An open letter to travel writer Bill Bryson, in response to critical remarks he made about Belgium in one of his books.
Do you mind if I call you Bill? I feel as if I can, as I’ve read so many of your travel books over the years that I feel I know you quite well.
It started back in 1999 with your book A Walk in the Woods. That was soon followed by Neither Here Nor There, Notes From A Small Island, and Notes from a Big Country. I’ve always found you an entertaining, informative, knowledgeable, witty and insightful writer. If ever I was asked to compile a list of inspirational travel writers, you’d be up there at the top.
But no longer
You see Bill, I recently read your book, The Road to Little Dribbling, and you’ve disappointed me. Greatly. You’ve changed your style. You are now quite a Grumpy Old Travel Writer, aren’t you! But you also made a couple of un-researched, throwaway remarks that I guess you thought would elicit a few chuckles.
They infuriated me
When I read the first remark, I smiled like a priest, forgave you for your ignorance, and continued reading.
When I read the second remark, I banged the book shut, pounded up the stairs to my study and hammered “Bill Bryson travel writer email address” into Google.
I found millions of results. Heaps of admiring reviews. Extracts from your books. A Facebook page with 85,000 likes. Lists of your awards. Interviews in global newspapers.
But no email address.
Hence this open letter to you.
So what made me so angry Bill?
In The Road to Little Dribbling, you made two remarks about Belgium. (Surprising, considering the book’s subtitle is “Adventures of an American in Britain”. But you clearly had something to get off your chest.)
The first was not too hurtful. It actually started with a positive observation about the punctuality of trains in Belgium and the reliability of our train timetables! Really? That was surprising in itself, considering how many hours I’ve wasted waiting on Belgian platforms). But anyway, we’ll draw a line under that inaccuracy. You wrote that it is “one of the things that impresses me about Belgium” but then you added “and we are course dealing here with a very short list.”
Oh Bill! A very short list of impressive things about Belgium? I bit my tongue and read on. Still on the subject of trains, you wrote that:
“it is possible to travel from King’s Cross to Wymondham, though I wouldn’t actually recommend it as there is bugger all there.”Bill Bryson, The Road to Little Dribbling
Well that’s a shame for the little English town of Wymondham. But then you wrote:
“In that respect, it is rather like Belgium.”Bill Bryson, The Road to Little Dribbling
And there it was. In black on white, the blackest condemnation of the wonderfully rich, varied, interesting, fascinating and inspiring country of Belgium, where you say there is “bugger all.”
Bill, have you never visited Brussels or Antwerp?
Have you never stopped off for a day in Gent, Bruges, Leuven or Mechelen?
Did you not step into one of those punctual trains you found and take a trip into Wallonia to go walking in the Ardennes?
What a shame you didn’t head east into Limburg and go cycling!
Are you one of the few people who haven’t been moved by the powerful evocations of Flanders Fields?
And when you were in Belgium, did you not sample its excellent beers, chocolates, waffles, frites and other delicacies?
And we haven’t touched on the museums, the art & culture, the history, the carnivals, the sport, the nature …
I could go on, and on, and on.
But I think you might be getting the message.
So there’s bugger all in Belgium, is there Bill Bryson?
I think it’s about time you came over here again, don’t you?
Looking forward to your response!
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I applaud you for this post, Denzil, and I fullheartedly hope Bill will get to read it! What a beautiful homage to my country. The diversity, the photos, the sights, they are extravagant. I am so happy you are discovering Belgium in depth, that you love it and that you produce these wonderful posts, which certainly ought to inspire every reader to visit and appreciate our small, but unique country. You are seducing me to go back for a visit this summer! 🙂
Thanks Liesbet for such a lovely comment. Yes I hope he gets to read it. I think I’ll send the link to his publisher!
Good idea. I’ll share your post on Facebook as well, so my (Belgian) friends can read it. You know, I once tried to contact Bill Bryson as well to praise his writing and share some common insights, but I couldn’t find it either. Good luck!
Thanks for sharing Liesbet, I appreciate that. I am sure these famous writers keep their emails hidden, or else they will be getting hundreds of letters! I have found his FB page and posted on it. Let’s see what happens!
