Twenty years ago Bill Bryson wrote a book entitled, Notes From a Small Island, recounting the story of how he landed in the UK as a young man, toured the country and what he thought of what he saw and experienced. A confession is necessary at this point. Some ten years ago or more I started that book, got about two or three chapters in and didn't get any further. I can't remember why, but whatever the reason, I've never been fussed enough to go back to it even though I've read probably four of five of his other books in the meantime. Go figure (I do love that American term). Why then was I so keen to get hold of his new book, The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes From a Small Island? Again, I don't know. 'Tis one of life's little mysteries.
So, the author was in France, with his wife, on the coast of the English Channel (the French call it La Manche, French for 'the sleeve' because it looks like one: never let it be said that the internet is not educational). He looked across and speculated as to which English town was directly opposite them, much to the annoyance of his wife who was trying to read while he was muttering on. In the end she shut him up with, 'Which bit of 'I've no idea' do you not understand?' Or words to that effect. Anyway, despite that lukewarm response from his wife, Bill Bryson decided to find out... it was in fact Bognor Regis... and then to retrace his steps to see what he now thought of the UK, twenty years after writing, Note From a Small Island. Except that he didn't want to go to the places he went to before. So he settled on a route he called The Bill Bryson Line, which was a direct line from Bognor to Cape Wrath in Scotland, with diversions as and where he fancied. And we're talking real diversions here... Penzance, Fishguard, the Norfolk coast, none of them remotely close to the line Bryson had drawn.
So, an interesting book one way or another. The author was President of The Campaign to Protect Rural England for five years and that really does show. He takes his travels and investigations very seriously and 'feels' things very deeply, you can tell. People think of Bryson as a travel writer who is funny. And yes, there are funny moments and he writes in an amusing way so that even things that aren't funny 'are', if you get me. But really I came away with two overwhelming impressions from this book. One was how much Bryson loves Great Britain, 'truly, madly, deeply' to coin a phrase. He loves our countryside, our quirkiness, the weirdness of the people. Secondly, at the same time, I think he finds modern life deeply frustrating, stupidity really gets to him and he hates finding it here in a country he loves so well. Oddly, when he goes back to the US and finds it there it doesn't seem to bother him so much, as he expects it. Which, if you think about it, is rather insulting to his home country. And perhaps unrealistic... we have our full quota of mindless stupidity or the following of silly rules here, just like anywhere else. I felt for him as he seems not to get this, plus in some instances - in regards to the UK - I agreed with his stance entirely. And yet... well... eventually I just got a little bit impatient with what was really just a bad case of Grumpy Old Man syndrome. Modern life is what it is and it's not *all* bad.
You might think from that, that I didn't enjoy this book, which would be wrong. I enjoyed it a lot to be honest. He's very good at describing beautiful views, retelling bits of history, and recounting encounters with people in a very funny manner. I laughed a bit... not as much as I did with Down Under for instance or, Neither Here, Nor There but there were seriously funny moments. It was also enjoyable to hear his views of places I know... sadly, I had to agree with his view of Penzance, my home town. And it really did tickle me that he tried to eat at a certain pub there on Saturday night without booking. Been there, done that and waited hours just like he did.
Let's face it, Bill Bryson is never less than very readable and this book has been 'hugely' popular and I can see why. I confess though that this is not my favourite book of his, but it was a decent read and definitely a keeper.