Wit tri­umphs over gripes in sec­ond look at Blighty

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Mal­colm Forbes

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

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