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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Book Review – The Ashes According to Bumble (David Lloyd)

So my next book review goes back to the cricketing theme of many of my earlier blog posts. It feels a little weird to be reading a book about cricket and the Ashes after the series in Australia has been completed. But anyway…

The book is a funny and entertaining read in typical Bumble style. There are many amusing stories and anecdotes. It’s an easy read.

I have two favourite stories in the book.

The first involved a sledging incident between the Aussie batsmen Mark Waugh, one of the famous Waugh brothers.  A number of years ago England selected a bowler called Jimmy Ormond to play against Australia. When Ormond came out to bat Mark Waugh shouted over.  “**** me. Look who it is. Mate what are you doing out here? There’s no way your good enough to play for England.” Ormond replied “maybe not but at least I’m the best player in my family”.

The second involves a game of golf between David Lloyd (Bumble), Mike Selvey and Christopher Martin-Jenkins (CMJ). The game took place, in Queenstown, when England were touring in New Zealand. CMJ, who is sadly no longer with us, had a reputation as a delightful eccentric. As they were warming up before the round he remarked. “Marvellous place this, isn’t it? Did you know it was designed by Ray Charles. You know the famous New Zealand golfer”. Selvey, carried on the conversation. “Yes and I believe there are a number of blind holes on this course”. “So I understand” replied CMJ who was totally oblivious to the gag. The famous Kiwi golfer is Bob Charles…

The book was written before the series in the English summer. There is a section where Lloyd is castigating of the Aussies and some of their players which he may now regret writing… “They’re not very good it’s as simple as that. They’ve got one batter in Michael Clarke, they haven’t got a spinner and this lauded pace attack I keep hearing about must be a drastically different one to the one I’ve witnessed over the last couple of years because it’s not much cop”. Having just witnessed the 5 nil whitewash I beg to differ…

Another book to be donated to the hotel library. Not sure what they will make of it in Thailand…

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Book Review – SHUNT The Story of James Hunt by Tom Rubython

Probably not the next blog that my followers were expecting…. Much earlier in this trip, back in Australia, I referenced the amount of reading material I had brought with me. By the time I arrive in India I need to have significantly reduced the weight of my luggage. So now I have arrived in Krabi in Thailand, the most relaxing place I could possibly imagine, it has given me the opportunity to catch up on some reading…

When I left Manchester back in mid November I spent a lot of the flight over to Australia reading SHUNT – The Story of James Hunt. I finally finished it this week – nearly two months later. It’s an epic amounting to 624 pages. Last week sitting by my hotel pool in Bangkok the American guy next to me, on seeing the size of this book, asked if I had heard of the Kindle Fire!!!

So why the interest in James Hunt? Well I have always had a fascination in him but not totally sure why. Is it because we share the same surname? It is because I remember when I was a young kid growing up watching Formula 1 and the rivalry he had with Niki Lauda? Or is it that he was an incredibly complex character? Was the fascination rekindled by the recent film “Rush” which chronicled Hunt and Lauda duelling for the Formula 1 title in 1976. I am not a Formula 1 fan. I rarely watch it on the tv. It definitely held more of an interest for me in my youth when it seemed less predictable and had amazing characters.

So to the book. Yes it’s long. At times I found it hard going. I think the editing could have been tighter – I found a number of contradictions, errors and repetitions along the way. Perhaps it could have been a little shorter. But I doubt for anyone wanting to get a real insight into James Hunt there is anything better out there.

Hunt was undoubtedly a complicated and often troubled individual. Bernie Ecclestone summed him up as “He had more facets than a diamond, which, combined with an irresistible charm, made him the most remarkable character in Formula One ever”

James Hunt died in 1993. I can’t believe its over 20 years ago. At the time of his death he was working as a Formula 1 co-commentator, alongside Murray Walker, for the BBC. He died after a massive heart attack. His heart muscles had been fatally weakened by hard drinking, smoking and recreational drug use. At the time of his death it is said he was at his happiest. He had largely gone on the straight and narrow, stopped womanising, and had a steady girlfriend called Helen Dyson. One of the saddest aspects of the story is that James had proposed marriage to Helen just before his untimely death. She is quoted as saying “I shrieked with joy when he proposed to me over the phone, and I accepted. It was the last time I ever spoke to him”,

The book is filled with some amazing stories, some of which are shocking, but nevertheless are important to understand the real James Hunt.

Some that stuck with me were…

Hunt was a womaniser. He was not faithful to any of the women that he had long term relationships with. He married his first wife, Suzy Miller, in 1974. Soon after the marriage he realised he had made a mistake and it was with considerable relief in 1976 when he discovered that Miller had begun an affair with Richard Burton whom she subsequently married.

Hunt had a lifelong fascination with budgerigars. Following his retirement from Formula 1 he took up this passion and began breeding prize budgies. There was a rather bizarre incident on a visit to a budgerigar show in Doncaster in 1989. After the show when one of Hunt’s budgies won first prize he and some of his budgerigar enthusiast friends decided to go out to a nightclub. Hunt often dressed very casually. Often he would wear jeans and no shoes for formal events and because of who he was normally got away with it. So James turned up to the nightclub wearing jeans and trainers. He was refused entry because of the club’s dress policy. An argument ensued with the doorman. A cup of coffee which the doorman was holding was flicked over him by Hunt. It could have been an accident or deliberate. The police were called and Hunt was arrested and taken to Doncaster police station. Goodness knows what the police thought about about an ex Formula 1 world champion being in Doncaster attending a budgerigar show! Well after a couple of hours he was released and not charged as the CCTV evidence was inconclusive. Hunt made a point of going to the night club to apologise. Many  years later, after Hunt’s death, the CCTV footage was shown on a Channel 4 documentary about him. This caused much anguish to Hunt’s family.

After his retirement from Formula 1 Hunt began a career commentating on Formula 1 alongside Murray Walker. The two of them to begin with didn’t get on particularly well. Walker thought that Hunt was there to replace him. Over time the relationship much improved and Walker gave a very moving tribute to Hunt in a celebration of his life held 3 months after his death. Shortly before his BBC debut Hunt had a skiing accident and had his leg in plaster. At his first broadcast, in Monaco, he arrived worse for wear from drink and deeply upset Murray by resting his plaster cast on Walker’s lap for the full two hours of the broadcast. Despite all this, Hunt put on a brilliant performance in front of the microphone. Typically he would arrive for these commentaries with seconds to spare and holding a bottle of rose wine.

Several more stories I could recite but are probably not suitable for a family blog. If you want to know more buy the book or to avoid the space issues I have download it! I will be donating my copy to the library in the lounge in my Krabi hotel.

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