"Suddenly, in the space of a moment, I realized what it was that I loved about Britain-which is to say, all of it."
After nearly two decades spent on British soil, Bill Bryson - bestselling author of The Mother Tongue and Made in America-decided to return to the United States. ("I had recently read," Bryson writes, "that 3.7 million Americans believed that they had been abducted by aliens at one time or another, so it was clear that my people needed me.") But before departing, he set out on a grand farewell tour of the green and kindly island that had so long been his home.
Veering from the ludicrous to the endearing and back again, Notes from a Small Island is a delightfully irreverent jaunt around the unparalleled floating nation that has produced zebra crossings, Shakespeare, Twiggie Winkie's Farm, and places with names like Farleigh Wallop and Titsey. The result is an uproarious social commentary that conveys the true glory of Britain, from the satiric pen of an unapologetic Anglophile.
William McGuire "Bill" Bryson, OBE, FRS was born in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1951. He settled in England in 1977, and worked in journalism until he became a full time writer. He lived for many years with his English wife and four children in North Yorkshire. He and his family then moved to New Hampshire in America for a few years, but they have now returned to live in the UK.
In The Lost Continent, Bill Bryson's hilarious first travel book, he chronicled a trip in his mother's Chevy around small town America. It was followed by Neither Here Nor There, an account of his first trip around Europe. Other travel books include the massive bestseller Notes From a Small Island, which won the 2003 World Book Day National Poll to find the book which best represented modern England, followed by A Walk in the Woods (in which Stephen Katz, his travel companion from Neither Here Nor There, made a welcome reappearance), Notes From a Big Country and Down Under.
Bill Bryson has also written several highly praised books on the English language, including Mother Tongue and Made in America. In his last book, he turned his attention to science. A Short History of Nearly Everything was lauded with critical acclaim, and became a huge bestseller. It was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize, before going on to win the Aventis Prize for Science Books and the Descartes Science Communication Prize. His next book, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, is a memoir of growing up in 1950s America, featuring another appearance from his old friend Stephen Katz. October 8 sees the publication of A Really Short History of Nearly Everything.
I loved that Notes from a Small Island transported me from the couch to Great Britain. I hated that Bill Bryson, at his grumpy and condescending worst, was my travel companion. Ah, I need a cup of tea.
“To this day, I remain impressed by the ability of Britons of all ages and social backgrounds to get genuinely excited by the prospect of a hot beverage.”
Bryson wanders across the UK, from Dover to John O’Groats, commenting on guesthouses, city designs and British culture, while delivering lengthy tirades along the way. Most chapters find him sheltering from downpours in pubs and cafes. Occasionally, he shares his trademark facts about a place, but his constant whining usually follows.
“Goodness me! What an outburst! Let’s lighten up and go look at some good things.”
Even Bryson finds his complaining akin to “tedious bleating” and seems astounded by his own outbursts. It’s like reading one long, endless complaint; he’s grumpier and more aggressive than usual. He’s also sexist, ridicules those with Asperger’s, partakes in body shaming, and “aches” to kick a small dog, “just to see how far it could go.”
Bryson is continually rude and condescending to wait staff and tourism workers. He’s an obnoxious tourist, that despite having lived in the UK for years, visits the likes of McDonald’s in Edinburgh, where he rudely complains some more. He ambles around by himself in the day, gets drunk by himself at night, and curses society, places he visits, and everything else in life for not meeting his unrealistic expectations.
So, what kept me going? The fact it was depicting Great Britain, a place I have connection to, a fondness for, and immense desire to see. Perhaps, because of this, I found myself jotting down place names in hopes of visiting and maybe even comparing them to how much has changed since these 90s descriptions.
Favourite chapters included Windsor, Dorset, the Cotswolds and Scotland. Bryson captured the beauty of these places well, and his enthusiasm for protecting it was admirable. At times it felt like an episode of Great British Railway Journeys. I half-expected Bill to bump into Michael Portillo at one of the many stations.
“I can remember when you couldn’t buy a British Rail sandwich without wondering if this was your last act before a long period on a life-support machine.”
Thankfully, he succeeded in making me chuckle occasionally, and sometimes his tangents landed well. I was amazed by the amount of history on display in every day Britain. I particularly enjoyed his visit to a Roman mosaic in the Cotswolds.
“I don’t know what seized me more, the thought that people in togas had once stood on this floor chatting in vernacular Latin or that it was still here, flawless and undisturbed, amid this tangle of growth.”
Such moments were fleeting, however, before he returned to rants about shopping centres, architecture and urbanisation. Repeatedly reminiscing about his journalism days was boring too - I don’t read travel books to learn about office jobs, Bill!
Aspects haven't aged well – whether it be outdated statistics, certain remarks, or a surprising reference to my city of Hobart (10,000 miles away) that no longer holds true.
While I previously enjoyed the work of Bill Bryson, I feel mixed about Notes from a Small Island. Guess I just need to hurry up and experience these places for myself! Bryson’s final words sum up the conflicting nature of the book.
“Suddenly, in the space of a moment, I realised what it was that I loved about Britain - which is to say, all of it.”
Bill Bryson likes hedgerows, yelling at people, the English language, complaining, pretending to be a hiker, the fifth Duke of Portland, W.J.C. Scott-Bentinck, and himself. He tries too hard to be clever, and although you're being introduced to some interesting mental pictures ("a mid-face snack dispenser" for instance), and it's positively obvious how much he loves the English language and the art of writing, the lengths to which he goes can be tiring. The long-winded, irritating tangents he goes on add to this eye-clawing frustration. He seems to be bipolar, or maybe hypoglycemic, for his like or dislike of a certain village or city appears to be related to how much he's eaten or how much sleep he's had. (And please answer, who goes to see the best of England in the winter?) He is rude to a McDonald's cashier and the owner of a guest house, which I simply cannot tolerate. I have a soft spot for the Scots, and the way Bryson pokes fun at the gentlemen in a local pub is unfathomable. On top of everything else, there is very little mention of my home for 6 months, Norwich, and the closest he seems to get is a switch at Newmarket. Still, I didn't completely hate this book, and it had me laughing out loud at some points because he hit it dead on. Interesting about the hedgerows and the former Duke of Portland, too. Mustn't grumble, or so they say.
This book combines several of my favorite things: travelogues, England, and the charm of Bill Bryson.
It is the book version of comfort food.
So you can understand why I instinctively reached for this audiobook on the the first day of my new job. I wanted something comforting. And humorous. And British.
I was instantly gratified. Bryson begins his book about touring England by describing how intensely Brits will argue about distance and driving routes:
"If you mention in the pub that you intend to drive from, say, Surrey to Cornwall, a distance that most Americans would happily go to get a taco, your companions will puff their cheeks, look knowingly at each other, and blow out air as if to say, 'Well, now, that's a bit of a tall order,' and then they'll launch into a lively and protracted discussion of whether it's better to take the A30 to Stockbridge and then the A303 to Ilchester, or the A361 to Glastonbury via Shepton Mallet. Within minutes the conversation will plunge off into a level of detail that leaves you, as a foreigner, swiveling your head in quiet wonderment ... Give two or more men in a pub the names of any two places in Britain and they can happily fill hours. Wherever it is you want to go, the consensus is generally that it's just about possible as long as you scrupulously avoid Okehampton, the North Circular in London, and the Severn Bridge westbound between the hours of 3 p.m. on Friday and 10 a.m. on Monday, except bank holidays when you shouldn't go anywhere at all."