Unfortunately Denzil, I’m discovering your blog when I should be busy with a number of other things – otherwise, I would read on. Absolutely loved your defense of Belgium as a small country that has a lot to offer! Well written, and certainly true! It must have been difficult to make choices with your foto collage but it was splendid. Even though I, myself, am not a Belgian citizen (maybe soon), I truly appreciate your standing up to such shortsighted remarks from “Mr.Grumpy Traveller Bill”. As Liesbet remarked, I too will share it with some of my Belgian friends – sometimes Belgians need some help in feeling good about themselves. And I will look forward to my next visit to your blog …. probably when I should be doing something else. God bless, Rick (American)
Hi Rick, thanks for stopping by! And thanks too for such a positive comment. Yes, there’s plenty on my blog to waste your time! (Although hopefully also to provide some useful tips for your next cycling tour! 🙂 )
Good idea, Denzil. Bill Bryson lives in Norfolk, our county, but I’m not exactly sure where. Otherwise I’d drop him a copy personally!
Couldn’t agree more with reader Liesbet and yourself 🙂
Great homage to a beautiful country Denzil! I see Bill is on facebook too – you may want to contact him or share your blog there. That may stir up a nice conversation.
Thank you for your kind comment. Yes I have posted on his FB; let’s see if he responds – I am curious!
Well done Denzil! Have sent the link to my girls and several friends! Lovely to see Suzanna at HT the other Sunday, by the way. Hope all is well, I am counting down the weeks now….just three left in this lovely country! Catherine
Hi Catherine, thanks for sharing it; the more people who see/share it, the more chance he will reply. (Or visit!). So, three weeks left; the end of an era. I remember well meeting you at HTB and taking over your house in Clos de la Reine. I guess it was 1987? 30 years ago, oh my. I sincerely hope you have a smooth transition and enjoy living in Leamington Spa immensely. Take care. Denzil
Those comments make him sound a bit small minded. Surely as a travel writer he would have visited those cities and sampled those things you mention? What an idiot!
They do, don’t they Richard! I think actually he lost the plot somewhat. The whole approach and style in this book was quite grumpy and negative.
As I said in my Facebook share of Denzil’s post, Bryson amuses people who don’t know the place he’s talking about, but as soon as he treads on your territory, you realise what a hack he is Yeah he visited Belgium in such depth that he thinks the trains run on time. He clearly never spoke to a single rail user. And so on and on, as this smackdown illustrates.
Nice insightful summary Alan! Take that Mr. B!
Well, I only had the good fortune to visit once in 2016, but I had a marvelous time and would go back in a minute. It is everything you described and more. His loss, your gain. 🙂
Thanks for commenting Judy. You are such an ambassador for Belgium!
I’ve noticed that Bryson’s later books are quite grumpy and negative, which is a shame, as his earlier books were enjoyable. Wonderful and well-illustrated rebuttal, Denzil. I’ve long wanted to visit Belgium. For many years, I had a poster in my bedroom of swans in a canal in Bruges. A lovely city!
Thanks Eliza. Yes Bruges is an amazing place. Actually I just slightly prefer Gent. But don’t tell anyone in Bruges I said that!
🙂 My lips are sealed!
Interesting – first time I heard someone say that. I too prefer Gent. I suppose being married to someone from Gent might make me biased, but Bruges is like a postcard and Gent is the real thing! Super folk, diverse, great university vibe without being like Leuven, overrun by college age kids – small enough to get around the whole thing but big enough to always surprise you with a new corner. I have some friends who actually live in the city and they love it.
I totally agree Rick, you’ve summed it up perfectly. And of course as you are married to a “Gentian?” then that gives you another reason to love the city.
I wonder if you’ve sighted the problem, Denzil. If Bill went to any of those places for only a day he wouldn’t see everything. He wouldn’t have even scratched the surface. We spent a week just in Bruges. There was so much to see and enjoy. How sad to hear such a person denigrating any place, and I can’t believe he hasn’t been to Belgium. He should know better. I haven’t yet read any of his books and now I don’t know that I want to. I wouldn’t be able to use them as a guide.
It is such a surprising comment to make isn’t it Carol? If he can’t be bothered to research a country before disparaging it, then I begin to question his research of other places he has visited.
