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Des Moines, Iowa, USA-born journalist-turned-author. Moved to the UK as a young man and has since alternated continents of residence, providing him with a unique cross-cultural perspective that has in turn been translated into hilariously acerbic travelogues. More recently he has returned to his early focus on general socio-historical trivia.

In his spare time he serves as the Chancellor (basically, honorary President) of Durham University and as a campaigner for various causes active in the preservation of historical UK buildings and landscape features.

Books include:

  • A Dictionary of Troublesome Words (1982)
  • The Palace Under the Alps (1985)
  • The Lost Continent (1989)
  • The Mother Tongue (1990)
  • Neither Here Nor There (1991)
  • Notes From A Small Island (1995)
  • A Walk In The Woods (1998)
  • Notes From a Big Country (US: I'm A Stranger Here Myself) (1999)
  • Down Under (US: In A Sunburned Country) (2000)
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003)
  • The Life And Times Of The Thunderbolt Kid (2006)
  • Shakespeare: The World As a Stage (2007)
  • At Home: A Short History Of Private Life (2010)

Named London England Syndrome

Tropes Used:

  • Artistic License Biology: A very curious sentence (or very well disguised joke) in Down Under saying that breakfast is "our most savage event in Western society" and equating breakfast eggs with embryos. An unfertilised egg (i.e. almost all the ones sold for eating) is effectively a chicken's period.
  • Author Existence Failure: His old friend and frequent correspondent in Australia died just before he was due to visit her while writing Down Under so he offers a humorous tale she once told him as a tribute.
  • Awful British Sex Comedy: The first movie he ever saw in England was called Suburban Wife Swap.
  • Beam Me Up, Scotty: In Notes From a Big Country (which is a collection of UK newspaper columns about life in the States) he falls heavily for a popular misquote of Mariah Carey.
  • Berserk Button: Ugly architecture generally and the removal of the UK's red phone boxes particularly.
    • Don't forget small movie theaters.
    • And the destruction of privet hedges.
    • And people not saying 'thanks' after holding door for them.
    • The "Rules for Living" chapter in Notes From A Big Country is a self-parody with the list of new regulations becoming increasingly authoritarian and suited to the author's whims - for example that "all reviews of the author's work must be cleared with the author beforehand".
  • Bizarchitecture: Discovered in 'Down Under'.
  • Chivalrous Pervert: He comes across as such from time to time.
  • Cleveland Rocks
  • Creator Breakdown: Bryson believes that if ever Shakespeare's own voice appears in his work it is in King John, written after Shakespeare's son Hamnet died: "Grief fills the room up of my absent child, Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me, Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words, Remembers me of all his gracious parts, Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form."
  • Cricket Rules: He has mentioned at one point that, to an American, any cricket fan's description of a match or its rules might as well be completely made-up, for how ludicrous it sounds.
  • Deadpan Snarker
  • Death by Falling Over: At Home investigates the number of people who've died falling down stairs and wonders why more research isn't done on the subject considering the death toll.
  • Did Not Do the Research: As per the James May quote below, his arguments for the UK (not to say the rest of Europe) retaining its period charm can sometimes come off merely as an American's complaints that his romantic Anglophile fantasies are being spoiled.
    • In Notes From A Small Island Bryson visited Asquith's grave and found the 'Prime Minister of England' dedication a bit irksome since it forgot Scotland and Wales. He (Bryson) forgot someplace else.
    • In Down Under the case of the captive tiger shark in Coogee that regurgitated a human arm is mentioned, but the fact that the arm was found to have been cut off with a knife not bitten off by the shark is omitted. The victim had been not eaten by the shark but murderered and his remains thrown into the sea.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Some of the people who were shipped off to Australia.
    • Better than being hanged for impersonating an Egyptian.
  • Downer Ending: The Life And Times Of The Thunderbolt Kid is mostly a very cheerful, nostalgic autobiography about Des Moines in the 1950s and 1960s but the final chapter is something of a Tearjerker as the fates of people and places are recalled; Bryson Sr. died in 1986, 'Milton Milton' died in the 1991 Gulf War, Jed Mattes died from cancer. Nearly all of the shops, diners, and other hangouts were closed and bulldozed, the city's elm trees all die off, the amusement park is now an empty lot. The last line is "What a wonderful world it was. We won’t see its like again, I’m afraid.”
  • Early Installment Weirdness: The Lost Continent was written by an angrier, less mature Bryson and it shows. Readers who begin with later works might be surprised at how acidic (and arguably elitist) Bryson was before he mellowed.
  • The Eighties: Writing The Lost Continent, Bryson is startled to see how much America had changed since The Sixties. Reading it today is reveals how much the country has changed since 1987-88. It's certainly one of the last works to mention strip clubs in Times Square.
  • Everything Sounds Sexier in French
  • Everything Trying to Kill You: His assessment of the local wildlife Down Under. Considering Australia even has its own header in the trope entry, he's probably right.
  • The Fifties
  • Fridge Logic: One of his Notes From a Big Country was partly devoted to examining all the gaping plot holes in Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World.
  • A Good Name for a Rock Band: Seemingly brought up, but then averted (perhaps deliberately) in At Home, when Bryson mentions in passing one Jethro Tull, inventor of the seed mill. At least some editions mention, on the very same page, a Bruce Campbell who bred cattle.
  • Gretzky Has the Ball: Done with deliberate comic exaggeration when trying to describe listening to cricket on Australian radio: "Tandoori took Rogan Josh for a stiffy at Vindaloo in '61"
  • Ignored Expert: On scientists: "First, they deny that it's true. Then, they deny that it's important. Finally, they give credit to the wrong person."
  • The Load: Katz in the early stages of the trek on Appalachian Trail.
  • Long List: Reporting on a waitress' offer of pie in Lost Continent: "We got blueberry, blackberry, raspberry, boysenberry, huckleberry, whortleberry, cherry berry, hair berry, Chuck Berry, beri-beri and lemon."
  • Millard Fillmore: So obscure, he's no longer obscure.
  • Mountain Man: The author's desire to be a bit like one drives the Appalachian Trail trek.
  • Nostalgia Ain't Like It Used to Be: The 1950s.
  • Older Than They Look: The author, albeit mitigated considerably by a bushy beard in recent years.
  • Oop North: On first moving to the UK and marrying, he spent many years living in a remote village in Yorkshire.
    • He visits many parts of the industrial north in Notes From a Small Island and provides a poignant reflection on the proud heritage and natural beauty of the landscape contrasted with the industrial decline and high unemployment. At one moment he looks out at a valley of former mill towns and wonders what jobs the residents are actually doing now.
  • Porn Stash: Discovering his father's "modest girlie stash".
    • A childhood friend of his had a brother with an incredibly extensive one that was lethally booby trapped.
  • Puff of Logic: From near the beginning of A Short History Of Nearly Everything:

  "It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you."

  • Purple Prose: Quoting Manning Clark's in Sunburned Country.
  • Repetitive Name: In Neither Here Nor There, he passes the time in a Swedish hotel room by noting the number of repeated names in a phone book. Turns out there are not a lot of unique surnames, in Sweden.
  • Science Marches On: The march of science itself is the subject of A Short History Of Nearly Everything.
  • Take That: Frequent, and not at all subtle. The opening sentence of Lost Continent: "I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to."
    • A rebuttal from Top Gear and James May: "I think that man is a danger, frankly. If there is one thing I can't stand it's beardy, sanctimonious, patronising Americans in tartan trousers coming to England and trying to persuade us to turn into a museum. He wants the East End for the cheeky Cockney chaps pushing wheelbarrows full of eels and he wants Northerners to be industrialists with big braces and blokes dying of consumption - Good morning Bill, I've got the consumption, it's tradition alright. I say Bill, if you're watching - OK, now you won't be watching because we're not talking about steam engines or longboats or bear-baiting - but IF you've happened to tune in by mistake: We're not interested in stupid Americans who come over here with their big video cameras saying Gee, I love your history, it's just so old. SOD OFF!"
  • Technology Marches On: The Gizmo-crazy hiker in Walk In The Woods is kitted out with technology that was advanced in 1997 (GPS, self-pitching tent) but is fairly standard fare now.
  • Unintentional Period Piece: The aforementioned Lost Continent; and A Walk in the Woods. Notes from a Big Country mostly because it deals with a mid-90's world just before the internet and cellphones became ubiquitous - Bryson mentions the difficulty of finding change for a payphone at the airport, the amount of mail order catalogues he's sent, sending faxes to the UK, and renting movies on videotape.
  • Violent Glaswegian: This seems to be where his experience in Glasgow is headed in Notes from a Small Island. It would probably have unsettled him more if he understood what they were saying.
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