The whole book was immensely enjoyable. The plan was for Bryson to take a last tour of England before he and his family moved to America for a few years. (Bryson is from the States, but his wife is British.) He was going to travel mostly by public transportation, because his wife wouldn't let him have the car. (HA!) There did not seem to be a logic to his journey -- instead he went hither and thither as he desired, sometimes jumping on a bus or train if it happened to arrive while he was standing there. A few times he broke down and rented a car or took a cab, but he always gave a good reason.
As someone who has not visited England in more than 15 years* (and what a sad realization it was to do the math), I could only relate to a few stops on his journey. But I still loved his meanderings and his musings. And I will continue to find more Bill Bryson audiobooks because they are just so delightful.
Update July 2016 *This was a delightful re-read! I had the good fortune to visit England earlier this summer — so it's no longer been 15 years since I've been there — and decided to listen to Bryson's audiobook again. It was great to have a better understanding of where he visited, and to enjoy his amusing stories. When I have some time I'll add more to the Favorite Quotes section, because there are lots of fun ones. Highly recommended to fans of travelogues and/or England.
First Read: August 2014 Second Read: July 2016
Favorite Quotes "I can never understand why Londoners fail to see that they live in the most wonderful city in the world. It is, if you ask me, far more beautiful and interesting than Paris and more lively than anywhere but New York -- and even New York can't touch it in lots of important ways. It has more history, finer parks, a livelier and more varied press, better theaters, more numerous orchestras and museums, leafier squares, safer streets, and more courteous inhabitants than any other large city in the world."
"I spent two days driving through the Cotswolds and didn't like it at all -- not because the Cotswolds were unlovely but because the car was. You are so sealed off from the world in a moving vehicle, and the pace is all wrong. I had grown used to moving about at walking speed or at least British Rail speed, which is often of course much the same thing."
"I have a small, tattered clipping that I sometimes carry with me and pull out for purposes of private amusement. It's a weather forecast from the Western Daily Mail and it says, in toto, 'Outlook: Dry and warm, but cooler and with some rain.' There you have in a single pithy sentence the English weather captured to perfection: dry but rainy with some warm/cool spells. The Western Daily Mail could run that forecast every day -- for all I know, it may -- and scarcely ever be wrong."
Newsflash: I have a new entry into my Top Ten Authors (past and present) that I would like to invite to a night out at the pub for a session of heavy drinking and tall tales.
Bill Bryson, with his sly humour and irreverent atitude towards tourism, is a strong contender for the top position right after my first experience of travelling in his company through the twisted back lanes of historical hamlets of his cherished island. Being both a personal journal and a travel guide, his Notes have been voted as the book that best represent Britain to the world. I believe the praise is well deserved.
The secret of Bill Bryson success is easy to discern from the pages of this journal: He fell in love with the island from the first moment he landed in Dover in 1973, and his enthusiasm is as fresh and as catching two decades later as he prepares for a farewell trip before returning to America.
Everything that lay before me was new and mysterious and exciting in a way you can't imagine. England was full of words I'd never heard before - streaky bacon, short back and sides, Belisha bacon, serviettes, high tea, ice-cream cornet. [...] I spent a long day wandering aimlessly and happily along residential streets and shopping streets, eavesdropping on conversations at bus-stops and street corners, looking with interest in the windows of greengrocers and butchers and fishmongers, reading fly-posters and planning applications, quietly absorbing.
Sometimes it takes a long trip away from home or the perspective of a stranger to make you realize the beauty of the land and of the people around you, and Bill Bryson is for me the best kind of guide possible. He shares my love for walking, an impulsive nature that can change routes on the spur of a moment, and equal interest in the highbrow amusements of historical monuments or art galleries and the popular amusement parks and drinking pubs, for the statistical trivia and for the scandalous bit of gossip about the local worthies.
There is something awfully exhilarating about riding on the top of a double-decker. You can see into upstair windows and peer down on the tops of people's heads at bus-stops (and when they come up the stairs a moment later you can look at them with a knowing look that says: 'I've just seen the top of your head') and there's the frisson of excitement that comes with careering round a corner or roundabout on the brink of catastrophe. You get an entirely fresh perspective on the world.
Time and time again the words that describe the places, the people, the cuisine and the culture of Britain turn into a song of joy at the chance to witness the marvels of his adopted country. Not even the constant bad weather (roughly about two thirds of his out of season journey by my count) can keep his buoyant mood down for more than one evening. Inevitably, the next stop on the railway line or the next hill to be climbed will bring back the cheerful hiker who likes to remind the reader to count his blessings and be happy to be alive, to be healthy and to live in a peaceful period of history that makes lonely travelling an attractive proposition.
Beyond the headland, the path climbed steeply to Ballard Down, a taxing slog for an old puffed-out flubba-wubba like me, but worth it for the view, which was sensational - like being on top of the world.
For seven weeks in 1994, Bill Bryson will try to rediscover Britain from the southern Downs to the last desolate northern moors, travelling alone on foot or by public transport, a decision that I will let him explain with his usual mix of militancy and self-deprecating humour:
Motorized vehicles are ugly and dirty and they bring out the worst in people. They clutter every kerbside, turn ancient market squares into disorderly jumbles of metal, spawn petrol stations, second-hand car lots, Kwik-Fit centres and other dispiriting blights. They are horrible and awful and I wanted nothing to do with them on this trip. And besides, my wife wouldn't let me have the car.
With great enthusiasm comes also great indignation at the carelessness and disrespect for the heritage of Britain, as witnessesd in the ugliness of modern cement office blocks, proliferation of cars and highways, loss of diversity and globalization, mass tourism and the trivialization of history. In a way, Notes from a Small Island is also a snapshot of a world in danger of being swallowed up and zombified into a characterless, generic shopping mall.
It gets me a little wild sometimes. You have in this country the most comely, the most parklike, the most flawlessly composed countryside the world has ever known, a product of centuries of tireless, instinctive improvement, and you are half a generation from destroying most of it for ever.
and, What made Weston feel familiar was, of course, that it was just like everywhere else. It had Boots and Marks&Spencer and Dixons and W. H. Smith and all the rest of it. I realized with a kind of dull ache that there wasn't a single thing here that I hadn't seen a million times already.
and, ... it was wonderful to be in a great ecclesiastical structure so little disturbed by shuffling troops of tourists. When you consider the hordes that flock to Salisbury, York, Canterbury, Bath and so many other great churches of England, Lincoln's relative obscurity is something of a small miracle.
Speaking of shopping malls, did you ever go shopping with you better half? If so, you will know what the author is talking about:
Shopping is not, in my view, something that men and women should do together since all men want to do is buy something noisy like a drill and get it home so they can play with it, whereas women aren't happy until they've seen more or less everything in town and felt at least 1500 different textures.
I have a small suspicion that Mr. Bryson had more on his mind than the perils of shopping with his wife when he decided to travel alone through the island. How else can one explain the detailed descriptions of going every night to the pub and sampling the best the Island has to offer in terms of draughts and dark ales and strong spirits? After all, a serious tourist guide must study and include details about the nightlife attractions of the places he visits . Case in point: on his very first day in Britain in 1973, our young author decided to go watch an R-rated movie called "Suburban Wife Swap" in order to improve his language skills and his knowledge of local customs. Which is another reason to trust his judgement on worthy travel spots :-)
Now the second rule of excessive drinking (the first, of course, is don't take a sudden shine to a woman larger than Hoss Cartwright) is never to drink in a place on a steep slope.