My thoughts exactly. He obviously can’t be relied upon for information devoid of personal opinion. I’m surprised his editors let it go through. Having said that, do they really care?
That’s an interesting perspective Carol. I can’t believe how many books I am reading these days where I say to myself “Where was the editor?” I frequently get to the end of a 400-page book and think it would have been much better at 300-350 pages.
It’s the same for newspapers, magazines and even for newsreaders on TV and radio. Sometimes their news reports aren’t even in complete sentences. I hear a news report on the radio on my way to work in the mornings and I always think I’m in the wrong job. But I would probably be too cranky with the fools who write the stuff and get the sack!
Great article and lovely photo’s – Belgium is a wonderful country and after living here for 45 years there is still so much to see!
Thanks for stopping by and commenting Ann, and for your kind compliment. 45 years in Belgium, that’s even longer than me (a mere 30!). Good to know that even after 45 years here, there’s still much to see here.
Belgium is beautiful – don’t let Bryson’s disparaging comments get you down. You represent it well.
Hi Sharon, well his comments didn’t get me down, they just angered and disappointed me. I do find it a shame though that someone with such great travel experiences over the last few decades has turned rather negative.
Oh dear, some cheap, throwaway remarks that he probably thought were funny – but didn’t think through. Very disappointing – I used to like his books though it got to the point where they all seemed the same. I don’t think I even read the last one I bought. Anyway, great rebuttal!
I guess now you won’t be reading this one then Anabel! I would much rather read your travel accounts than his!
Well, I did give Bruges a good review a few years ago!
I read Notes from a Small Island prior to going to England last year and found it quite funny in places. Started The Road to Little Dribbling on the flight over. 18+ hours on aircraft (from Australia) gives one ample time to get into a book. Finished it while tripping around England. Totally agree with you, what a grumpy old bugger he has turned into. Perhaps he has never sampled some of the 1150 original Belgium beers from the 180 different breweries that inhabit the country. Perhaps he should. Perhaps I’ll need to come back and continue where I left off in England and add a Belgium leg in my search for the worlds best brew and send him a copy. That might cheer him up.
Great idea Glen. I look forward to the results of “Glen’s Finest Brew”. Mind if, if you have to sample 1150 Belgian beers, I’m not sure you will be able to write in a straight line to record your results 🙂
Quite agree. Belgium isn’t perfect. But I can think of one or two other countries that aren’t perfect either, and Bill Bryson is from both of them. Belgium does have a lot going for it if you take the trouble to come over here and look. The problem is that knocking Belgium has become a stand-by for the lazier British comics. When your own house is falling apart, a sneer at your little neighbour can bring some comfort.
Well said Ian. A different perspective on it, and insightful.
Bryson is simply jumping on the old “jokes about Belgium” bandwagon, far too easy for those that have never visited in depth what the country has to offer. I believe these opinions about Belgium have their origins in the first world war when any experience of the country would have been restricted to that “hell on earth” known as the western front. That “old memory” has persisted, now in modified form as the years have gone by. I have lived in Belgium for 16 years now and completely agree with your perspective. I also agree with your preference of Ghent over Bruges but that is another story. For me, it is also the Belgian people, who despite the linguistic division have an eclectic and self-deprecating sense of humour not found anywhere else in europe outside the UK. Shame on you Bryson for allowing yourself the expediency of “Belgium bashing”, you have a responsibility as a travel writer to delve a bit deeper into the reality of a country and not dismiss it by pandering to old prejudices based on what you think might be amusing to your readers, I like many who have commented here, am not amused. Belgium is so much more than Frites, waffles , chocolates and beer. Per capita Belgium has contributed more to scientific and cultural advancement than most european countries and if you care to look you will find evidence of this all around you…….particularly if you take the trouble to visit with your eyes open.
What more could I add, Mike; you seem to have said it all! Thanks for stopping by and commenting.
Thanks for setting the record straight Denzil through this great post. It’s sad when populism finds its way to travel writing. I can only concur with everything you wrote. Belgium has the alliteration with ‘boring’ working against it, but considering that it consists of fabulous Flanders, wonderful Wallonia and beautiful Brussels, that bubble should be easy to prick.
