Wearing his heart – and complaints – on his sleeve
BILL Bryson’s travel writing garnered a widespread following after he wrote the classic European escapade Neither Here Nor There ( 1992) and gave his hilarious take on Britain in Notes From A Small Island ( 1995).
Bryson’s eye for detail and clever witticisms have been trademarks that also featured in his award- winning science book, A Short History Of Nearly Everything ( 2003) and his memoir, The Life And Times Of The Thunderbolt Kid ( 2006).
The Road To Little Dribbling is the American author’s second look at his adopted home, Britain, 20 years after Notes From A Small Island.
Moving along the longest possible straight line ( he calls it “The Bryson Line”) from the southern tip of England ( Bognor Regis) to the top of Scotland ( Cape Wrath), Bryson makes his way across the land, passionately reflecting on the country he hasn’t been able to stop loving since first setting foot in it.
If you’re wondering where Little Dribbling is on that line, you will not find it anywhere! In many ways, the colloquial title sets the tone of the book: Bryson is interested in the remote countryside, the informal names and intimate knowledge of the places in his travels.
The book mostly covers England and, as if just to check the publisher’s box, dedicates a few pages to Wales and Scotland.
Starting on the south coast, Bryson snakes his way through Dover, London, and Windsor ( where he met his wife Cynthia and “found myself falling for her and falling for England simultaneously. Forty years later, I am still with them both.”).
We spend a lot of time ( more than half the book) in the south of England, and in little towns like Durham, which, in Bryson’s opinion, “may be the nicest small city on the planet”. Of course, he goes on to joke that he was made chancellor of Durham University because of his complimentary words, though he still struggles to understand the tasks of a chancellor!
Each chapter offers interesting facts from Bryson’s unfailing attention to detail, woven together with humour and poignant reflection.
He shows no diminishment in his ability to pick the most trivial subject and spin a great passage out of it. When Bryson comes across a newspaper article about the poor hygiene of a hotel he stayed in, he does not just get enraged by it – he dedicates four pages to covering the largely secretive lives of post- war Britain, the Official Secrets Act, Britain’s Food Standards Agency and their inspection reports, and the failings of TripAdvisor. com in providing objective recommendations.
If you’re looking for that childlike wonderment we are used to from the inquisitive traveller, this book will surprise you. In its place we sometimes find a voice of cynicism and ridicule for the way the world ( or rather, Britain) has changed.
He holds close to his heart the greenery, the simplicity and the beautiful coexistence of old cathedrals and new skyscrapers in Britain, and at one point, laments, “I wish it could be that place again”.
There are a few sporadic misses too.
The complaints sometimes become wearing to read, like his rant on how the National History Museum’s atmosphere has deteriorated to “that of a Middle Eastern souk or the streets around a football ground before a big match”.
Often, his unnecessarily lengthy rambles about encounters with incompetent restaurant attendants or other service providers leaves a bad taste. Bryson seems to have aged into that old uncle who starts most sentences with “Back in my day, things were never like this”!
Though he tries to sprinkle the grievances with self- deprecating humour, these sections are forgettable.
All said and done, Bryson loves Britain and he makes it known at every opportunity he gets.
He may scoff at the slouch of indifference in a youth he sees on a bus, sneer at the unfathomable attention garnered by celebrities, and endlessly complain about the ineptitudes of the service industry today – but make no mistake about what he loves: “There isn’t a landscape in the world that is more artfully worked, more lovely to behold, more comfortable to be in than the countryside of Great Britain.”
His last words, prophetic and at the same time endearing, is a plea to the next generation, “All we have to do is look after it. I hope that’s not too much to ask.”
Photo: JuLIAN JAMes/ randomhouse. au. com.