I thought about mentioning some of the places described in the Notes, and what makes them memorable, but there are too many tempting propositions and Bill Bryson does a much better job than me in selling their charms to the readership. I confess I have never visited England, and if anybody asks me what is my favorite holiday destination I will still answer without hesitation : Paris! Even after 15+ visits, it is still my first choice for a visit. But Bill Bryson's small island is making a compelling case for a revision of my priorities. If I were hard pressed to choose only one of the hundreds of interesting places mentioned in the guide, I think I would settle for Liverpool. It might not be obvious why, at first or second glance, what Liverpool offers more than the Lake District or the Cotswolds, but I grew up with the tales of Jules Verne and Joseph Conrad, and more recently Douglass Reeman and Patrick O'Brian, and I always dreamed that one day I will embark for a voyage around the world's blue lanes:
Once there was infinite romance in the sea, and the Merseyside Maritime Museum captures every bit of it. [...] J. B. Priestley called them the greatest constructions of the modern world, our equivalent of cathedrals, and he was absolutely right. I was appalled to think that never in my life would I have an opportunity to stride down a gangplank in a panama hat and a white suit and go looking for a bar with a revolving ceiling fan. How crushingly unfair life can sometimes be.
The rest of my review is a series of footnotes and little details that reinforce the good impression and the fun I had on my travels with this incredible guide. Do you know what the most important quality of a tourist is? Curiosity:
Why do they call it a grapefruit? Why do the British call them jumpers? Why do they call them milk floats? They don't float at all. Why do we foot a bill rather than, say, head it? Why do we say that our nose is running? (Mine slides). Who ate the first oyster and how on earth did anyone ever figure out that ambergris would make an excellent fixative for perfumes?
Do you know how to prepare for your trip? Read as much as you can about the places you are going to see (and write about):
I spent a little time watching the scenery, then pulled out my copy of Kingdom by the Sea to see if Paul Theroux had said anything about the vicinity that I might steal or modify to my own purposes.
what sort of equipment you need for your trip? The fun begins well in advance of the actual departure:
I can spend hours looking at rucksacks, kneesocks, compasses and survival rations, then go to another shop and look at precisely the same things all over again. (I wonder what his wife thought about men and their shopping habits now?)
Are you worried the locals and the other tourists will laugh at you? It's better to be ready for anything than wet and cold, so relax, and enjoy the view:
I remember when I first came to Britain wandering into a bookstore and being surprised to find a whole section dedicated to 'Walking Guides'. This struck me as faintly bizarre and comical - where I came from people did not as a rule require written instructions to achieve locomotion - but then gradually I learned that there are, in fact, two kinds of walking in Britain, namely the everyday kind that gets you to the pub and, all being well, back home again, and the more earnest type that involves stout boots, Ordnance Survey maps in plastic pouches, rucksacks with sandwiches and flasks of tea, and, in its terminal phase, the wearing of khaki shorts in inappropriate weather.
Is it worth your time and effort?
And then, just as I was about to lie down and call for a stretcher, we crested a final rise and found ourselves abruptly, magically, on top of the earth, on a platform in the sky, amid an ocean of swelling summits. I had never seen anything half so beautiful before. 'Fuck me,' I said in a moment of special eloquence and realized I was hooked.
Why would you go to a place on the map that everybody seems to run away from?
When is the journey ended? when you have seen everything the world has to show you. In other words, never:
... and returned to the station feeling simultaneously impressed and desolate at just how much there was to see in this little country and what folly it had been to suppose that I might see anything more than a fraction of it in seven flying weeks.
The good news is that Bill Bryson has already written a sequel The Road to Little Dribbling and that I have already ordered two more of his other books - the one on hiking through the Appallachians, and the one on popular science. I must thank all my friends here on Goodreads who recommended this author to me. Little Dribbling, here I come:
... about that Top Ten Fantasy Drinking Buddies, my list right now looks like this:
1. Sir Terry Pratchett 2. Spider G Robinson 3. Bill Bryson 4. Connie Willis 5. Bohumil Hrabal 6. Douglas Adams 7. Carl Hiaasen 8. Tom Robbins 9. Thomas Pynchon 10. James Crumley
It's a work in progress. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>
After 20 years in England, Bill Bryson decided to tour Britain in 1995 by public transport over ~6 weeks and write a book about it.
There are snippets of humour and insight: “a young man with more on his mind than in it”; “carpet with the sort of pattern you get when you rub your eyes too hard”; “They were having a festival of litter... citizens had taken time off from their busy schedules to add crisp packets, empty cigarette boxes and carrier bags to the otherwise bland and neglected landscape”. However the last, of Liverpool reminds me of Wodehouse's snappier “Whit Monday, which to so many means merely one more opportunity of strewin Beauty Spots with paper bags” in A Day With the Swattesmore.
There's an amusing anecdote of him asking for directions having forgotten he was wearing pants on his head. But as the book progresses, they become fewer as the amount of repetitious moaning increases. For a self-confessed Anglophile, he often seems to dislike the place, though the weather gets off surprisingly lightly, especially given that he made the trip in late autumn.
The lack of trains in remote areas is a particular bugbear, but what I don't understand is his outraged surprise - he'd lived in and travelled around the country for 20 years! He argues that they shouldn’t have to be profitable because traffic lights, drains and parks don’t. And at a practical level, he often changes his mind about where he's going once he's on the station platform or even on the train itself (i.e. after he should have bought a ticket), yet he never mentions encountering any problems with ticket collectors etc.
Modern architecture and urban planning are his other pet hates. He bemoans the homogeneity of high streets full of chains (rather than family shops), yet is annoyed at the lack of 24 hour opening and gives Marks and Spencer so many favourable mentions, I wondered if they sponsored him in some way.
Readers are treated to endless descriptions of hotels and stations, but without enough comment about actual people (with a few notable exceptions: Mrs Smegma, a lunatic in Weston, and an ancient train buff), which makes it increasingly dull. Mind you, the way he chose his wife is described in very detached terms, so maybe he’s just not really a people person. On the other hand, he occasionally throws in gratuitous expletives, which I don't find offensive, but they don’t fit the general style of the book.
Bryson claims an oddity of Manchester is that it has no motif. It's not a city I know well, but it has had The Manchester Bee for more than a century.
However, the worst offence is the lack of index or map – both of which should be essential in any travel book (an index for any non fiction book). Overseas readers might also appreciate a glossary, as it's clearly written for an audience who, if not English, are at least familiar with the country.
THE GOOD BITS
But there are plus sides, and Bryson is at his best when he goes off at a tangent and riffs on some unexpected topic.
He explains why the British would have coped well under Communism (good at queuing, tolerant of dictatorships (cf Mrs Thatcher) and boring food). He throws in potted history about the founder of Sainsbury and his mansion (but doesn’t bother to find out why it was left to rot) and the fact that the bicycle pedal was invented in Scotland.
He points out that the US has no equivalent of “taking the piss” and that while US soaps are about glamorous people who can’t act, British ones are the opposite.
Rather than extolling the innovation of the tube map (which isn't in the book), he suggest tricks to play on tourists e.g. by getting the tube from Bank to Mansion House (1 change, 6 stops) to end up 200 yards from where they started.
Best of all, he delights in words: the odd and romantic place names, the differences in usage between the US and Britain and the florid language of menus. He ponders replying in kind and requesting “a lustre of water freshly drawn from the house tap and presented au nature in a cylinder of glass”!
Overall, it’s like the famous curate’s egg: “parts of it are excellent”. I think there's a good book struggling to get out, but it needed a decent editor to make that happen.
I first read this book back in the late 90s, 20 years ago and thoroughly enjoyed. This is my first re-read, and it was enjoyable, as good as the first read ? Hmm, probably not (which was a little disappointing), but still fun.
