Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson

"After nearly two decades in Britain, Bill Bryson took the decision to move back to the States for a while, to let his kids experience life in another country, to give his wife the chance to shop until 10 p.m. seven nights a week, and, most of all, because he had read that 3.7 million Americans believed that they had been abducted by aliens at one time or another, and it was thus clear to him that his people needed him.

But before leaving his much-loved home in North Yorkshire, Bryson insisted on taking one last trip around Britain, a sort of valedictory tour of the green and kindly island that had so long been his home. His aim was to take stock of the nation's public face and private parts (as it were), and to analyse what precisely it was he loved so much about a country that had produced Marmite, a military hero whose dying wish was to be kissed by a fellow named Hardy, place names like Farleigh Wallop, Titsey and Shellow Bowells, people who said 'Mustn't grumble', and Gardeners' Question Time."

Please permit me a short aside to explain picking up this book. For the last week or so I have been travelling - first to the States and then to France. On my flight out to the States I read Bill Bryson's Notes From a Big Country, helping to immerse myself in the culture of the country I was visiting. To celebrate my return home, I decided to book-end my trip with his Notes From a Small Island to prepare myself for coming back to our green and pleasant land.

As you can no doubt tell from the publisher's blurb on the back of the book, Bill Bryson takes a very irreverent look at England and the people who inhabit it. The humour is of a gentle teasing nature, however, and it is clear that Bryson has an enormous fondness for the country he is leaving.

The nature of the book is distinctly episodic, as Bryson uses public transport to take him to various locations around the country. Some of the places he visits are very personal to him (the only reason for some of them featuring in a book supposedly meant to represent England). These interludes are interesting and often funny, but don't add a great deal for someone who is reading this book to gain an impression of England. He skips some regions entirely - the Midlands really don't get a look in, which is sad considering there are such lovely towns and cities littering the middle of England.

I would also take issue with some of his complaints. If he tells us once, he tells us one hundred times that he feels the town centres have not been developed with any sensitivity to the original buildings. I happen to agree with his point, but sometimes this is all he mentions about a couple of the locations he visits. I would have liked to hear more about the special features of these places - this is loosely supposed to be a travel guide after all! And Bryson's mood on the day that he arrives does tend to influence his opinion of the city unduly.

If you take on board these criticisms, then the book is a very pleasant, easy read with some wonderful flashes of humour. In fact, the parts of the book I liked especially were where Bryson interjected his wry observations on matters as diverse as train spotters, the creation of chopsticks (why?!), and a little flirtation with some sexist commentary on the difference in the sexes as they shop.

It was exactly what I needed as I returned home, especially the following quote: "It looked so peaceful and wonderful that I could almost have cried, and yet it was only a tiny part of this small, enchanted island. Suddenly, in the space of a moment, I realised what it was that I loved about Britain - which is to say, all of it. Every last bit of it, good and bad - Marmite, village fetes, country lanes, people saying 'I'm terribly sorry but', people apologizing to me when I conk them with a careless elbow, milk in bottles, beans on toast, haymaking in June, stinging nettles, seaside piers, Ordnance Survey maps, crumpets, hot-water bottles as a necessity, drizzly Sundays - every bit of it.

What a wondrous place this was - crazy as fuck, of course, but adorable to the tiniest degree."

Seriously, makes me proud to be British!

1 comment:

  1. I also liked this book, though less than some of his other books. Still, it was an interesting read, and I got to see my own homeland through different eyes. Eyes that, I have to admit, made me desperately want to hope on the next plane from Canada to the UK. There really is something awesome about England, even when it's strange and bewildering.