Wear­ing his heart – and com­plaints – on his sleeve

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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.

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