I shall write more thoughts anon but shall leave you with Bill’s thought “ Hae ya nae hook ma dooky ? “
Ok, so in the last couple of days I have been thinking about why this was a tad disappointing, and I think it was because it was 20 years old, and it was really of its time. It was about Britain 20 years after he had arrived in the UK, but it was also 20 something years old, and that really showed. As someone who lived through the 90s, and even the 70s I loved the book originally and laughed my fao, at an American championing and challenging us Brits.Now though this feels a little dated, we have moved on, and some of our cities have been regenerated and some have probably degenerated as well.
I have this vague memory that he has written fairly recently a new critique of Britain and I will be interested in reading it as soon as.
All of that said, this is outrageously funny, as Bill is very perceptive about us Brits, and most of us like nothing more than people pointing out our quirks in an admiring manner. He lived here for 20 years and so was almost an honorary Brit and this comes across in the book, his love of living here, and how much he was going to miss moving back to the States.
Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson is an ode to Britain, lovingly written by an American who lived there for almost twenty years and wanted to revisit it before departing for his home country. I have especially enjoyed the audio version. If you do not like curmudgeons, this will not be the book for you. Bryson, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, will take you on a tour of all things great and not so great. His grumpiness, sometimes endearing, sometimes not, will accompany the reader while visiting the UK, from countryside to big cities, to small villages. His love of this country is visible in both his criticism and his praise of it. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and it made me wish I was there. Highly recommended.
It took me forever to read this because I was constantly picking it up and putting it down, not because I wasn’t enjoying it, but because it’s one of those books where it works to read it in this way, and I read so many other books during the times I took breaks from reading this book.
Sometimes I just don’t like Bill Bryson as a man. There’s a smattering of things he writes that are cruel, crass, and otherwise makes him unappealing to me, and he sure drinks a lot of beer, but the nasty material is a tiny minority of the book’s content.
He’s basically a likeable and interesting guy who is an explorer, much of it done via walking, and he has a refreshing sense of what constitutes adventure.
He’s a skilled writer. He’s very, very funny; I laughed out loud and chuckled many times.
I’ve always wanted to go to Britain so for me this was a bit of armchair traveling. Unfortunately, much of this book made me wish I’d visited the place (and most other places) at least a few decades ago. Bryson makes clear the homogenization that’s taken place at various British locales, and this book was written 15 years ago so who knows what he’d say now. I’d still love to go but I’d skip some of his destinations. He also writes much about the history of his destinations and I found most of the information fascinating.
One thing that tickled my funny bone is that when he was in one small English town, he saw the old “This is Cinerama” movie, a movie I remember from my childhood, and brought me right back to the United States of America. I hadn’t realized the movie was already old the first time that I saw it, but I do remember loving that film and other Cinerama movies.
There’s a glossary of English (vs. American English) words in the back of the book. Given that I’m a bit of an Anglophile, I already knew the definition of most of the words, but having it in the book was a fun touch.
Britain viewed through an American's eyes. Although both the British and American speak English, their words and cultures are hilariously different.
A quick look at the local magazines at a boarding house I'd intended to turn in early, but on the way to my room I noticed a door marked RESIDENTS' LOUNGE and put my head in. It was a large parlour, with easy chairs and a settee, all with starched antimacassars; a bookcase with a modest selection of jigsaw puzzles and paperback books; an occasional table with some well-thumbed magazines; and a large colour television. I switched on the TV and looked through the magazines while I waited for it to warm up. They were all women's magazines, but they weren't like the magazines my mother and-sister read.
The articles in my mother's and sister's magazines were always about sex and personal gratification. They had titles like 'Eat Your Way to Multiple Orgasms', 'Office Sex - How to Get It', 'Tahiti: The Hot New Place for Sex' and 'Those Shrinking Rainforests - Are They Any Good for Sex?' The British magazines addressed more modest aspirations. They had titles like 'Knit Your Own Twinset', 'Money-Saving Button Offer', 'Make This Super Knitted Soap-Saver' and 'Summer's Here - It's Time for Mayonnaise!'
Fun at the Hazlitt hotel Hazlitt's is a nice hotel, but the thing I like about it is that it doesn't act like a hotel. It's been there for years, and the staff are friendly - always a novelty in a big city hotel - but they do manage to give the slight impression that they haven't been doing this for very long. Tell them that you have a reservation and want to check in and they get a kind of panicked look and begin a perplexed search through drawers for registration cards and room keys. It's really quite charming. And the delightful girls who clean the rooms - which, let me say, are always spotless and exceedingly comfortable - seldom seem to have what might be called a total command of English, so that when you ask them for a bar of soap or something, you see that they are watching your mouth closely and then, pretty generally, they return after a bit with a hopeful look bearing a pot plant or a commode or something that is manifestly not soap. It's a wonderful place. I wouldn't go anywhere else.
Communism - British style It has long seemed to me unfortunate - and I'm taking the global view here - that such an important experiment in social organization was left to the Russians when the British would have managed it so much better. All those things that are necessary to the successful implementation of a rigorous socialist system are, after all, second nature to the British. For a start, they like going without. They are great at pulling together, particularly in the face of adversity, for a perceived common good. They will queue patiently for indefinite periods and accept with rare fortitude the imposition of rationing, bland diets and sudden inconvenient shortages of staple goods, as anyone who has ever looked for bread at a supermarket on a Saturday afternoon will know. They are comfortable with faceless bureaucracies and, as Mrs Thatcher proved, tolerant of dictatorships. They will wait uncomplainingly for years for an operation or the delivery of a household appliance. They have a natural gift for making excellent jokes about authority without seriously challenging it, and they derive universal satisfaction from the sight of the rich and powerful brought low. Most of those above the age of twenty-five already dress like East Germans. The conditions, in a word, are right. Please understand I'm not saying that Britain would have been a happier, better place under Communism, merely that the British would have done it properly. They would have taken it in their stride, with good heart, and without excessive cheating.
Appreciating life British style I used to be puzzled by the curious British attitude to pleasure, and that tireless, dogged optimism of theirs that allowed them to attach an upbeat turn of phrase to the direst inadequacies - 'well, it makes a change', 'mustn't grumble', 'you could do worse', 'it's not much, but it's cheap and cheerful', 'it was quite nice really' -but gradually I came round to their way of thinking and my life has never been happier.
I remember finding myself sitting in damp clothes in a cold cafe on a dreary seaside promenade and being presented with a cup of tea and a teacake and going 'Ooh, lovely!', and I knew then that the process had started. Before long I came to regard all kinds of activities - asking for more toast in a hotel, buying wool-rich socks at Marks & Spencer, getting two pairs of trousers when I only really needed one - as something daring, very nearly illicit. My life became immensely richer.
The unbelievable building of Stonehenge I was particularly interested in the Stonehenge Gallery because I was going there on the morrow, so I read all the instructive labels attentively. I know this goes without saying, but it really was the most incredible accomplishment. It took 500 men just to pull each sarsen, plus 100 more to dash around positioning the rollers.
Just think about it for a minute. Can you imagine trying to talk 600 people into helping you drag a fifty-ton stone eighteen miles across the countryside, muscle it into an upright position and then saying, 'Right, lads! Another twenty like that, plus some lintels and maybe a couple of dozen nice bluestones from Wales, and we can party'!' Whoever was the person behind Stonehenge was one dickens of a motivator, I'll tell you that.
