Character Assassination By Proxy

Reading Andrew Sykes book, Good Vibrations: Crossing Europe on a Bike called Reggie, I discovered something about myself. I enjoy it when writers are very rude about someone. Humorously, of course.

It probably speaks volumes about me that my favourite lines in Bill Bryson’s Lost Continent are these:

“I had to calm down because a state trooper pulled up alongside me at a traffic light and began looking at me with that sort of casual disdain you often get when you give a dangerously stupid person a gun and a squad car. He was sweaty and overweight and sat low in his seat. I assume he was descended from apes like all the rest of us, but clearly in his case it had been a fairly gentle slope.”

When I read that last sentence for the first time, I laughed until I cried. I had a guilty enjoyment at just how rude Bryson was being about another person. It still makes me laugh.

Most of the people Andrew meets are very pleasant and civilised. He makes a mildly critical comment about a dull Dutchman called Bob, “I could soon see why he was travelling alone he had yet to learn the ability of having a two-way conversation” but draws back from any really biting comments. I think there was someone else a bit further on, and definitely one person near the beginning who merited a verbal going over, which he did not receive, but Andrew’s restraint over the monster that was Massimo made me feel cheated.

For those of you who have not yet read the book, Massimo is one of the hosts Andrew meets through an organisation called Warmshowers. An online forum, you can hook up with people who are willing to offer you a place to have a shower or even to sleep for a night or two. Andrew has just written a new post about it on his page, so pop over there and all will become clearer. In Bryson’s hands, Massimo’s character would have been chewed up and spat all over the Eurovรฉlo 5. Assassination would be too gentle a word.

Andrew holds back. He gives this control freak the benefit of the doubt. I think it’s his teacher instinct. You always have to look for the positive in your pupils. Never write them off as psychopaths and social undesirables. Also, despite his character defects, Massimo had offered him bed, board and hot water. It’s a good manners thing too.

Yet when I was reading about Massimo, I wondered for the first time about the safety of this Warmshowers number. It sounded to me as though it could all get rather Hitchcockian.

Foreign cyclist arrives in town and is met by sinister mind-controlling stranger who locks up his bike. Who’s to know he’s there? Will his body be found at the bus garage under a heap of old tyres? How many other cyclists’ journeys have ended mysteriously in the same town? Is Massimo his real name? Is he wanted by Interpol? You get my drift.

So I discovered that as well as enjoying cycling vicariously, I also enjoy character bashing vicariously. Probably not a nice trait, but by all accounts Bryson is a very nice man, so maybe a bit of exaggerated spleen venting is good for the soul. And it livens up the read.

21 thoughts on “Character Assassination By Proxy

  1. I once seriously hindered recovery from an operation reading Bill Bryson. Can’t remember which book but he described being trapped in an airline seat after bending forward just as the person in front reclined their seat. Classic!

    I do think that the majority of people are essentially decent and harmless but I think I might be wary if traveling on my own. Might not stop me, but I’d be sure I left full details of where I was going to be.

  2. Reblogged this on and commented:
    I have never used the ‘re-blog’ function before so not sure how this works, but here’s a fun post by Isobelandcat about how to be kind (or not) to people you are writing about in your book. Anything that mentions me in the same paragraph as the master of comic travel writing, Bill Bryson, is worthy of all the attention it can get.

  3. Bill can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned, Isobel. Character assasination does need to be done with humour and with Bill, it’s very probably richly deserved. ๐Ÿ™‚

    The bit I love in Lost Continent – too long to reproduce – is where he described the family road trip to Spooks Caverns. Oh and also the bit where he’s visiting Mark Twain’s house and meets another visitor who’s been there twenty or thirty times. Bill asks him if the house is as described in the books and the guy says he’s never read any of them! ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Bill Bryson is a past master of the gently snide. Katz, from Bryson’s disastrous Adirondack Trail book, lives in memory forever. Thank you for reminding! A gentle slope. The man is too much.

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