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Bill Bryson

Notes from a Small Island

Category: Miscellaneous | Published: 1995 | Review Added: 15-06-2019

Rating: 4 - A top read

This book is so well-known that for a long time I almost felt as though I'd read it. My image of Bill Bryson was of a bluff, upbeat Yankee purveying witty but bland observations on the quaint ways of the British people, unintentionally patronising them with reminders of what a noble, scenic and history-filled island they inhabit, and enjoining them to desist in their self-deprecating ways and to be a bit more openly proud of their country.

Firstly, though, the book isn't a "guide" to the United Kingdom, but the travelogue of a valedictory tour of Great Britain that Bryson made before departing for several years back to the States with his family. His journey starts on the ferry from Calais "because I wanted to re-enter England as I'd first seen it, from the sea." It continues from Dover to London, and thence to stops in most parts of the isle with a few gaps (South Wales, East Anglia and the Midlands). He travels by public transport, as his wife wouldn't let him take the car away for two months.

With the journey as a structural thread, the book has a natural momentum. Bryson simply describes each place he visits, and his personal movements, which encompass many tiring walks in towns and the countryside, often in miserable autumn weather. (He sits forlornly in a Chinese restaurant in Weston-Super-Mare, vainly waiting for a break in the rain which "spattered the street like a shower of ball-bearings and within minutes the restaurant window was wholly obscured with water, as if someone were running a hose over it.")

As well finding the book more focussed than I expected, I was agreeably surprised by the character of Bryson's wit - it has a sardonic edge that appeals to the British mindset. Bryson had spent nearly half his life in England when he wrote the book, and his style is a rich amalgam of broad American belly-laughs, and droll, self-parodying British phlegmatism. Here he is on sand:

When you are wet, it adheres to you like stucco, and cannot be shifted with a fireman's hose. But - and here's the strange thing - the moment you step on a beach towel, climb into a car or walk across a recently vacuumed carpet it all falls off.

On a recent recovery from pneumonia:

I won't say that I nearly died, but I was ill enough to watch This Morning with Richard and Judy, and I certainly didn't want to be in that condition again.

On Yorkshire manners:

In Yorkshire [...] gradually, little by little, they find a corner for you in their hearts, and drive past you with what I call the Malhamdale wave. This is an exciting day in the life of any new arrival. To make the Malhamdale wave, pretend for a moment that you are grasping a steering wheel. Now very slowly extend the index finger of your right hand as if you were having a small involuntary spasm. That's it. It doesn't look like much, but it speaks volumes, believe me, and I shall miss it very much.

Occasionally, he aims his grouchy satire at soft targets. He would have done himself credit by omitting a description of overweight people eating that didn't raise a smile from me, and not because I'm overweight - it just seemed unkind and crass.

For the most part, though, this was an exceedingly funny and often informative read. Like all the best travel writing, it keeps the personality of its author to the fore, without being self-aggrandising (far from it). I expected Notes from a Small Island to be a worthwhile diversion, but in most ways it exceeded my expectations.

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