Wit triumphs over gripes in second look at Blighty
Twenty years ago, Bill Bryson toured the length and breadth of Britain and penned an extended postcard, the light-hearted bestseller Notes from a Small Island, which highlighted the quirks, perks and follies of his adopted country. Since then he has produced more travel books (on Kenya, his native America, and of course Australia), but also deviated from his winning formula to write a memoir, plus books about language, history and sciencemade-easy.
Bryson’s new book, The Road to Little Dribbling, can be read as a sequel of sorts to his most popular. Subtitled More Notes from a Small Island, it sees Bryson on the move again, thankfully not retracing his steps but making for roads not taken the last time around.
He sets off shortly after taking and passing his British citizenship test. On hearing this, we immediately doubt the efficacy of the project. What made that previous romp around Britain so endearing and, in places, hilarious, was Bryson’s fresh-faced, wide-eyed outsider-lookingin status. We appreciated his wonderment but relished his bewilderment: his culture-shocked gaucheries and misapprehensions, his despair and disbelief.
Surely on a second pilgrimage so many years later, Bryson the British citizen is too connected to the country, too aware of its heritage and inured to its eccentricities.
It would seem not. Despite having progressed from “Knows Almost Nothing at All” to “Pretty Thorough Acquaintanceship”, Bryson admits to now becoming “remystified by life in modern Britain”. And so, at his publisher’s behest, he plots a new route and ventures out to new places to see Britain “with fresh, unbiased eyes”.
In his Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, Daniel Defoe explains that his 18th-century travels were conducted in a series of “circuits” as he went from south to north. Bryson does something similar. For his starting point and terminus, he picks two intriguingly named locations on the map — Bognor Regis in the south of England and Cape Wrath in the north of Scotland — and devises what he calls the Bryson Line (“a kind of beacon, to guide my way”) which he only loosely follows and from which heregularly branches off.
Detours in the south include Dover, where Bryson first set foot on British soil. He makes an exception to revisit it and finds it slowly dying. Further along the coast in Christchurch he hunts down his old home, only to discover: “All the lovely gardens, all the well-tended prettiness of my day, were gone.” Still hugging the coast, he tells us Penzance “ought to be fabulous” but is instead “sad and fading”. A pattern emerges. On this series of outings, Bryson appears to be not so much marvelling at Britain’s oddities as bewailing its falling standards.
Some of his gripes are valid, in particular those concerning urban deterioration and green-belt destruction, fabricated news reports and botched grammar, indifferent and over-attentive shop assistants, and dog mess and litter. “[I]f Britain is ever to sort itself out, it is going to require a lot of euthanasia.”
However, we get sporadic glimpses of a new, grouchier Bryson, one who rather than being objectively critical is pointedly snarky. In the book’s opening scene in France, he stares out at the English Channel and says to his wife, “I bet whatever seaside town is directly opposite on the English side will be depressed and struggling, while Deauville remains well-off and lovely.” Later, he berates his young McDonald’s server for having the temerity to ask if he would like fries with his order, decides, somewhat predictably, that Grimsby is grim (“about what it deserves to be”), and harrumphs about high prices, long queues and vacuous celebrities. “The older you get,” he says after reaching his limit of suffering fools, “the more it seems the world belongs to other people.”
And yet Bryson remains balanced. He maintains that Britain is special, “a land casually strewn with glory”, and is quick to lavish superlatives where due. The Lake District is, for him, “the most beautiful place on earth”. London is “the best city in the whole world”, its underground “a larger and more interesting place than Oslo”. As he takes us up hill and down dale, and around museums and galleries — with frequent pit stops in quaint cafes and jolly pubs — we realise he gushes more than he grouses. On the rare instances where he isn’t passing any judgment, he’s either sharing historical titbits or personal anecdotes, or doing what he does best: making us snigger.
Admittedly, some of his jokes are contrived set-ups with creaky punchlines: if Australia were the only country in the world “you’d have terrific barbecues and surfing but a greater dependence on Kylie Minogue for musical entertainment than is, with respect, ideal”. In the main, though, Bryson hits the mark with his trademark wit. He deploys it to illustrate his ire (one plodding train journey is “like rigor mortis with scenery”) or to transmit his observations (Eastleigh was bombed in the war “though perhaps not quite heavily enough”), or to ridicule a place, a practice and himself (“Call me fussy, but if I ever decide to turn my colon over to someone for sluicing, it won’t be at a beautician’s in Skegness”).
Bryson concludes by telling us what he really likes about Britain: “it is unknowable”. His new tour may not have brought him any nearer to enlightenment, but his insightful and amusing account of it makes the reader that little bit wiser and a great deal happier.
is an Edinburgh-based critic.
The impression of a grouchier Bill Bryson
does not endure