I’m going to be studying Bill Bryson’s Notes From a Small Island this upcoming university term, and so I thought it sensible to read it now that exams are done and I have free time before lectures start. I’ve never read anything by Bryson before, but I enjoyed his writing. It wasn’t quite what I expected: I thought it would be a brief, sometimes humorous travel narrative from the perspective of a tourist. Rather, Bryson explores British life, culture and landmarks as a person who has lived here for an extensive time. He understands Marmite, the daytime television on offer, and ever-present optimism in regards to weather. Here’s the book’s description on Goodreads:
After nearly two decades spent on British soil, Bill Bryson – bestselling author of The Mother Tongue and Made in America – decided to return to the United States. (“I had recently read,” Bryson writes, “that 3.7 million Americans believed that they had been abducted by aliens at one time or another, so it was clear that my people needed me.”) But before departing, he set out on a grand farewell tour of the green and kindly island that had so long been his home.
Veering from the ludicrous to the endearing and back again, Notes from a Small Island is a delightfully irreverent jaunt around the unparalleled floating nation that has produced zebra crossings, Shakespeare, Twiggie Winkie’s Farm, and places with names like Farleigh Wallop and Titsey. The result is an uproarious social commentary that conveys the true glory of Britain, from the satiric pen of an unapologetic Anglophile.
I can’t quite decide how to characterise Bryson: can he ever escape being an American tourist? When living in London or other big cities, you can settle down and be accepted by others relatively easily, regardless of nationality. However, I’m not too sure about North Yorkshire. I live in a small village, and people are naturally very set in their ways. Nonetheless, Bryson’s knowledge of the UK is impeccable. The book becomes a guide for residents as well as tourists, and he lists so many interesting places and landmarks that I’d never heard of before. In fact, in an opinion poll organised for World Book Day in 2003, Notes from a Small Island was voted by Radio 4 listeners as the book which best represented Britain: pretty impressive, you must say.
Yet I imagine that Notes From a Small Island would be quite hard to read if you hadn’t visited Britain before. There are so many mentions of little things that define Britain for me, but for others they must seem simply obscure. Place names, which Bryson spends a significant amount of the book discussing, can be completely ridiculous. Some of our other customs and habits are also very weird. No wonder it took Bryson two decades of living in Britain before he could write a book about it.
My favourite part of the book was probably Bryson’s discussion of Liverpool: I spend so much time there and the city has so much history. One section in particular made me laugh, although my boyfriend – being from Liverpool – probably wouldn’t approve, and I can’t say that I’ve experienced a similar situation (bear in mind this was written around 1995):
“As I was sitting there drinking my beer and savouring my plush surroundings, some guy came in with a collecting tin from which the original label had been clumsily scratched, and asked me for a donation for handicapped children.
‘Which handicapped children?’ I asked.
‘Ones in wheelchairs like.’
‘I mean which organisation do you represent?’
‘It’s, er, the, er, Handicapped Children’s Organisation, like.’
‘Well, as long as it’s totally legitimate,’ I said, and gave him 20p. And that is what like so much about Liverpool. The factories may be gone, there may be no work, the city may be pathetically dependent on football for its sense of destiny, but the Liverpudlians still have character and initiative, and they don’t bother you with preposterous ambitions to win the bid for the next Olympics.”
It’s always more enjoyable to read about places that you know well, which is a leading reason why I liked this book. There was a section about my university town, alongside London which I know reasonably well, and these parts were so easy to read.
Other chapters of the book did drag slightly, but if I had visited the places mentioned I’m sure I’d have less trouble. I know that many readers dislike the author’s style – he likes to swear a lot and can be quite judgemental, to say the least – but you come around to it. Often, after arriving at a town by night and dismissing it as a dirty and inhabitable place, he’ll wake up and sing its praises. As Bryson says quite clearly, your interpretation of a place is extremely dependent on where you’ve come from to get to it.
It’ll be interesting to study Notes From a Small Island in a few weeks, and I’m particularly curious as to how the lecture will go. After a term of The Faerie Queene, Thomas Nash, and other dense literature (in the kindest sense), the prospect of studying something modern and light seems very welcome.