I was browsing my old posts the other day (as you do…) when I discovered that in the eight years I’ve been blogging I’ve never reviewed a Bill Bryson book. Now, that may not seem much of a surprise given my preference for fiction in translation, but I used to be a big fan of his books, and my collection is pushing double figures. It might be time, then, to introduce his work to the blog, and thanks to a birthday present from my long-suffering wife (which is a Bryson reference in itself…), I have the perfect excuse. Today, we’re going to take a look at his most recent work, but not before we go back and look at an earlier book to which the later one owes a great debt 🙂
Back in the mid-nineties, Bryson was a respected but little-known American writer, but that all changed with the publication of Notes from a Small Island, a travel book describing an extensive tour of Britain the author undertook before he and his family moved to the US. It was a book which touched a nerve with his adopted homeland, the mix of affection for the beauty of the countryside and pangs of regret for aspects of the country which were fading into history making it a must read for a nation caught between past and future.
Bryson went on to become a prominent public figure, pumping out several more travel books before branching out into science (A Short History of Nearly Everything), literary biography (Shakespeare), memoir (The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid) and being portrayed on screen by Robert Redford (the screen adaptation of his travel book A Walk in the Woods). He eventually returned to the UK, taking on several prominent public roles, and it almost seems inevitable that twenty years after his original ramble around Britain he decided to do it all again, with The Road to Little Dribbling – More Notes from a Small Island the result.
The original Notes from a Small Island is a fun travel diary that works well because of its outsider’s view of the UK. It’s a dual story, with flashbacks to Bryson’s original arrival in the country in 1973 interspersed among the experiences of his mid-nineties valedictory tour, and what consistently comes across is his affection for his adopted home:
Throughout this trip, I would have moments of quiet panic at the thought of ever leaving this snug and homey little isle. It was a melancholy business really, this trip of mine – a bit like wandering through a much-loved home for a last time. The fact is, I liked it here. I liked it very much. It only took a friendly gesture from a shopkeeper, or a seat by the fire in a country pub, or a view like this to set me thinking that I was a making a serious, deeply misguided mistake.
p.101 (Black Swan, 1996)
Having taken his surroundings for granted for so long, Bryson wants to soak in as much as possible before he leaves.
While there’s a bit of everything included in the book, several themes recur. A keen walker, the writer is fascinated by the gentle English landscape, and he’s also intrigued by the sheer amount of history crammed into such a relatively small country. Above all, though, he obsesses over the people and their habits, repeatedly wondering how British people can be so happy with very little (as he notes, a very unamerican trait). There’s a sense of regret, even anger, at the changes he notices, particularly when it comes to modern town planners (he’s definitely with Prince Charles here…), but the overriding feeling is one of affection for it all.
Notes from a Small Island is very funny in paces as Bryson examines our quirks, including deeply ingrained queueing habits and incredible patience, and discovers that humour can make up for many of our puzzling customs:
I asked the man in the ticket window for a single to Barnstaple. He told me a single was £8.80, but he could do me a return for £4.40.
‘You wouldn’t care to explain the logic of that to me, would you?’ I asked.
‘I would if I could, sir,’ he replied with commendable frankness. (p.137)
The sheer accumulation of these details builds a picture of a country whose best days may be behind it, but which is still a wonderful place to live in (at which point I’ll remind you that the book dates from the mid-nineties…).
In truth, it’s not always successful, and it can be surprisingly crude at times, with Bryson prone to using the kind of jokes you wouldn’t get away with today. It’s also aimed squarely at the British readership of the time, meaning that it’s very culture specific. The book is peppered with references to names overseas (or young) readers would know nothing about. Nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable read, an ideal book for someone wanting to explore Britain without leaving their armchair, and Bryson makes for an engaging guide 🙂
The Road to Little Dribbling is, as its subtitle suggests, a sequel of sorts to Notes from a Small Island, but it does make an attempt to be different. Twenty years on, the writer has long since returned to the UK, but as he gets older, he finds that he’s living in a country, and a culture, he no longer fully understands. Deciding to get back out there to see if his Britain still exists, he decides to visit both ends of what he calls the ‘Bryson Line’ – starting at Bognor Regis, and ending at Cape Wrath, it’s the longest distance you can travel in a straight line on the British mainland. It’s a flimsy premise, but as good an excuse as any to get back out there.
There are many similarities with the earlier book, but this one has a more muted tone. Among the many gems he finds, there’s far too much decline, with an obsession with celebrity culture, far too many frustrating bypasses, a host of ugly buildings and more besides:
Like many British towns, Eastleigh has closed its factories and workshops, and instead is directing all its economic energies into the making and drinking of coffee. There were essentially two types of shop in the town: empty shops and coffee shops. Some of the empty shops, according to signs in their windows, were in the process of being converted into coffee shops, and many of the coffee shops, judging by their level of custom, looked as if they weren’t far off becoming empty shops again. I am no economist, but I am guessing that that’s what is known as a virtuous circle.
p.25 (Black Swan, 2016)
Even in pre-Brexit times, it seems that Bryson is finding a country on its way down…
Depressing stuff, but it’s not always as dark. The book is at its best when focusing on history as Bryson is still fascinated by absolutely everything and loves to tell you all about it. When he talks about places like Ironbridge or Stonehenge, he has a happy knack of pulling you along for the ride:
How, in every sense of the word, did they do it? How did anybody get the idea, how did they persuade hundreds of people to join in the endeavour, how did they find and select the right stones, haul them across the country, shape them to perfection, heave them into position? How anyone could conceive such a harmonious assemblage in a world with nothing to compare them with is a mystery way beyond answering. And it was all done by people who had no metals to work with, no tools sharper than flint or antler. (p.246)
If anyone hasn’t yet read A Small History of Nearly Everything, I’d highly recommend it – Bryson is a born explainer of the seemingly dull, and there are plenty of examples here of his skill.
In truth, though, I didn’t really love The Road to Little Dribbling, partly because it was far too similar to Notes from a Small Island. The vow he makes to avoid places he visited last time around is broken repeatedly, and he frequently rehashes stories from his past (e.g. the anecdotes about his first job at a mental institute). Also, the journey is once more dominated by walking trips around the South of England, only venturing further afield in the second half of the book (my home town receives one critical comment in passing – and no visits – over the course of the two books…). Before the journey gets underway, Bryson inserts a joke at the expense of his publisher:
‘Ever thought about a sequel?’ His tone was casual, but in his eyes I could see little glinting pound signs where his irises normally were. (p.28)
On finishing the book, that joke is slightly less funny (and closer to the bone) than he might have thought…
Looking back at what I’ve written, it seems a little harsh. I thought it was a good idea to read the two books fairly close together (around two weeks apart), but in truth they’re too similar for that – I suspect I would have enjoyed The Road to Little Dribbling more if I’d waited a while. Still, they’re both entertaining books providing glimpses of the Britain of the past and the future, and I’d definitely recommend them. If you want a book with insights into the British way of life, as well as showing glimpses of the country’s wonders, you could do a lot worse…