Terry O'Connor

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In search of Bill Bryson

La Mizzi was adamant: “Read this one. It’s interesting”. ‘This one’ was a slim paperback book entitled Shakespeare, one of many attributed to Bill Bryson, that iconic figure of English literature. Few people in the Anglophone world will not have heard of Bryson, a figure almost legendary for the breadth and subtlety of his prose on diverse topics. But as I read through Shakespeare, I began to wonder whether ‘legendary’ was, for once, appropriate. There have been doubts and questions regarding Bryson for many years, most of which I have been happy to dismiss as crank conspiracy theories. Gradually, as page followed page, I began to wonder whether the theorists might be on to something: might the body of works attributed to ‘Bill Bryson’ actually have been written by someone else altogether, or even by a group of co-conspirators? At the heart of this speculation is the sheer unlikelihood that one person could have produced such authoritative writings on travel, literature and language, history and heritage conservation, at any rate without thorough schooling at Oxford, Cambridge, or one of the better Ivy League universities.

Consider the evidence: what do we actually know about William McGuire Bryson? Biographies give Bryson’s place of birth as Des Moines, the state capital of Iowa and a city best known as a centre (center?) of the US insurance industry. Whatever the merits of Des Moines, it is not the obvious place to have nurtured a polymath. There is a university, certainly, but Drake University is hardly Harvard, Princeton or Cambridge, and Bryson’s career there seems to have ended after two years, somewhat short of graduation. Then follows one of the intriguing and frustrating gaps in the record, generally explained by Bryson having been ‘travelling’. Why so? What would lead a young man from a respectable but ordinary Iowa background to suddenly up and wander around Europe? An autobiographical work plausibly attributed to Bryson, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, is such a mix of fantasy and anecdote as to be quite unhelpful on this point. Indeed, some scholars have argued that the light seasoning of alleged fact scattered throughout this admittedly highly entertaining book are themselves a form of camouflage, just enough to add a veneer of plausibility to an otherwise fabricated memoir, reminiscent of the ‘legends’ developed by members of security services. The suggestion that this is de facto evidence that ‘Bryson’ is, in fact, a well-travelled CIA operative need not detain us.

Sources for Bryson’s biography have him variously resident in England and the USA through much of his life, apparently acquiring a wife and several children along the way. His English years throw up yet more questions. Why would an author with a rising reputation hide away variously in the Yorkshire Dales and rural Norfolk, unless in a deliberate attempt to be inconspicuous? Furthermore, to have done so whilst writing with apparent affection about England (Notes from a Small Island; Icons of England) yet without taking the British citizenship to which those years would have rendered him qualified seems quite perverse. And thirdly, I myself was resident in much the same part of Yorkshire for most the years of Bryson’s supposed residency, and never met nor glimpsed the man. How likely is it that two men of letters should live in the same neck of, as it were, the woods without once meeting?

So the figure of Bryson becomes difficult to pin down and the subject of inconsistencies and unanswered questions. There are photographs, of course, photo portraits on book covers and web pages. They show a well-built IC1 male in late middle-age, with greying brown hair and a well-behaved beard. How many such men are there in England and the Midwest of the USA? Are all or any of these images actually of Bryson, or are they of bearded men similar enough to create the impression of the photographic record of one person?

And so to the output, that remarkable canon that must form the core of any library. The travel books are perhaps the best known, and it is they that provide the key to this conundrum, and the most credible support for the conspiracy theorists. Travel books in the Bryson canon encompass Europe, North America, Africa and Australia: in fact, much of the civilised world and Bradford. They are written in an attractively amiable style, redolent of a good-natured companion with whom one would appreciate having a beer, an activity which appears in those books with notable frequency. The style and the subject matter, even the geographical range, is suddenly familiar. Surely these books are wholly or at least in part the work of that amiable yet inveterate traveller Michael Palin? It would be a remarkable coincidence for two quite different authors to be writing in a similar style about so much of the populated world over the same period of years, yet that is what we are asked to believe. But did Palin write Bryson, or Bryson write Palin? That one is easily resolved. Michael Palin is well-known for his prodigious writing of diaries, and so he would have had ample source material. Furthermore, Palin is an Oxford graduate. It seems quite clear to me that the conspiracy theorists are right in at least this respect: the travel books attributed to the Bard of Kirkby Malham are actually the work of Michael Palin, writing under a pseudonym so as to escape the spectre of lumberjacks and dead parrots that otherwise haunt his writings.

Sceptics will at this point be asking “Ah, but that only accounts for the travel books. Surely you don’t think Palin wrote all the other books as well?”. No. One of the more persistent theories concerning Bryson is that the name is a convenient nom de plume adopted by other authors as and when the need arises. That would certainly be consistent with the breadth and diversity of the works published under that name. In At Home, and variously in other works, ‘Bryson’ shows a remarkable understanding of heritage conservation in England and a great sympathy for a rather traditional view of the English countryside. Agreeable though this is to read, it seems unlikely for a man from Iowa, the resemblance of which to rural England is less than striking. Is there a more likely candidate, someone closely associated with the heritage of England who might need a pseudonymous outlet for their views? Indeed there is. Step forward Simon Thurley, architectural historian and the beleaguered Chief Executive of English Heritage. In that role, Thurley has obvious constraints on what views he can and cannot publicly espouse. The determination of English Heritage to manage the public utterances of its staff is legendary, and the levels of frustration that must build up in the more academically-inclined of them can scarcely be imagined. Thurley as the brilliant and informed mind behind some of the ‘Bryson’ works makes perfect sense, more so if we note that At Home is a delightful exegesis around a house in rural Norfolk, in which county Thurley has a house, and close to which he grew up. Too many coincidences, one feels.

It would not do to labour the point. Even a superficial ramble through the evidence shows that there is merit in the theory that the many books attributed to Bill Bryson are actually the work of several people, using the Bryson imprimata as a convenient nom de plume. It must be so: to believe otherwise, to accept that all of those diverse texts emanated from just one man, would mean that Bill Bryson is one of the most skilful and intelligent writers in English of the last thirty years.

 

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