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Review of Bill Bryson's 'Notes From a Small Island'

This is the original and still the best of the many travel humour books authored by middle-aged men on epic jaunts around Britain.

American-born Bill Bryson makes ‘one last trip’ around this Small Island, after living in Yorkshire for almost twenty years. And I’m glad he does as the by-product is an entertaining read that’s a reminder of the curious oddities and banal normalities of Britain.

As he visits the nooks and crannies far and wide - from John O Groats to Exeter… from Dover to Portmadog, he attempts to dissect the essence of Britishness, wryly observing our old-fashioned ways, and reaffirming his love for the landscape and curiosities of our ‘small island’.

What has made it so popular?
Twenty years have passed since this huge best seller was published and I can see why it was so popular. It came out in 1995 - a time when Cool Britannia ruled the airwaves and we regained a sense of patriotic fervour.

Spot on observations

In many parts, like the preserved check-table-clothed teashops of seaside towns, times haven’t changed since he wrote the book. Others where our Asbo culture manifests itself and a pace of life that passes within the space of a new coffee shop opening have though. Still, the seeds of these exist in the less exaggerated form they once were throughout the book.

British culture from an outsider’s perspective

Us Brits have a habit at poking fun at ourselves and he does the same without being too rude or self-indulgent in any way but with reverence for the things which make us different. You get a sense that over the years he has built a deep affections for this country .
His comments ring true about the way we obligingly let corporate sponsorship pervade our lives with the Coca-Cola Cup, the Embassy World Championships and others. “The day can’t be far off…”, he muses, “…when we get things like the Kellogg’s Pop Tart Queen Mother, the Mitsubishi Corporation Proudly Presents Regents Park, and Samsung City (Formerly Newcastle).”

While some of the characters and places he meets confirm to the stereotype - prim and proper landladies from B&Bs, anorak-clad train-spotters, he need make no apology for that. He speaks as he finds and his observations, made with frank and dry wit, are nonetheless captivating to read. Like the landlord who despite having his hotel door rattled by an abusive, disgruntled Bryson in the small hours, managed to appease the situation with typical English dignity using a round of sandwiches and copious apologies.

Many tourists come back to Britain time and time again to soak up its quaint old-fashioned character. Bryson is perhaps no different to them.

Upon finding a section of Walking Guides in a bookstore he is puzzled and amused adding, “Where I come from people did not as a rule require written instructions to achieve locomotion”, but later realised this was a pursuit that involved stout boots.

He revels in the beauty of Britain. And deplores the sense that as a nation we don’t care enough about losing the beautiful historical architecture we have and which America somewhat lacks. He once laments about despite Britain having the stockpile of old buildings (in his Yorkshire village there are more seventeenth-century buildings than in the whole of North America); even in conservation areas a houseowner can put up stone-cladding, replace all the windows and doors, and the like, all within the law. And can’t see why we would want to substitute red telephone boxes for what he calls ‘shower stalls’.

A bit of a prince Charles character is some ways. But then even he wouldn’t describe the coast of North Wales “looking like [from the train] as endless ranks of prison-camp caravan parks..” an “odd holiday option” that would involve “crossing the rail line and dual carriageway and hiking over a desert of sinkholes in order to dip your toes in a distant sea of Liverpool turds.”

Much of Britain he explores by public transport which means that the places much of us work and live in (off the map of any tourist itinerary) don’t get much of a look in. A bit disappointing but then there is always a danger of that when you’ve got some many places to visit and so many things to do. Most of the towns throughout this land are desperate clones of each other anyway so perhaps he has spared us the boredom of reading about them.

Places on his itinerary
England largely gets some gentle Bryson-battering London, Windsor, Stonehenge, Manchester, Milton Keynes, Cambridge, Blackpool, Barnstaple, Weston-super-Mare, Lyme Regis, Harrogate, Bradford, Lincoln.  Llandudno, Glasgow.

And of course the little curiously-named villages in between skin complaints - Scabcleuch, Whiterashes Scurlage, Sockburn; others that have an attitude problem - Seething, Mockbeggar, Wrangle etc.

Bryson has published several books based on his travels around different parts of the world: The Lost Continent, Mother Tongue, Neither Here Nor There, Made in America and Walk in the Woods.

Out of the lot though this is my favourite. I would say unlike his other books, his travels in Notes From A Small Island prove to be a revelation about a country he already thought he knew a lot about. While much of what he encounters may not be new to us the main pleasure of this book is reading how he discovers them.

In all I highly recommend you to read this book. Although some of the places he visits are hardly hotspots for culture or anything else for that matter, you can gloat in the satisfaction that you haven’t had to go there to find that out yourself. A guide to Britain that’s not afraid to go to the rough parts.

Book info

Bill Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa in 1951. In 1977 he settled in England with his English wife and four children and lived here for around 20 years before making the move back to America.
  • Published by Doubleday/ Black Swan 1996
  • 352 pages
  • Original price £6.99 (I picked mine up from the most British of shopping experiences - a car boot sale - for the quaint old price of 20 pence).

This post first appeared on Planet Britain, please read the originial post: here

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Review of Bill Bryson's 'Notes From a Small Island'


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