Bill Bryson – Insidious Racism
When a popular author’s books carry endless (and vacuous) endorsements from the British rightwing press, suspicion about the content of those books understandably emerges. Why would racist newspapers like the Daily Mail (that like its equally racist hero Winston Churchill, supported Adolf Hitler before WWII – but also like Churchill – had to change its position fairly quickly when Britain declared war on Nazi Germany in 1939), the Daily Telegraph and The Times, endorse such an author? What is it about the narratives that Bill Bryson establishes through his books, that has the UK bigoted press in a delirium about their content? Of course, to be fair to Bill Bryson, the liberal Observer, The Independent and even the duplicitous Guardian have gotten in on the act – much to their shame. Bill Bryson has penned a number of bestselling travel books, but the extract I am going to share comes from one inparticular, entitled ‘Notes from a Small Island’. These types of books convey the author’s skewed opinion about the places he visits and the people he meets. Bryson is particularly non-objective in his narratives, as to render much of his descriptions of no use at all to a reader genuinely interested in exploring different places and meeting new people. Furthermore, Bill Bryson’s books are generally poorly written, and I suspect that the rightwing press perceive this as ‘a man in the street’ perspective, and due to its bigoted nature, uncritically support its narratives. It is clear to me that Bill Bryson is a bigot who has expressed himself in the past, using the rhetoric of anti-Chinese racism. This observation is significant when it is remembered that the UK has initiated two anti-Chinese pogroms In its history, emptying Britain of its Chinese populations in 1919, and 1946.
Exeter is a university city with a considerable history, and unusual for many parts of Devon, a multicultural citizenship. It possesses many and important places of historical interest, such as Rougemont Castle (built around 1068 or soon after), which was partly built into the already existing (and ancient) Roman Wall. Rougemont Gardens are open to the public, with both castle and grounds being Grade II listed buildings. Within Rougemont Gardens stands the 10th century Athelstan’s Tower. Prior to 926 CE, the ancient Britons (i.e. Celts) inhabited Exeter, but were driven out of the city and into Cornwall by the Saxon King Athelstan. He built a fortification (still visible) to keep the Britons out of England. Not far from this place is the beautiful Exeter Cathedral (and its historic square replete with its ‘odd’ clock), and around the corner is what many believe to be the ‘narrowest street’ in the world. There is a public house just off of Cathedral Square that has an ancient well (accessible by the public) in its cellar, surrounded with display cases containing the bones and other items found in its deep bottom. There is also Exeter’s ‘Guild Hall’ shopping centre and its Natural History Museum. There is also the mysterious Gandy Street, with its curiosity shops, eateries and Masonic Lodge. Scattered throughout the city are numerous ruins of ancient buildings, all preserved and accessible to the general public, as well as many other places of historical interest (including Exeter’s infamous Victorian prison formerly known as the ‘Devon Gaol’). Fast food outlets, cafes, Chinese, Thai, Turkish and Indian restaurants abound, as do healthy eating establishments. Exeter is a beautiful city of great historical value and interest, and my description only scratches the surface. On the other hand, you will not find any of this information in Bill Bryson’s explanation of Exeter (a Labour stronghold), which he describes as being a bombed-out shell from WWII, which is today comprised of one-way systems and roundabouts. However, inadvertently, Bryson does hint at the progressive nature of Exeter when he mentions it was difficult to find a place to eat that did not say ‘Vegan’ on its signs. Bryson disparages Exeter probably because it is a leftwing and progressive city, a fact that insults his own sense of natural (and bigoted) Conservativism.
As racism obviously abounds in the UK, (an observation which does not necessarily mean that everyone is ‘racist’), I will quote Bill Bryson’s astonishing racialised attack upon a part of Exeter’s Chinese population in full, so as to convey the full force of his opinion – a racist opinion that the Daily Telegraph declared to be ‘Hugely funny (not snigger-snigger funny; but great-big-belly-laugh-till-you-cry funny’, Sue Townsend of The Times ‘Seriously funny’, and the Observer ‘laugh out loud’:
‘Finally, I happened on a hilly street with a few modest eateries and plunged randomly into a Chinese restaurant. I can’t say why exactly, but Chinese restaurants make me oddly uneasy, particularly when I am dining alone. I always feel that the waitress is saying: ‘One beef satay and fried rice for the imperialist dog at table five.’ And I find chopsticks frankly distressing. Am I alone in thinking it odd that a people ingenious enough to invent paper, gunpowder, kites and any number of other useful objects, and who have a noble history extending back 3,000 years haven’t yet worked out that a pair of knitting needles is no way to capture food? I spent a perplexed hour stabbing at rice, dribbling source across the tablecloth and lifting finely poised pieces of meat to my mouth only to discover that they had mysteriously vanished and weren’t to be found anywhere. By the time I finished, the table looked as if it had been at the centre of a violent argument. I paid my bill in shame and slunk out the door and back to the hotel where I watched a little TV and snacked on the copious leftovers that I found in sweater folds and trouser turnups.’
(Bill Bryson: Notes from a Small Island Black Swan, (2015), Pages 145-146)
Being from a multicultural British family with a major Chinese influence, and having spent many years in Exeter in my younger days, I can state with absolute certainty that Chinese restaurants provide knives and forks for their customers – and only provide chopsticks if asked for. Occasionally both knife and fork, as well as chopsticks are provided. It is only in areas where Chinese people eat in Chinese restaurants that chopsticks are provided as the norm (such as in Gerrard Street – in London’s Chinatown). Chopsticks are actually called ‘筷子’ (Kuaizi) in the Chinese language, which probably refers to the mastery of ‘swift’ eating. The point is that the two sticks keep the food away from potentially dirty hands, and the length of the sticks means that a group of people can sit around a single table, and without over-reaching, share a meal of a number of dishes, together. Just why Bill Bryson went into a Chinese restaurant when such places and people make him feel uneasy, is a little odd to say the least. If the situation was reversed, and a Chinese person publically stated that ‘White’ people make them feel ‘uneasy’, we, as a nation, would probably be looking at pogrom number three against the Chinese people living here. It might also be good for Bill Bryson if he got his facts right about the people he is insulting, as Chinese history is much older than ‘3000’ years. The problems that China has experienced in recent centuries do not emerge from their own culture, but rather from Western imperialism, fuelled as it is by rabid racism.
The kind of casual racism expressed by Bill Bryson is legitimised as ‘humour’, and any non-White victims of that racism are described as ‘too sensitive’, or ‘lacking a British sense of humour’, when they fail to see the ‘humour’ in Eurocentric ‘racism’. When comments such as Bryson’s are taken to their ultimate conclusion, people are murdered in the UK for simply being the ‘wrong’ skin-colour. Hitler would be proud:
Bill Bryson, no doubt, might well find it ‘funny’ that one of the victims of this racist attack in the UK watched her partner beaten to death by British youths, before being knocked unconscious herself. She woke-up handcuffed to a hospital bed to find that the racist British police had charged her with assault for trying to defend herself against the rabid horde that took her partner’s life.