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Wednesday, March 03, 2004
Is Bill Bryson colour blind?

During my most enjoyable sojourn in Australia, I have found myself, quite fortuitously, following in the footsteps of Bill Bryson and his observation about Australia: Down Under (London: Doubleday, 2000). In many cases, I have found Bryson's comments sharply observed and amusing. In others, however, I have found him just plain wrong.

Several times, I made Hay while the sun still shines (ha ha) but I cannot get over my disappointment with his reporting, particularly in relation to Canberra. For example, I spent an enthralling day wandering round Parliament. I was particularly intrigued to find an original copy of Magna Carta there. It had been a gift from the British government many years ago (‘Don’t say the colonialist never give the colonies anything.’) but Bryson makes no mention of it. Surely, the presence of such a momentous document deserves a paragraph or two.

I find his surly attitude to Canberra too judgemental. He could simply have said that he failed to get to grips with a place – as Josh has sometimes done – and admitted it accordingly. However, he makes gross errors of fact.

From time to time, I make mistakes and I am the first person to confess and to correct it/them. I frequently spend inordinate amounts of time checking a measurement, a description, or a location. It was therefore with incredulity that I read, on p. 107 of Bryson’s book, that the seats in the Australian Senate are ‘…in a restful ochre tone.’ Now, lest there is some difference in meaning of ‘ochre’ among UK, US, and Australian English, I have looked up the word in Oxford & Collins, in Webster, and in Macquarie. I find no significant difference. In point of fact, the seats in the Senate are dusky or pastel pink so Bryson has got an important fact wrong. ‘Comment is free but facts are sacred.’ In this case, Bryson’s work and his editor(s) have failed appallingly.

If you get the facts right in this case, i.e. that the seats in the lower house are pastel green and in the upper house pastel pink, one can comment on the relationship with the seats in the Mother of Parliaments. There, the House of Commons (lower) has green seats while the House of Lords (upper) has red seats. It does not take a towering intellect to point out that the one parliament would seem to be a pale imitation of the other. If you get one of the colours wrong, one cannot make this observation.

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