Bill discovers the actual floor of an ancient Roman house I knew that I was in the villa. In one of the relict chambers, the floor had been carefully covered with plastic fertilizer bags weighted with stones at each corner. This is what I had come to see. I had been told about this by a friend but had never really believed it. For underneath those bags was a virtually complete Roman mosaic, about five feet square, exquisitely patterned and flawlessly preserved but for a tiny bit of fracturing around the edges. I cannot tell you how odd it felt to be standing in a forgotten wood in what had once been, in an inconceivably distant past, the home of a Roman family, looking at a mosaic laid at least 1,600 years ago when this was an open sunny space, long before this ancient wood grew up around it. It is one thing to see these things in museums, quite another to come upon one on the spot where it was laid. I have no idea why it hadn't been gathered up and taken away to some place like the Corinium Museum. I presume it is a terrible oversight, but I am so grateful to have had the chance to see it. I sat for a long time on a stone, riveted with wonder and admiration. I don't know what seized me more, the thought that people in togas had once stood on this floor chatting in vernacular Latin or that it was still here, flawless and undisturbed, amid this tangle of growth.
What Rubbish I took a train to Liverpool. They were having a featival of litter when I arrived. Citizens had taken time off from their busy activities to add crisp packets, empty cigarette boxes and carrier-bags to the otherwise bland and neglected landscape. They fluttered gaily in the bushes and brought colour and texture to pavements and gutters. And to think that elsewhere we stick these objects in rubbish bags.
Animals need more protection than children Did you know that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was formed sixty years after the founding of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and as an offshoot of it? Did you know that in 1994 Britain voted for a European Union directive requiring statutory rest periods for transported animals, but against statutory rest periods for factory workers?
How's the weather? It's a weather forecast from the 'Western Daily Mail and it says, in toto: 'Outlook: Dry and warm, but cooler with some rain.' There you have in a single pithy sentence the English weather captured to perfection: dry but rainy with some warm/cool spells. The Western Daily Mail could run that forecast every day - for all I know, it may - and scarcely ever be wrong.
Art for Art's sake in one of the salons I noticed that there was a man, accompanied by a boy of about thirteen, who didn't need the labels at all. They were from what I suspect the Queen Mother would call the lower orders. Everything about them murmured poorness and material want - poor diet, poor income, poor dentistry, poor prospects, even poor laundering - but the man was describing the pictures with a fondness and familiarity that were truly heartwarming and the boy was raptly attentive to his every word. 'Now this is a later Goya, you see,' he was saying in a quiet voice. 'Just look at how controlled those brush strokes are - a complete change in style from his earlier work. D'ye remember how I told you that Goya didn't paint a single great picture till he was nearly fifty? Well, this is a great picture.' He wasn't showing off, you understand; he was sharing. I have often been struck in Britain by this sort of thing - by how mysteriously well educated people from unprivileged backgrounds so often are, how the most unlikely people will tell you plant names in Latin or turn out to be experts on the politics of ancient Thrace or irrigation techniques at Glanum.
In a pub in Glasgow unable to speak the local dialect... The barman appeared, looking unhappy and wiping his hands on a tea towel. 'Fuckin muckle fucket in the fuckin muckle,' he said to the two men, and then to me in a weary voice: 'Ah hae the noo.' I couldn't tell if it was a question or a statement. 'A pint of Tennent's, please,' I said hopefully. He made an impatient noise, as if I were avoiding his question. 'Hae ya nae hook ma dooky?' I'm sorry?' 'Ah hae the noo,' said the first customer, who apparently saw himself as my interpreter. I stood for some moments with my mouth open, trying to imagine what they were saying to me, wondering what mad impulse had bidden me to enter a pub in a district like this, and said in a quiet voice: 'Just a pint of Tennent's, I think.' The barman sighed heavily and got me a pint. A minute later, I realized that what they were saying to me was that this was the worst pub in the world in which to order lager since all I would get was a glass of warm soap suds, dispensed from a gasping, reluctant tap, and that really I should flee with my life while I could. I drank two sips of this interesting concoction, and, making as if I were going to the Gents', slipped out a side door.
Britain - an amazing country What other country, after all, could possibly have come up with place names like Tooting Bee and Farleigh Wallop, or a game like cricket that goes on for three days and never seems to start? Who else would think it not the least odd to make their judges wear little mops on their heads, compel the Lord Chancellor to sit on something called the Woolsack, or take pride in a naval hero whose dying wish was to be kissed by a fellow named Hardy? ('Please, Hardy, full on the lips, with just a bit of tongue.') What other nation in the world could possibly have given us William Shakespeare, pork pies, Christopher Wren, Windsor Great Park, the Open University, Gardeners' Question Time and the chocolate digestive biscuit? None, of course. How easily we lose sight of all this. What an enigma Britain will seem to historians when they look back on the second half of the twentieth century. Here is a country that fought and won a noble war, dismantled a mighty empire in a generally benign and enlightened way, created a far-seeing welfare state - in short, did nearly everything right - and then spent the rest of the century looking on itself as a chronic failure. The fact is that this is still the best place in the world for most things - to post a letter, go for a walk, watch television, buy a book, venture out for a drink, go to a museum, use the bank, get lost, seek help, or stand on a hillside and take in a view.
We may never go to Britain, but we can thank Bill Bryson for bringing Britain to us.
Taking a trip with Bill Bryson is always a crap shoot.
Am I getting the funny self-effacing Bill?
Am I getting bilious Bill?
Am I getting drunken Bill on a murderous rampage?
Okay, that last one, sadly, was never published.
Here, Bill wants to get a last look at Great Britain before he moves back to the good ol’ U.S. of A., so he schleps around that island nation taking in the sights. As someone who has been to those environs or thereabouts a few times, Mr. Bryson gets it right and then some. Plus, I laughed out loud on a number of occasions. Good on you, Bill!
This is my fifth Bryson book and his approach/mood is generally all over the place, depending upon the subject of his writing or the type of medication he was currently taking, I suppose.
The crotchety scale looks kind of like this with the books listed from most cantankerous to least tetchy:
1. The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America 2. Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe 3. In a Sunburned County 4. Notes from a Small Island 5. A Walk in the Woods
The laughs are inversely proportional to the median or mode or something, as well.
Some of these books I haven’t read in a while so the Irritable-o-meter (TM) might be a tad off and your mileage may vary, so…bite me or something.
This one was a read with my favorite buddy reader of non-fiction and someone who is in the top five people I’d go on some sort of “spree” with, Le Trish.
I wasn't sure how much I'd get out of reading a book about my home country written by an American... but it turned out to be a joy. I hadn't realised, until I read the book, that Bryson had lived in the UK for many years. It gives him a rather unusual perspective on the place and makes for interesting reading.
It also helps that I enjoyed his sense of humour. It's a little morbid at times; he makes a joke about the Zeebrugge ferry disaster at one point that a lot of people may find to be in bad taste; but I'm not easily offended, so it didn't worry me too much. I laughed quite a bit while reading this book and, as I read about half of it out walking myself, that lifted my spirits and helped me stay the course. (I'm desperately trying to shift some of this excess weight I've been carrying around for years, so I'm trying to do a 90 minute walk every day. It seems to be working; I've lost about 28 lbs so far...)
On occasion, he portrays himself in a less than sympathetic light, being downright rude to various customer service folks across the country who were only doing their jobs as the company they're working for asks them to do it. Here's a tip for folks out there: if you have received bad service from a customer service employee, please feel free to complain. If you have a problem with a company policy that the employee has absolutely no control over, ask to speak to their manager; don't be a complete fucking arsehole to the poor bloke/lass who is only doing their job. If you do that, it's YOU being a shitty human being, not them.