Absolutely Hans. You make a good point about populism. Although why an already popular author has to resort to such tactics, is beyond my understanding. Thanks for commenting and for all your promo work of this post on Twitter.
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Definitely some lovely places in Belgium…….. to see. But what can I say about a country, who was without a federal government for over 2 years, and a judicial system that is as ignorant as the snobs in Brussels who insist on speaking French all the while they can speak English. My two sons were abducted by their mother (Belgian), and while it took 2 1/2 years for the Belgian court to agree, that they were resident in the country they were born in, wrongfully removed, they felt that because the court case took so long to resolve, that they would NOT be returned to the country they were wrongly removed from! End of story! No appeal process! Shameful! Belgium, lovely to look at (when it’s not raining) but rose-like to embrace.
Thank you for your comment Bevin. Having lived here for 29 years, I am certainly not ignorant of the failings of this country. Sometimes I could scream, as you probably have on more than one occasion, considering your disturbing story. For people who have lived in Belgium, or visited, or travelled through it, and have had to undergo a certain negative or even painful experience, I fully emphathize. The intention of my blog post was not to suggest that Belgium is perfect: it has its problems, just like any country. It was more to suggest that an opinion on Belgium that was seemingly plucked from thin air, with no research or experiential evidence to back up that claim, is not helpful at all, especially when it comes from someone who earns his living giving knowledgeable insights about countries to people. Thanks again for sharing. Best wishes. Denzil
great blog post (and in general great blog and wonderful resources to discover more about Belgium)
Thanks Andreea; I appreciate you stopping by and reading it.
Go, Denzil, that’s wonderful, with a truly fabulous set of photos. I hope BB is now ready to eat humble pie! And I’m sure it won’t take too long for you to track down an email address for him….
Hello Mary, how nice to hear from you again. How are you? Keeping well I hope. Thanks for your comment. Well, I am not sure I will be hearing from Mr. B. I am sure he gets a lot of criticisms like this. Still, I am surprised at how this post has taken off. To date it has been viewed over 2300 times and shared on Facebook over 440 times! Goodness me, who are all these nice folk who are reading my little article?
Wow – an impassioned and impressive piece of writing Denzil and a wonderful illustrated guide to some of Belgium’s many highlights! It’s a pity you don’t get royalties for each viewing of your post – you’d probably have made more from this than Bill will on his new book, especially now you’ve put so many of us off buying it! I hope he gives you the courtesy of a reply.
Thanks Theresa. Now that’s a good idea: royalties! Why didn’t I think of that earlier?
I don’t know about Bill, but I certainly want to come to visit after reading your post. Thank you, Denzil.
Thanks for the compliment Helen! See in you Belgium soon! 🙂
Denzil, I have been only to bruxelles and antwerp, I think Belgium is beautiful. But I have seen a tendency of many travel blogger or few writers to show only the derogatory things about other countries.. As if they have the camera only to click on the beggars in the third world countries.. for an example!! It makes me very sad. Every country has something beautiful in store, you only need to have the eyes!!
Great comment, thank you. Looking for the negative is so easy isn’t it? It takes conscious effort to look for the good.
And I seriously think belgian chocolate is the best ðŸ˜Š
You’re right there too!
Denzil, you are absolutely right about Belgium !
Well said Denzil, Bill has got it completely wrong and you have highlighted some of the best bits of your wonderful country! We love Belgium.
Thanks Joy. I think the overwhelming opinion is that Mr. B got it totally wrong!
Wat een schande.Men moest zijn boeken niet meer kopen.Er wordt toch verwacht dat hij juiste informatie en goede tips zou geven.Ik zou er ook boos over worden.Heel knappe en gevarieerde foto’s van de prachtige plekken in ons BelgiÃ« en we zouden kunnn blijven doorgaan.Goed dat je het op zijn facebook hebt gezet.Nu afwachten of hij reageertr.
Bedankt voor je commentaar. Ik denk niet dat hij zal antwoorden. Eigenlijk het boek is over Engeland, en hij was zo negatief over dat land, dat ik denk dat hij heeft veel antwoorden te doen om boze Engels mensen!
