Notes from a Small Island

Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson
Book Review

Notes from a Small Island, by Bill Bryson

Notes from a Small Island, by Bill Bryson. Avon Books, 1997. 282 pages. Click here to buy it online!

In 1994, after spending more than 20 years in Great Britain, Bill Bryson decided to return to the United States with his family in tow. He wanted to give his children the opportunity to live in another country, his wife the ability to go shopping after 10 P.M., and rescue Americans from the delusion that they were being abducted by aliens (Bryson wrote this book just as The X-Files was becoming a hit).

But before he left, Bryson decided to tour Britain one last time. Notes from a Small Island is the accounting of it. Bryson tramps, traipses, and trudges through the landmark cities of the U.K. – London, Liverpool, Newcastle, Edinburgh, and Dover. Beyond this, he also peruses the other Britain – hamlets, townships, and villages: Inverness (where Byrson throws a snit at two buildings some idiot architect inflicted on the town for the benefit of “two bodies entrusted with maintaining and enhancing the attractiveness and well-being of this lovely…corner of the country,” Durham – “a perfect little city,” and Halkirk (AKA “Fucking Halkirk”), famous for being the least popular posting in Britain among its soldier during the Second World War.

Bryson, who has written books on the English language as well as travelogues, has been called a cross between Dave Barry and Paul Theroux. I would agree with the comparison, especially the part about Dave Barry, except that Bryson is funny. I’d argue that the more apt comparison is to an uncensored Groucho Marx. Nothing escapes Bryson’s ire; not George III (a “tedious lunatic”), William Wordsworth (“I watched out for Tintern Abbey…famous for the well-known Wordsworth poem “I Can Be Boring Outside the Lake District Too”), or even cellphone man – “a complete fuckwit” who’s “happy as a pig in shit because he’s got a mobile phone.”

Some of Bryson’s sharpest barbs are aimed at the Tories; and justifiably so. Bryson relates that when the British seaside resort towns Brighton, Blackpool, and Scarborough had unsafe levels of fecal matter in the water off their beaches, Margaret Thatcher’s government decided that the beaches of these communities weren’t really beaches: “[Disposing] of the problem without either solving it or costing the treasury a penny, which is of course, the main thing.” After all, Bryson argues, why would Maggie Thatcher spend money on cleaning up beaches when wealthy people could always go to Barbados or Mustique for “perfectly good beaches.”

Bryson is at his tartest and most inspired when he writes about Jeffery Archer, a conservative Member of Parliament who is also a terrible snob and a worse writer (a few years after this book’s publication Archer was convicted of perjury); he goes after Archer like a heat-seeking missile. Bryson stops at the city of Weston. He lets on that his only connection with the city was that he knows John Cleese from Monty Python and that Cleese is from Weston. When Cleese’s family moved out of Weston, Archer’s moved in “Which I thought was kind of remarkable – the idea of these two boys in short trousers saying hello and then one of them going on to greatness.” I laughed out embarrassingly loud when I read this passage. Augmenting Bryson’s observations about England are his digressions on such topics as railway travel, women’s snits over male toilet habits, owning, renting, and especially talking about cars (he hates all of it, by the way). He also writes about the fascination some trainspotters have with train crashes and alludes it to a snuff film. But what really interested me most were Bryson’s intellections on George Orwell. Bryson finds Orwell snobbish, and prejudiced against the English working class.

In The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell portrays them as “disgustingly filthy.” But Bryson’s experience with his in-laws, who came from dire poverty, is exactly the opposite: “[T]hey were the most fastidiously scrubbed people imaginable.” Bryson continues that “For all of his professed sympathy for the masses, you would never guess from reading Orwell that they were capable of any higher mental talents.” Orwell would be flummoxed by luminaries of the working class, such as Peter O’Toole and Alistair Cooke. Finally, in the book, Orwell claims that Wigan Pier had been demolished. It hadn’t. Bryson writes: “Now correct me if I am wrong, but don’t you think it’s a bit odd to write a book called The Road to Wigan Pier and to spend some days in the town and never once think to ask anybody whether the pier was still there or not.”