To Bryson's credit, he usually realises he's being a dickhead on these occasions; usually when it's too late to do anything about it.
Anyway, it was a real pleasure to see the UK through Bryson's eyes for a while. It almost had me feeling patriotic for a second... but then I slapped myself in the face and started thinking like an intelligent human being again. I'll definitely be reading more of Bryson's work in the future.
I have an interesting relationship with Bill Bryson. I have read 4 of his books now, and have more on my “to read” pile. And I have mostly enjoyed the reads, but I don’t enjoy him. NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND is a travelogue through Great Britain, and although it gets repetitive (Bryson seems to say the same thing about every little town he goes through) and it does read as a little dated (originally published in 1995) I am no worse the wear for reading it. Plus I got to experience, a least a little, some moments in places I will likely never go to.
Some positive observations first. The text is funny at times. Mr. Bryson has a very dry and sarcastic sense of humor. There is also lots of euphemistic language and understatement employed to great effect. Another highlight of the read is chapter 17 where Mr. Bryson visits the village of Bradford and goes to see a vintage film called “This is Cinerama.” His joy in this place and moment just made me happy. His enthusiasm in describing this experience is contagious and infiltrates the reader. The book also ends with a lovely ode to the Yorkshire Dales, and it is a perfect conclusion to the text.
Quotes: • “…the sort of person your P.E. teacher warned that you would turn into if you masturbated too extravagantly (someone, in short, like your P.E. teacher). • “The world, or at least this little corner of it, seemed a good and peaceful place, and I was immensely glad to be there.” • “Nothing gives the English more pleasure, in a quiet but determined sort of way, than to do things oddly.” • “I watched the rain beat down on the road outside and told myself that one day this would be twenty years ago.” • “Britain is, for all its topographical diversity and timeless majesty, an exceedingly small-scale place.” • “Oh I don’t think so, dear,” said the woman with the certainty of stupidity, and bestowed a condescending smile.” • “Can there anywhere on earth be, in such a modest span, a landscape more packed with centuries of busy, productive attainment?” • “I realized what it was that I loved about Britain-which is to say, all of it.”
A recurring issue that I have with Mr. Bryson is that he is often too sarcastic and mean for my tastes. There is a hint of nastiness that seems to hang around the edges of most of his actions and observations. And just as you want to tell him to ‘sod off’ he will write endearingly about a place that he found lovely despite its bad reputation and you delay throwing the book across the room. A great example of this is when he wrote about his visit to the town of Wigan.
I have more Bryson on my radar, including the follow up book to this text, and NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND has not given me a reason to dismiss them.
Quite an entertaining book. Bryson is at his best when presented with oddities and eccentricities he can describe to, what he seems to presume anyway, a foreign audience who will be all agog at such just how different the British are. Its quite amusing to have our foibles pointed out by an American anyway, so this British person at least, enjoyed the book.
"One thing I have learned over the years is that your impressions of a place are necessarily, and often unshakably, colored by the route you take into it." - Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island
It is really hard not to like Bill Bryson's travel books. Actually, it is hard not to like his dictionaries, travelogues, or explorations of: the Universe, the home, Shakespeare, etc. He is, essentially, our Falstaff. He stumbles from bus to train, from pub to pub, from city to city exploring Britain one last time before he and his family leaves. Bryson's insights and digressions are always amusing. I believe this book sits in time (and in form almost) next to one of his other great travel books A Walk in the Woods. They share a similar Brysonesque tone and lightness. Again, I would bring back my Falstaff comparisons. Bryson uses humor, self-mockery, and a slight sneer to convey information and truth. One of the "truths" that Bryson pushed heavily in this constructed memoir (there has to be a better term for writing about an event that is designed to be written about). He is pissed that the Brits don't take better care of their heritage. They spend little money on their parks, seem to let their beautiful architecture get torn down, and seem apathetic to hedge rows. Bryson would argue that the Brits are almost blind to their own beauty. They are too close. Sometimes it takes a stranger (and a fool) to whisper the truths you KNOW are true, but are just to close to see.
Since I moved to England this fall, I haven’t done too much travelling around the country. I’ve been to London a couple of times, neither of which I did much that could be described as a touristy; the same applies to my trips to Cambridge. I went up to Scotland during the half-term and had a good time there, but I’m looking forward to visiting a few other places around the UK. Until I do, travel writing like Notes from a Small Island will have to serve to whet my appetite.
Bill Bryson is a brilliant writer. A Short History of Nearly Everything is one of my favourite books. Bryson has a deft touch to description that makes him an apt writer of non-fiction; he manages to make something that could be dull and make it come alive through anecdotes and humour. I knew he had done some travel writing, a genre that’s been on my mind while teaching AS Literature. So I picked this up during a trip to Waterstones and settled into what I hoped would be a very unique perspective on Great Britain. Bryson didn’t grow up here but has lived here for decades. Preparing to move back to the United States with his family, he tours the island one last time. The result is certainly unique, but not in the way I wanted.
The prologue chapter is every bit as brilliant and entertaining as I had hoped it would be. Bryson relates his first days in England, in 1973. He describes butting heads with the formidable Mrs Smegma, the proprietor of a boarding house and perpetually disapproving of whatever Bryson does. He reminisces about his youthful awe over the differences between Britain and the United States, and it’s a delightful prelude to the beginning of his tour of the country twenty years later.
I’d be exaggerating if I said that the book goes drastically downhill after that strong start, but it would not be wild hyperbole. Notes from a Small Island suffers from two chief defects. Firstly, as I noted above, Bryson is a brilliant writer—and, unfortunately, he knows this. Secondly, it turns out that his reactions to various places in Britain are very similar and often involve a lot of unfavourable comparisons to how things used to be.
Bryson’s wit often seems to get the better of him here. Of course, there are plenty of moments when that humour works well and livens up what might otherwise be a mundane description of his travels through Brighton or Yorkshire. Unfortunately, it often seems like his humour is there to distract us from the fact that he isn’t actually talking about the particular place in question. There are segues into sexist ruminations on the differences between men and women (and he himself labels at least one such episode as sexist, as if that somehow excuses it). At least twice during visits to Chinese restaurants he makes comments that are, if not racist, then culturally insensitive. Such moments were enough to make me feel uncomfortable, particularly because I had so wanted to find this book funny. And throughout the book, he manages to portray himself as a short-tempered, intolerant, rude person who would probably make a terrible travelling companion. To be fair, he seems to be aware of these shortcomings and occasionally even apologizes for them. But he also seems to labour under the delusion that this makes him even more interesting rather than less.
The second defect concerns how Bryson describes the way the places he visits have changed over the decades. In almost every case, he manages to point out how development and change has ruined a city. He laments the arrival of indoor shopping malls and the slow destruction of Britain’s hedges. He complains about the motorways, about the rail system, about the distribution and diversity of restaurants. It wouldn’t be so bad if each successive chapter weren’t just more of the same. It’s as if he set out not just to tour Britain but to find as much fault with it as possible in order to justify his relocation to the United States. For someone who claims to love the country—and he does make several keen observations in favour of Britain and its people—he spends a lot of time sounding like someone who doesn’t want kids on his lawn.
It’s not all bad news. There is charm to be had in Notes from a Small Island. Bryson shares in common with certain humour writers that talent to transform what are assuredly mild incidents in their lives into wild, slightly absurd anecdotes that nevertheless have the ring of truth. These otherwise excellent moments are spoiled by how repetitive Bryson manages to make the book feel. After the first few chapters, the novelty has worn off. As I approached the end of the book, I was paying very little attention to what he was actually saying, because it felt like more of the same.
