Book Review – Down Under by Bill Bryson

I absolutely loved this book. I took loads of books away with me on the trip, mainly cricket related, and finished them all but this stands head and shoulders above the other books. Reading it was an absolute joy. I remember loving Bill Bryson’s “Notes from a Small Island” about his travels round the UK which I read this many moons ago and “Down Under” was no different. What made reading this book particularly timely for me was reading about Bryson’s travels round Australia after I had recently spent considerable time there myself. “Down Under” was published quite a few years ago in 2000 but I felt that many of his observations about places that I had also visited were similar to my own. Bryson is a fantastic storyteller and brings out some great humour into his writing. There were times I laughed out loud particularly when he told of his experience of getting terrible sunburn in Perth and how people reacted to him afterwards.

I think one place that Bryson really enjoyed that to some degree passed me by was Adelaide. I do not really think my time there did the place justice and next time I visit there I need to check out North Adelaide, the extensive parklands and some wineries. Australia is of course an unbelievably vast country and so much of it is still relatively unexplored. Bryson went to lots of places that I didn’t manage to get to such as Darwin and the Great Barrier Reef. If anything the book has made me more determined to go back to Australia and visit more of this fascinating country. Bryson spent some time travelling across Australia by train and this sounded a great way to see the country.

One area that Bryson explored in some detail was that of Aboriginal Australians. I encountered very few on my travels round Australia. The total Aboriginal population is around 700,000 or 3% of the total Australian population. However in the Northern Territory they are much more commonplace. I mentioned in one of my earlier blogs that I found the episode of Australian history relating to colonisation and the treatment of the indigenous Australians very troubling. Bryson detailed massacres of Aborigines that took place in the years of colonisation and in particular the Myall Creek Massacre of 1838. This is notable not so much from the fact that there was terrible loss of life – 28 Aboriginal men, women and children were murdered – but that for the first time in Australian history the killers were brought to trial and hanged. After arriving in the new colony some of the early settlers pushed into inland Australia with the aim of seizing Aboriginal land which the indigenous population had looked after and had sustained them for tens of thousands of years. Of course the Aborginal population would not give up this land without a fight. The scale of the massacres which took place is shocking and perhaps has received relatively little publicity. The journalist John Pilger is quoted as saying “More first Australians were killed than Native Americans on the American frontier and Maoris in New Zealand. The state of Queensland was a slaughterhouse”.

I am left with the feeling that for the indigenous Australians the impact of the arrival of settlers into their world has been like a huge nightmare. Their whole world.was thrown upside down and they are still recovering from this. Bryson detailed his experience at Todd Street Mall in Alice Springs on a Saturday morning. “The people on the street were overwhelmingly white Australian but there were Aborigines about, too – not great numbers but always there, on the edges of the frame, unobtrusive, nearly always silent, peripheral. The white people never looked at the Aborigines, and the Aborigines never looked at the white people. The two races seemed to inhabit separate but parallel universes. I felt as if I was the only person who could see both races at first. It was very strange. A very high proportion of the Aborigines looked beaten up”. Having visited Alice Springs well over a decade later I can say that little has changed. The scene which Bryson witnessed was identical to my own experience. Bryson did say that ” The most ruined Aborigines are those you see in towns”. In Perth I saw a number of Aborigines hanging around on the streets and in one instance a couple of them being bundled into a police van in the main shopping mall late in the afternoon. So there is a big problem in Australia here that needs addressing but I fear the solution is very very difficult. I hope it is high on Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s priority list.

I can’t recommend Down Under more highly and it inspires me to check out more of Bryson’s work.


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