Bryson loves Britain and the British people. He loves their language (in an addendum to the book Bryson includes such gems of the British dialect as Zebra Crossing, Dirty Weekend, Prat, and Yob.) He loves how pleased Britons are with the smallest of pleasures – Bryson suggests that socialism should have been tried in Britain rather than the Soviet Union, because the British seems to be able to cheerfully go without: “[T]he British are so easy to please. It is the most extraordinary thing. They actually like their pleasures small.” Bryson writes this is why their desserts are so much less sugary then their American counterparts. And if you offer someone from Britain a real dessert, “a slice of gateau or a choice of chocolates from the box – ‘Britons will hem, haw, and vacillate, dimly feeling that they are not worthy of such pleasure.'”

He compares the British attitude to the American one. Americans look at the world as a pleasure dome, Bryson asserts. After living in England for a while Bryson began to assume the English attitude and take pleasure in such things as buying an extra pair of trousers. Eventually he found himself much happier.

Bryson is struck by how thoughtful the British are. In his words Britons have “an instinctive concern for others.” An example of this sensitivity is exemplified at a train station in Twickenham. A rugby crowd “boarded with patience and without pushing, and said “sorry” when they bumped or inadvertently impinged on someone else’s space.” Another instance of this trait occurs when a team of British students refuses to gloat after squashing their American counterparts. The British team, beyond being restrained in their victory, seemed almost embarrassed by it.

Bryson, being an American who resided in Britain for 20 years, offers insights into the way Britons see Americans. They are fascinated out of all proportion by us. “If there is a political crisis in Italy or a nuclear spill in Kalsuhe, it gets maybe eight inches on an inside page,” Bryson writes, “but if some woman in Shitkicker, West Virginia, cuts off her husband’s dick and flings it out the window in a fit of pique, it’s the second lead on the Nine O’Clock News, and The Sunday Times is mobilizing the investigative unit.” The British also are insane about Cagney and Lacey, a show from the 1980s that is best described as Gloria Steinem meets Jack Webb. It reruns constantly on the BBC and causes Bryson not a little consternation and, at one point, a nightmare.

But this fascination with the United States blends with contempt and condescension. Bryson chances on an English couple, who realizing he is an American, denigrate the denizens of the United States. The couple deprecates Americans for their forwardness, the obscene portion sizes of their food, and the way that the Queen’s English deteriorates on their tongues. This last point incenses Bryson. He can tolerate catty remarks about American dietary habits, and even a general nastiness about Americans themselves, but he won’t suffer haughty piffle about American English, especially from a “semi-demented, over-powdered old crone.” He writes: “So I told her – I told them both, for her husband looked as if he was about to utter another fraction of thought – that whether they appreciated it or not, British speech has been enlivened beyond measure by words created in America, words that they could not do without, and that one of these words was moron. I showed them my teeth, drained my coffee, and with a touch of hauteur excused myself.”

The most glaring oversight in the book is Bryson’s treatment of Liverpool. If we were playing “password” and I said Liverpool, what would be the word that would come to mind? For anyone under 70 it would be Beatles. Now there are tribes in Papua New Guinea, isolated Sherpas in the Himalayas, and assorted Bedouin nomads who haven’t listened to “Yesterday” or “Twist and Shout,” but they are the exceptions. And, in any case, they’re not going to be reading travel books about Great Britain. If Bryson isn’t going to write about the Beatles, why did he bother to go to Liverpool? Isn’t that like going to Philadelphia and not going to Independence Hall, or writing about New Orleans and not discussing Bourbon Street, Jazz, or Gumbo? Maybe Bryson thought that the Beatles-Liverpool connection had been done to death, but he should have taken a stab (or is that “had a go”?) at it.

One other criticism: I finally found a map of Byson’s travels as I was rifling through the book to review it. It was in the first couple of pages, between the pull quotes from its reviews and the title page, where it is easy to overlook (at least for me it was). I had to pull out a bulky atlas to find Bournemouth. And there were a few villages that were not even in that. A bigger, more detailed map in a conspicuous place would be an improvement to the next edition of the book.

Click here to buy Notes from a Small Island online.


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