggy Lee.

Bryson looks at the politics and the political system of Australia. And he scores some hits at the expense of politicians. It is funny reading to see Prime Minister John Howard as being so colorless and bland he makes funeral directors seem charismatic. It is also funny to read about the verbal exploits of former Prime Minister Paul Keating:

Among the epithets that have taken flight from his tongue during the course of public debate, and are to be found gracing the pages of whatever is the Australian equivalent of the Congressional Record have been scumbags, pieces of criminal garbage, sleazebags, stupid foul-mouthed grubs, piss-ants, mangy maggot, perfumed gigolos, gutless spivs, boxheads, immoral cheats, and stunned mullets.

Actually this is mild compared to the scabrous ravings of right-wing talk radio. Compared to Anne Coulter Keating is a pussycat, compared to Rush Limbaugh he is master of decorum. Bryson discusses Australian politics but he never gets around to the Australian ballot. According to various sources on the Internet, the Australian community of Victoria initiated paper ballots that could be filled out in secret. Before this most votes had taken place in public. The Australian ballot allows voters to exercise their consciences without suffering any consequences from it. As inventions go it is not as important as fire, pasteurization, or mass production, but it is important. In my review of Bryson’s book on England, Notes From A Small Island, I took him to task for visiting Liverpool and not once referring to the Beatles. The failure to mention the Australian ballot is not as egregious, but it is an oversight.

Bryson is at his best when illuminates the parts of Australia that are not in travel brochures or the Travel Channel. Bryson devotes part of In A Sunburned Country to the Aborigines. He doesn’t patronize them as exotic, noble primitives. Instead, in a little more than 50 paragraphs, Bryson relates a brief history of the Aborigines encompassing sociology, anthropology, and Criminal Justice. Until, 1969, Bryson intimates, conventional wisdom dictated that Aborigines had only been in Australia for about 400 years. In 1969, however, a geologist discovered a woman’s skeleton in western New South Wales. It was 23,000 years old. Today the estimates of Aboriginal arrival to the continent range from 45,000 to 60,000 years ago. In Bryson’s words, “…(t)he Australian Language may be the world’s oldest… (and) their art and stories and systems of belief are indubitably among the oldest on earth.” Bryson is amazed and even appalled that there isn’t more notice of the Aborigines in the scholarly texts of archaeology and anthropology. He relates that the only passage that he came across about the Aborigines in the Larousse Encyclopedia of Archaeology said: “The Aborigines also evolved independently of the Old World, but they represent a very primitive technical and economic phase.”

Bryson then relates the history of European-Aboriginal relations. It is akin to relations between the settlers and the indigenous people of this continent; Bryson informs us that the estimates for the Aboriginal population at the beginning European settlement (or as Bryson calls it—”the occupation) go from 300,000 to 500,000; at the beginning of the Twentieth Century they numbered no more than 60,000. Not all of this decline can be attributed to European malevolence, most of it was inadvertent. But there was a lot of random, and calculated, killing as well.

But some credit must be given to the Aussies; in 1838, roughly the time when William Lloyd Garrison was being threatened by Yankees in New England for advocating the abolition of slavery in the United States, Australia put a dozen men on trial for killing twenty-eight Aborigines—including women and children. Eventually, seven of the accused were hung. Killings still went on, Bryson points out, but they more covert. But I am impressed that white killers of people of color were even brought to justice in the middle of the nineteenth century. It’s hard imagining this happening in the Deep South until maybe 15 years ago. It shows a commitment to justice and fair play that I would take great pride in if I were an Australian.

Although the pride I felt might be mixed with some shame for the White Australia policy which prevented the immigration of almost every non-European person in to the continent until the 1970s. That is pretty snooty for country founded by convicts if you ask me. It has changed. As Bryson writes: “Today Australia is one of the most multicultural countries on earth. A third of the people in Sydney were born in another country; in Melbourne the four most common surnames are Smith, Brown, Jones and Nguyen. Across the country as a whole almost a quarter of the people have no British antecedents on either side of their families.”

In a Sunburned Country is not a perfect book, or even an outstanding one. It isn’t as funny or as enjoyable as some of Bryson’s other work. But it is enjoyable, informative, and imbued with a sense of social and environmental consciousness. It gave me a sense of the Oz and it made me laugh. I have gotten much less from more highly regarded literature.

Click here to buy In A Sunburned Country online.


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