Your beautiful photos would make anyone want to visit. Funny post on the grumpy travel writer. I always take it with a grain of salt reading travel books. You have to wonder on how long they actually spent in a country. I know when I travel, I am usually there for two to three weeks and that is never long enough to write on what people should do and see. You see the sights, but not get absorbed in the culture and people. Never enough time…
You make a very pertinent point Donna. It does indeed take time to capture the flavor of a country, or even a city actually. So indeed, passing through quickly can sometimes give a false impression. I must bear that in mind too when I visit new places in Belgium for a day.
I have never been to Belgium, but hope to visit it some day. Your photos make it look lovely, and well worth the trip! I do have a friend who is originally from Belgium (living in New York City now) and she says she misses her home country very much, and looks forward to her annual visits back! Thanks for sharing this with the rest of us!
Thank you Ann. You must come and visit us!
Hi Denzil, I hope Bill Bryson reads your post. Your passion shines through – I visited years ago and my brother lived in Brussel for a year, my daughter and boyfriend spent a long weekend there, we all agree with you. Wymondham in Norfolk is actually worth stopping by, enroute to the lovely Norfolk coast.
Thanks for your comment Julie. I don’t think he will comment. I believe he upset a lot of people in England too, so if he were to reply to them all, he’d be busy 24/7! Glad you have a positive opiinion about Brussels. And Wymondham!
What a wonderful post and homage Denzil to what looks to be such a beautiful country. I hope that Grumpy Bill reads it and perhaps graces you with an acknowledgment. It certainly deserves one, you did your country proud. Well done to you.
Thanks Miriam, you are too kind. I am not expecting Mr. B to get back to me. He upset a lot of people in England too with his snide comments and negativism. There’s no room for a genuine travel writer to call people “idiots”, so I think he’s got his hands full replying to them (if he wants to of course). Thanks for your positive comments.
Lovely set of photos and a passionate defence of your country. I’ve had several splendid holidays in Belgium.
Thanks Ruth, and I am glad you have enjoyed visiting Belgium.
I’m not sure why Bill made the comment that he did, but you sure sold me! I’m putting Belgium on my bucket list! Nice job!
Ha! That’s great news Lulu! I’m glad Belgium is on your bucket list. Maybe the most recent additions get visited first? 😉
Love your letter to Bill! Judging by your photos, we should ALL be visiting Belgium!
Ha! Thanks Lady Fi. Maybe you should!
It’s a must! 🙂
Thanks Dina, and for your comments below. So Mr B lives near you! He was very rude about the UK in his book. I wonder how the locals treat him these days?
Dat boek zou ik niet kopen maar je blog en foto’s zijn prachtig om te zien.
Bedankt voor de complimenten. En ja, niet kopen het boek!
I agree with what you say. I have always been a big fan of Bill but his last book was a huge disappointment. He wrote about my town of Grimsby but I really doubt that he had ever been there.
To be fair to Bill however there was a whole chapter about Belgium in his book “Neither here Nor there” and on balance it is rather complimentary. How about this…
“I went to Bruges for a day. It’s so beautiful, so deeply endlessly gorgeous…. Everything about it is perfect… Everything.”
Maybe, as you say he has just grown old and grumpy!
Thanks for this comment Andrew; maybe he is not just getting grumpy, but forgetful too!
That’s how you go and defend your country of choice. And I’ve just read how you landed there, excellent tale. I don’t know and haven’t read the gentleman but now I’d need to be stranded on a deserted island with one of his books in order to… use it. 😀
That’s a good use of his books Manja! Thanks for your comment and for stopping by, also for enjoying my story about how I came to be in Belgium. I’m enjoying your blog too.
I read one book by Bill Bryson years ago and found it so obnoxious that I’ve since refused to read anything else by him. He’s a total buffoon. Belgium is fabulous.
Well that’s put him in his place, J.D.! Thanks for stopping by and commenting.
Such a beautiful, happy place! Love this gallery. 🙂
Such wonderful pictures of my mother country. I think it’s really fascinating the way you honour our towns and natural beauty. Leuven and Bruges are my favourites.
Thank you Anna. I enjoy living here, and there’s so much to discover!
