Previously on ‘My Imaginary Dinner Party’…
Margaret Atwood’s arrival successfully diffuses the sexual tension broiling across the table between Leonard Cohen and Lana Del Ray. I’m feeling a little bit grumpy because the pasta bake is well and truly cold. Why did I get it out of the oven so early? We’ve talked a bit about bears, eaten some Pringles and started a dinner party playlist on Spotify. Now our final guest has finally arrived. Late, of course, dishevelled and apologising profusely. Something about a broken shovel, an unexpected downpour and a family of badgers. We don’t delve into it.
Bill Bryson is the only guest at my imaginary dinner party who I’ve met in real life (actual real life). He came to Dean’s Place hotel in Alfriston, a delightful village not far from my home, a few years ago to talk about the book he’d just published. I was studying for my journalism diploma at the time so I arrived equipped with a dictaphone and recorded myself asking him a couple of questions I planned to write up as though I’d bagged him for an exclusive interview. In this audio clip I sound like I’m about to cry, because I probably was, and I laughed nervously at my own non-joke, but here it is – and it’s worth listening to (despite the cringe fest of me)…
Bill Bryson may well be the best human who has ever lived. He’s got none of that Del-Rey-Cohen introspective, tortuous poet ego bullshit. He doesn’t get lost in his own mind, at least not when he writes. He gets his kicks from the outside world. Places, people, the way everything works. Not many people can get a laugh out of quantum physics.
After I asked my nervous questions during his talk, I queued up with everyone else and got a couple of books signed. We chatted a bit more and he asked about my writing and I told him I loved to write fiction but I made my money copywriting and he assured me I was doing the right thing. If you can make a living out of doing something you love, you’re doing okay. Keep going with the fiction anyway.
Then after this heart-to-heart we bumped into him again. We were sitting at the hotel bar and he was walking down the corridor towards us. He laughed when he saw us and said ‘hi again!’ Then about ten minutes later he walked past us again (lost, perhaps?) and, looking a bit embarrassed this time, just nodded and scurried past. Then it happened a third time and he must have decided it would be too awkward to acknowledge us yet again, so he hurried on, head down, and we never saw him again. I assume he made it out of the hotel eventually.
It was a classic episode of English awkwardness and I wouldn’t have expected any less from Bill Bryson. He’s the most English American I’ve ever encountered. English humour, English self-deprecation, English embarrassment.
His books make me laugh out loud, but they also teach me things. He has an amazing knack of turning potentially dull information into a fascinating, hilarious, nail-biting read.
Bill Bryson brings my entire imaginary dinner party together. He is the last puzzle piece, the vital component. He makes us laugh at ourselves, at each other, at everything. I dish out five servings of pasta bake and pop them in the microwave.
I’ll finish this dinner party series with probably my favourite bit of any Bill Bryson book, about the Dutch language (if you’ve ever heard Dutch you’ll appreciate how wonderfully accurate this is).
“Dutch sounds like nothing so much as a peculiar version of English. We would be walking down the street when a stranger would step from the shadows and say ‘Hello, sailors, care to grease my flanks?’’ or something, and all he would want was a light for his cigarette.
It was disconcerting. I found this again when I presented myself at a small hotel on Prinsengracht and asked the kind-faced proprietor if he had a single room. ‘Oh, I don’t believe so’, he said (in English), ‘but let me check with my wife.’ He thrust his head through a doorway of beaded curtains and called, ‘Marta, what stirs in your leggings? Are you most moist?’ From the back a voice bellowed, ‘No, but I tingle when I squirt.’ ‘Are you of assorted odours?’ ‘Yes, of beans and sputum.’ ‘And what of your pits – do they exude sweetness?’ ‘Truly.’ ‘Shall I suck them at eventide?’ ‘Most heartily!’ He returned to me wearing a sad look: ‘I’m sorry, I thought there might have been a cancellation, but unfortunately not.’”– Bill Bryson, Neither Here Nor There