That Bill Bryson has a lot to pay for. A book drops in from a writer with an American background about the history of sites around England, and you prepare for the worst. This makes it somewhat surprising to find that Weird England, a half-hearted traipse around the weirder sites of this spectred isle, has usefully skipped the whimsy to provide an (occasionally) interesting book.
But just because the book isn’t treating England as some twee sideshow – Matt Lake is actually British – doesn’t mean that the content is particularly grand. There are some interesting articles, like the detailed ghost stories and the tales from various graveyards. Plus they deserve full credit for paying reference to my own personal hero, the anti-protein legend Stanley Green.
But this is not a consistent pace. The section on ancient mysteries contains almost 20 pages on stone circles, and the writing isn’t competent enough to make that interesting. It’s just lots of pictures of, well, stones. A full two pages are handed over to a so-so museum review of St Thomas’s Church operating theatre. The section of notionally amusing stuff next to motorways contains four pages about concrete animals in Milton Keynes. And when the content is this dull, you can read the writers themselves losing interest. Indeed, the writing often becomes so formulaic that most tales drift off to a conclusion of ‘well, we don’t know whether the Beast of Bodmin Moor is real, but we won’t go to Bodmin Moor any time soon!’
There’s plenty more that could be cut. Why include such unnecessarily thorough detail on already well-known legends like Spring-heeled Jack and Screaming Lord Sutch, instead of handing over more space to lesser-known tales like the Cornish Owlman? And why the stone circles? Why is it always with the stone circles? There are more entries in the index for ‘stones’ than either ‘ghosts’ or ‘legends’.
Ironically, it doesn’t make a very solid foundation for the book. Indeed, stones aside, there’s confusion about what the book is supposed to be on every page. There’s a strange mix of the real (vaguely amusing mix of epitaphs) and the mythical (glowing green children in the 13th century). It is slightly too detailed, large and late to be a Christmas novelty book; it’s far too scant on details to compete with Encyclopaedia of the Unexplained-style leagues. It’s not quite well-located enough to be a travelling guide, nor detailed enough to be a decent travelogue.
There are also fundamental cracks in the knowledge on show. Take the Sealand example – over three drawn-out pages the history of the oil rig is outlined, but manages to gloss over the actual illegality of the state, and the fact that Sealand is implicated in the murder of Gianni Versace. Why should we trust a book that misses out the most interesting facts of one of its key features?
Weird England does possess some passing interest, but it’s in desperate need of a snip-happy editor to distil the content out of it.
Author: Matt Lake
Release date: 21 January