Bill Bryson’s attitude towards travelling is the antithesis of what I strive for. Why waste time looking for faults and making pointless comparisons when you can be seeking beauty instead? And, as you point out, there’s no shortage of that in Belgium 🙂 Your pictures made me travel back to the wonderful year I spent in Belgium, thank you Denzil!
Yes I think his attitude surprised so many people here. I think in any country, beauty can be found if you look for it. When were you in Belgium yourself? Was it recently?
Not recently, back in 2003 I think. I have terrible memory, but there’s so much I remember from that year: eating at the summer street markets in Brussels, having a beer at Leuven, cycling at La Roche, kitesurfing at Knokke, catching those dirt cheap flights at Charleroi to visit the countries around… 🙂 – Verne
Those sound like great memories. Strange to think that blogging wasn’t “invented” back then!
Actually, there are a lot of things to do and see in any country. Everything depends on person preferences. With the guide like you and your posts there are no problems at all to explore your beautiful country.
Exactly Alexander. Every country is unique and worthy of exploration. Thanks for your compliment and comment.
I’m just reading Little Dribbling, oddly enough. My best guess is that he’s moving from joke to joke too fast to notice (or care) if they’re accurate. As an American living in and blogging from Cornwall, I find him funny, and I appreciate his occasional attack on the austerity state and the love for Britain that sits just under the complaints. But–well, a deep read it ain’t.
What a coincidence. Hope I haven’t put you off finishing it. Yes, I do think he could have slowed down a bit with the “jokey” comments and introduced a bit more accuracy. I can’t recall if he visited Cornwall in the book?
Not so far. I will give him credit for accuracy about the West Country roads–60 miles can be a long damn way.
I haven’t been down that way for decades. I guess the roadside hedges in Cornwall are even higher than ever now?
I doubt it–they keep the growing ones cut at a pretty constant level, and the stone walls aren’t getting any bigger. What has grown is the traffic.
I read a few more pages last night and Bryson does indeed get into Cornwall. I’m in North Cornwall, up near Bude, and it’ll be interesting to see if he gets this far. People down west barely consider us part of Cornwall–or so I’m told.
My name is, apparently, Cornish. Do you know any Denzils down there?
As a matter of fact, yes. The guy who installed our wood stove.
Nooooo! Amazing. Do you know, in my 58 years, I have never met another Denzil!
I love Belgium an I love this open letter, Denzil!
… and I have never met another Denzil in my whole life, just as long as yours. 🙂
Denzil. I hear you. I wrote a whole book comparing Bill’s observations with my own. I’ll send you a copy. And if it’s any consolation, he’s happy to disparage his home town as well. ‘I’m from Des Moines. Someone had to be.’ etc
Very interesting Ben, thanks for your comment. Let me know how to read or download your observations and I would be keen to read them. Thanks.
It’s free if you have Kindle Unlimited . . .
Hey thanks for the tip Ben; that looks a real hoot (I’ve read the sample pages on Amazon). I have a Kindle but it’s not Unlimited, so that’s this week’s pocket money gone! Anyway, it looks like something I will enjoy. (If not, can I ask for my money back?). Written anything else in the meantime? (P.S. Only kidding about the money back.)
I love and respect Belgium (I have some relatives who live or studied there), and it’s great to learn that the Belgians are ardent patriots, but maybe this criticism of Bryson is somewhat misplaced – because not everything he writes is to be understood literally. When you read in his travel notes about him abusing, beating, or even killing someone, you clearly are not supposed to take it all at face value. As to the short list: what the phrase actually refers to is the very best, crème de crème, so to say, and what Bryson most probably means by using it with respect to Belgium is there is much more of value in this country. Bryson likes hyperboles, and often pushes them to the extreme, e.g. by noting that there are no such words in English vocabularies as internal or phase, he also likes inventing funny things – it is just his (mid Atlantic?) sense of humour, voilà tout. So relax and enjoy it, he probably means no harm.
Thanks for your comment Serge. Yes I realize he was probably using hyperbole to create a stir and get his name talked about. Just as I am happy to exaggerate his claims and use his name and rant for my own publicity purposes! Don’t worry, I am perfectly relaxed about this! In terms of the problems facing the world, what Mr Bryson (or I!) say is of limited importance.