I read the Notes from a Small Island years ago. Years before I ever set foot in UK, or even had the plan to do so, and I’m sure this book partially formed my ideas about Britain. I remember I enjoyed it a lot and laughed out loud numerous times while reading it. Because of that when on my last visit to Waterstones* I noticed The Road to Little Dribbling was half-price, I thought ‘why not?’, if Bill Bryson could make his journey again I can read about it again, with my new perspective of actually living in the UK for few years now. And here we are now.
Let me start with what I didn’t like, so I can finish on a positive note. Somewhere around page 150 I realized that Bryson always describes women based on their looks and men based on their ‘achievements’. In general his view of women is not one I sympathize with or have any understanding for, it’s simply way behind times. Taking into account that it’s been good few years since I read the Notes from a Small Island I’m guessing that what didn’t annooy me so much then, gets on my nerves now, partially because of how living in the UK changed me. Coming to terms with that I decided I’m probably not the intended audience for this book, but opted to continue nonetheless.
The other thing that I found a bit boring were the descriptions of the countryside landscapes. Bryson does a fair share of walking and I understand he tries to evoke the sense of place and make the reader his walking companion. But let’s be honest, as beautiful as British countryside is it is not one that can be written about over and over, and as any landscape it is better seen than read about.
Allow me to digress here for a second, I just started reading The Remains of the Day, there Stevens, the narrator and main character, also describes the beauty of British landscape and tries to analyse what is so special about it. This is masterfully achieved by Ishiguro in just a few pages, as opposed to probably over a hundred pages in Bryson’s book.
Putting feminism and landscapes aside what’s left is quite enjoyable. Bryson is definitely longing for the past, he firmly believes that ‘In countless small ways the world around us grows gradually shittier.‘, which I don’t always buy. Sometimes his focus on the past is almost obsessive, like when in every town he visits he checks for small local shops and methodically lists those that still exist and those that vanished. I understand nostalgia but even this should have a limit.
Let’s move on to the good things finally. Bryson is still amazed by Britain on many levels, as I think every foreigner never ceases to be, his observations are sharp, his judgements often subjective and quite harsh, as well as the ‘solutions’ he offers. All of this is done in banter, more like he is talking to you than writing, it makes the distance between the reader and writer much smaller and in a way empowers the reader to form their own opinions. Bryson peppers his narrative with anecdotes and interesting, and some boring, facts and statistics. I found out a lot of interesting things from this book (like the fact that the Tube was way, way worse in 1980’s than it is now), agreed with some of his opinions and disagreed with others.
In general I must say, other than walking sequences, it was a book that kept me engaged. Just bear in mind it is a book for boys.
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska
* In his book Bryson devotes some time to correct spelling, or rather lack of it, I must say Watersones is a prime example, to make it a conscious decision to misspell the name of a chain of bookstores is something that still baffles me. One would think a bookstore of all places would find spelling mistakes shameful.