Notes from a Small Island doesn’t replicate the sense of wonder and enjoyment I derived from A Short History of Nearly Everything. It doesn’t quite give me a sense of the country in which I’m living either. Instead, it’s more like a catalogue of Bill Bryson’s unfavourable experiences across Great Britain. It’s occasionally funny and occasionally charming but not the encomium of travelling through Britain that I want or need.
Mr Bryson has an entertaining line of patter, a nice, wry humour and he works very very hard to endear himself with the reader. Look, I'm a regular guy from Iowa who sometimes gets really narked at owners of undisciplined dogs and thinks hedgerows are A Good Thing and cars aren't. But that doesn't quite compensate for the fact that this is basically a catalogue of towns, hotel rooms and meals in restaurants - an amusing catalogue, but a catalogue all the same. Where BB gets right up my nose is with his quaint idea that Britain should have remained in a seventies time warp, preserving all those quirky little British things like red pillar boxes and old-fashioned red telephone boxes merely, it would seem, because they appeal to regular guys from Iowa. Has it escaped his notice that even British people now have mobiles, and no longer need to use smelly phone booths and, oh wonder, now write e-mails or post updates on social networks, which renders pillar boxes surplus to requirements, no matter what colour they are? And I got heartily sick of his rants about modern town architecture, he sounds like Prince Charles with a less annoying accent. I'm sure that Britain is not always a model of sensitive town planning, but what does he expect? Filling station forecourts with mock-Georgian carriage gates? Boots the chemist with all its products in brass-handled mahogany drawers? Ask those Thurso ladies he met taking the six am train for the four hour trip to Inverness to buy knickers and get their hair done. I bet they'd rather have a bland, glass fronted Marks and Spencer in Thurso, even if it did spoil the appearance of their lovely little self-sufficient community.
Corona gotcha down? Is your mask rash making you all itchy? Well then, time for some belly laughs while you stroll through Great Britain with Mr. Bryson.
In spite of his never ending battle with British transportation, sudden clothes-soaking downpours, and continual, shabby accommodations, Bryson treats the reader with discoveries of England’s architecture, the patchwork countryside, and the positive spirit, manners, and resiliency of the British personality.
A supremely, silly social study of the English, Welsh, and Scottish people.
Hm. I've been to England only once in my life (so far). Last year. I went to London only but I do like a number of things about Great Britain (Brexit not being one of them - surprise!). So of course I had to read our favourite grumpypants' take on it. Especially since it was yet another funny buddy-read with Jeff (read his review here).
The interesting thing I wasn't aware of is that Bryson isn't a Brit living in exile the US, but an American who married a British woman and lived in England for a while! Considering his grumpiness, neurotic behaviour and stinginess, he can pass as a native amongst Her Majesty's subjects and no problem. Well, actually, there are a few problems. Such as Bryson despising the whole notion of royalty and kings and queens still existing nowadays. He's also unappreciative of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. To say nothing of - brace yourselves - his refusal to drink tea! Then again, he does seem to like at least some old architecture like the original Natural History Museum in London. And then there is (or was until this trip) his romantic notion of train journeys.
Long story short, this is Bryson returning to England after not having lived there for quite a while and this time, even more than upon arriving for the very first time, he notices all the little and not-so-little things that make the British quintessentially British. We're talking about history by architecture as much as famous politicians and artists. We're talking about the humble way of dealing with all that history (such a stark contrast to the pomp the afore-mentioned royals represent and drag through the streets). We're talking about, shall we say, interesting food. We're talking about unique names for said food as well as places and more. We're talking about 900-year-old hedges. We're OF COURSE talking about queuing (and other manifestations of good behavior).
When talking about this author, the word travelogue comes up a lot. I usually don't like those but prefer to experience a place for myself. But Bryson has this way of writing more than just an account of his trip through a country. It's usually a 360°-view with references to current political issues, history, social topics, nature and more. All packed in his signature grumpy and somehow funny way of complaining about everything. Nevertheless, after reading about his ambitious hiking trip as well as his fearfulless tackling of the most venomous continent on Earth, I have to say that this was not his best - though it still made me chuckle quite a few times.
To start with I am a Bill Bryson fan. I laugh loudly at his humour which can be scathing. I love his travelogues. In this journey he travels through England, Wales and Scotland (but the last two probably make for only one-quarter of the book).
Even though, aside from a few days in London some years back, I have not ventured in the British Isles I thoroughly enjoyed and felt a part of this trip with Bill Bryson. It was like I was sitting or walking beside him on the trains, buses and hikes he took. But I would certainly not be the one to go to pubs. I am sure the expense would be prohibitive and I much prefer having a glass of wine or beer on my deck outside (weather dependent) or inside on the living room couch whilst reading a book and quietly listening to music.
This book does contain many British expressions (car park, crisps, chips (what we over here call French fries) and references to British personalities unknown to me.
I much enjoyed the erudite writing style and the informative presentation of his travels.
Bill Bryson is never afraid to criticize or mock anyone. He loves, praises and admires the British landscape and the country villages, but these too, do not escape his biting wit.
Page 129 (my book)
As I left the gardens and walked back towards the palace, I took the opportunity to study the miniature steam train. It ran over a decidedly modest length of track across one corner of the grounds. The sight of fifty English people crouched on a little train in a cold grey drizzle waiting to be taken 200 yards and thinking they were having fun is one that I shall not forget in a hurry.
Easily my favourite Bryson book and one I happily recommend as a light hearted introduction to Britain.
Bryson is the perfect coffee and a doughnut writer. You can read him while concentrating on your coffee and it will pass your time pleasantly, maybe you won't gain anything from this exercise, no wisdom, no insight, no sudden new understanding but he won't cost you anything either
I want to say this is the ultimate travelogue of a fascinating and exotic foreign country, but in point of fact, it's ENGLAND, and while it is fascinating and exotic even to people who are familiar with the English language, it is still ENGLAND.
I don't know about anyone else, but I liked the disconnect. I especially liked all bits that made fun of the oddball naming conventions not limited to food or towns. But for other countries somewhat familiar with the English language, we all know that England is the REALLY ODD practitioner of the language. Messed up. Bangers and Mash. Truly, this book is NOT x-rated.
But, all told, this book is mild, humorous, personal, and it shows the love for the country. Not only that, but Scotland gets a little love, too! :) Truly, I feel like I did a lot of traveling across the English countryside. Most of it on foot! But at least I got a lot of beer. :)
This is the second time I have read this book and since my initial introduction to Bryson, I have gotten used to his sometimes snide comments by reading some of his others works. It brought up my rating from my original review which is found below.
"Being an Anglophile I knew I would like this book and I did.....at least most of it. Bryson, who lived in the UK for a number of years, writes this as a farewell to the "sceptered isle". Having spent time in England I could relate to some of the anecdotes and much of it was hilarious...... but there was a snide undertone which I did not like. This may just be his style since I have not read any of his other books but it was somewhat irritating to this reader. That aside, it was a lot of fun and overall I enjoyed it."
I have never been more shocked by a book and author! I had heard older family members in my life mention this guy and really love him. I thought I was going to love it! This book was boring with only occasional bursts of laughter. Two stars for my occasional bursts.
Bryson is a baby boomer - 70 now, I think. Yet I can't believe he was only 45 when he wrote this because he sounded like a frumpy, dorky, grumpy, curmudgeon throughout the whole travelogue. And not one of those cute curmudgeons, actually...kind of mean.
