Notes from a Small Island

By Bill Bryson

After nearly two decades in Britain, Bill Bryson decides to go home. To America. But before he flies across the pond, he decides to tour the country (‘like wandering through a much-loved home for a last time’), by public transport (despite everybody’s somewhat discouraging ‘Gosh, you’re brave’). ‘Notes from a Small Island’ is, then, his parting gift to his foster country, one that will amuse any Brit with a healthy sense of humour. As for the others, this book is a hoot – Bryson cracks you up with his trademark wit, as he threads his way up from Dover (in England) though Wales (where the towns ‘had names that sounded like a cat bringing up a hairball: Llywyngwril, Dyffryn Ardudwy…’) to John O’ Groats (in Scotland), all the while remembering to go ‘ooh, lovely’ when he’s presented with a cup of milky tea. Along the way, he celebrates the beautiful – landscapes that are ‘exceedingly fetching, a hang-glider’s vista over the meandering river’ – but is not shy to criticise. The weather gets its fair-share of diatribe (‘that special English kind of drizzle that hangs in the air and saps the spirit’), as does the Brits’ famous reaction to its inclemency (‘274 people with blue lips and dancing hair were trying to convince themselves that because the sun is shining they couldn’t possibly be cold’).

It works because

Well, it’s a Bill Bryson book! If that’s not a good enough, how about it’s reputation as one of the finest travelogues on Britain? An accolade it easily deserves given that it is engagingly funny, plus, it cleverly weaves in interesting bits of history and is generously spiced with statistics – trademark Bryson touch! With an incredible eye for detail, Bryson presents the reader an under-the-skin, contemporary slice of Britain, and his razor-sharp social commentaries, encompassing the gritty and the great are especially delightful. With a largely American ‘voice’ he likens North Wales to holiday hell, rubbishes Liverpool for having a festival of litter and loses his cool, over an apple-turnover in Edinburgh. His biggest lament? Britain, with ‘more heritage than is good for them’, looks at it ‘as a kind of inexhaustible resource’. Why, in his ‘Yorkshire village alone, there are more seventeenth century buildings than in the whole of North America’. There, classic Bryson!

And this one stays with you

‘Can you imagine trying to talk 600 people into helping you drag a 50-ton stone 18 miles across the countryside, muscle it into an upright position and then saying, ‘Right, lads! Another twenty like that, plus some lintels and maybe a couple of dozen nice bluestones from Wales, and we can party!’. Whoever was the person behind Stonehenge was one dickens of a motivator, I’ll tell you that.’

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