I just read a ton of reviews and "Liked" a few. The GR reviewers did a better job than I will here in trying to describe it.
The first 10 pages were excellent and I was so excited! Maybe because it's one of the only times PEOPLE are described or involved in this story (because it was a brief prologue of him arriving in England in 1973 at age 22). After that prologue, it's this weird trip. He keeps acting like a hiker, yet is in terrible shape, but not really self-effacing about it. It's more like "why is this damn ground so uneven!" He complains constantly about modern buildings, and other things he doesn't like, but then says, I like this place. You do? I've been on tour groups before with people like this - awful. I read someone say that it was like he didn't really want to take this trip, but his publisher said he needed to do it.
Of course, at the end is the famous "McDonald's scene". Literally turned my stomach. Again, there was NOTHING funny about berating a retail clerk who is just trying to do their job. There were also several close-to-racist remarks and lots of issues with "fat people" - um, you're fat, Bill.
Worst of all, as I was reading I kept thinking, damn, this guy is really impressed with himself. He came across as quite arrogant. He only seems to like book stores and is always looking for his own books - what the hell? He never talks to anyone. We never get the viewpoint of a native Brit or locals that he meets along the trip. He doesn't meet anyone! He's very detached. He keeps saying he loves a nice pub, but he never joins in any conversation. I love pubs, dive bars, taverns - all because I love PEOPLE and hearing their stories. This was just Bryson saying, "and next I went here, and next I went here, and the stupid train was late"....it just got worse and worse.
I guess folks say that his other books are really great, including A Walk in the Woods so it sounds like I started with the wrong book! I'll stay open to future reads, but for now I prefer to remember England the way I discovered it in 1987 and hope I never run into Bryson on one of my travels!
I only got about a third of the way through this book. I was giving Bill Bryson one more chance to impress me, but he didn't quite do it.
I would recommend this book for anyone who has lived in England, as many of the references in the book would escape someone who has not spent much time there. However, I was just never pulled in by his narrative.
I felt like Bryson writes with a perennial smirk on his face, laughing at his own cleverness as he pens various turns of the phrase. But a few funny sentences here and there, sprinkled with snarky comments and occasional self-deprecation to balance out the outwardly directed criticism do not add up to something that keeps me interested enough to read the whole book.
Bryson, true to spirit, makes you laugh at everything about the place and fall in love with the place at the same time. No wonder for years the Brits have considered this the most representative travel book about themselves. Full review to follow.
I studied for a summer in Bath, adore Wimbledon, and I am a huge fan of Shakespeare and most of literary canon which can be defined as British Lit, so I think I've always had a special place in my heart for the UK, particularly England.
Also, this was introduction to Bryson and I was enchanted with his witty and slightly snarky prose that teach and amuse simultaneously!
A favorite moment: hiking in a rainstorm and reaching the summit to find a cadre of Brits huddled together eating soggy sandwiches, apparently quite content.
Bryson has a way of softly poking fun at the quirks of a culture and its people, but also presenting it all as charming and rather wonderful.
I recommend this book to anyone who has traveled or plans on traveling around the UK as well as anyone who is an anglophile...you won't be disappointed!
Ah, so Bill and I had a break-up around the middle part of this book. He was getting on my very last nerve with his sudden unfriendly outbursts to dogwalkers and jolly families enjoying cream buns. It was also rather tiresome, this carping about architectural eyesores. I get it, I do, but after a while one rather does think that the author would like Britain to return to the halcyon days, circa the late 1800s when no one had yet had the effrontery to tear down hedgerows or build shopping centres. He may well be right. However, it becomes tedious to read, no matter how many funny stories it is sandwiched between.
Bryson can be extremely witty (I know I have greatly enjoyed many of his other books) and has a knack for ferreting out extraordinary little factoids and anecdotes and fondly poking fun at the British identity. It by turns had me giggling and then wanting to throw the entire thing against a wall in frustration, particularly when I felt he purposely went about things in the most difficult way possible. I know this was written on the cusp of the internet age but surely a few planning sessions with a guidebook may have prevented all these dire public transportation mishaps and running slap bang into attractions closed for the off season - unless your plan is to write a travel book in which case it is all grist for the writing mill.
I decided to return to this book after reading about Britain in Ali Smiths Winter which is set in the early part of 2017. It seemed very quaint to come back to Bill here ambling about at a time before we had all our current woes. It made me powerfully nostalgic for the late 90s. Even if, going by this book, all that is to be found outside of London for dinner is curry, bad Chinese and the occasional Haddock and peas ?
Despite my complicated relationship with this book I am interested to see how Britain has changed (in Bills eyes) in his more recent The Road from Little Dribbling which I might need to take in small doses. I am predicting more architectural hand-wringing.
‘Notes from a Small Island’ and ‘Neither Here nor There’ are Bill Bryson’s early travelogues concerning his journeys through Britain and other European countries respectively.
Both of these books are the strongest and the funniest of Bryson’s earliest work and undoubtedly established his reputation (at that time) as a travel writer and commentator of repute, producing engaging and very entertaining travelogues.
Now very much the Anglo-American (having lived at times in the UK and now holding dual UK/US nationality) Bryson writes here very much as ‘a young American abroad’ – with all the cultural and language based misunderstandings that predictably ensue. Whilst all this could certainly have been trite, pedestrian and clichéd as well as probably unfunny and verging on the xenophobic, what Bryson does here though is very much far from that – the joke more often than not is on him and just as importantly, the jokes are more often than not very funny.
What also comes across in addition to the humour, is the open mind and love (although admittedly occasionally hate) that Bryson has for travel and exploring other countries and cultures.
Bryson’s more recent books are now no longer limited to the ‘travel’ genre and have been of varying quality; he still however produces some great reads every now and then (most recently see: ‘One Summer: America, 1927’) – but this was where it all started.
It was hardly surprising to discover that the first book I finished in 2008 was one of my comfort re-reads. For these are the books I treasure, in the absolute certainty that whenever I feel bored, depressed, tired, lonely, miserable, or just over-whelmed by daily life I can pull them out and indulge in the healing power of the written word.
And Bill Bryson's “Notes from a Small Island” must be recorded as the ultimate comfort re-read for an expat Brit; providing on every page diversions that are fascinating, enlightening, humourous, or just plain nostalgic. I must confess that in general I find Bryson's travel writing merely mildly entertaining, and inferior to his other non-fiction. Notes from a Small Island is the one, outstanding exception. Bryson finds his true metier and calling when he is explaining to the British what makes them British, and why he adores them.
Bryson rants about things which deserve a rant such as preserving hedgerows, the petty annoyances of driving, the money spent on national parks, British attitudes about American English, and hideous modern architecture. He treasures the things which should be treasured: queuing, politeness, puddings, or three dozen English people having a picnic on a mountaintop in an ice storm. He's widely knowledgeable and well-researched in Roman history, utterly insane and reclusive members of the gentry, pit painters, cursed homes, Victorian industrialists, and the numbers of motorboats registered on Lake Windemere. He's a talented comedian, turning every little story from his past into a humourous gem. He's (mostly) aware enough of his own personal character flaws – grumpiness, irrational disklikes, shyness on public transport – as to be able to make fun of them. And best, he’s so full of wonder, curiosity, and joy. He's curious about placenames, linguistics (why did they call it a 'grapefruit'?), the potato marketing board, psychology, gender differences, and the timetabling abilities of the Blaenau Ffestiniog railway.
From the underpants-clad-head at the start, to the Seattle-Carlisle railway at the end, I know I can open this book anywhere and find something entertaining, edifying, or enlightening.