I’m guess I’m just not a big fan of Bill Bryson’s. I have enjoyed his books, but I am always put off by his whining. Yes, whining, or as the British say, whinging. And that tone is a large part of Notes From a Small Island (1995), number 74 on the BBC book list. As I began reading, I wondered why this was chosen to be on the list. Why would a supposedly British source (as we know the list is folkloric, and therefore the source is in question) promote a book that makes fun of its country the entire time?
Well, I figured out why at the end of the book. Bryson wrote, “Suddenly, in the space of a moment, I realized what it was that I loved about Britain—which is to say, all of it. Every last big of it, good and bad” (p. 316). Bryson does really love the country, as he has spent most of his adult life living there as a journalist. But I didn’t get that sense from the rest of the book.
The book is basically a snarky travelogue of Bryson’s first explorations of the many towns and cities in the United Kingdom. He has interesting, disturbing, hilarious, and strange experiences. When telling of these, he comes across as annoyed and vexed by the incidents. I can hardly remember a good incident or happy story in the book. So the ending took me by surprise. I got the feeling that Bryson hated Britain, not loved it.
I can see that Bryson is somewhat gruff and has an abrasive personality. Many times, he recounts his outbursts at residents and unsuspecting landladys. I can tell why he is frustrated. Being locked out in a rainstorm or misunderstanding what somebody is saying can be exasperating, but his reactions to these incidents are sometimes over the top. I do appreciate his willingness to apologize for his behavior after the heat of the moment is over. I also admire (somewhat) his ability to speak his mind and not worry too much about what others are feeling or how they will perceive him. I wish I could be more outspoken and speak up when necessary, but I also wouldn’t want to be a rude or ill-mannered person.
That is the nice thing about Bryson’s portrayal of the British. They have impeccable manners. One of my favorite parts is when Bryson tells of how the people will apologize to you when you accidentally set your suitcase on their foot or when you elbow them. He describes it as “Excuse me, but it seems that . . .” and then they will go on to explain the situation, in which you are actually at fault. These manners are endearing, and I find that I have some of the same manners.
I also found that this book made me want to visit the United Kingdom again. I got to visit it for only ONE day when my husband and I went to Paris with my dad and his partner. We decided to take the train to London for a day while we were there. We woke up at 4:30 a.m., rushed to the Gare du Nord, somehow missed our 5:30 a.m. train, then got onto the next one, my dad without a ticket! He had purchased one for the earlier train, but couldn’t get one for this one, so he sneaked on and sat in the tiny connecting compartment with small fold-down seats meant for a train employee. Then we made it through customs in London, ran to a cab, and began a whirlwind tour of the city. We had enough time to see Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, a red telephone booth or two, the London Bridge, and Harrods (where the rocket salad was good, but not as good as the salads I had in Paris). We saw a few more sites (Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing Street, Winston Churchill’s statue) from afar while riding around in the cab, and then it was back to the Chunnel and Paris. It was a long but lovely (and cold) day.
My favorite part of the book is when Bryson is riding the trains and gets irritated with the mismatched schedules that cause him to miss a connecting train by minutes because the arriving train is scheduled too late. He must then wait hours for another. But most hilariously is his description of talking to people on the trains, and how he just wants to be left alone to think or read, but how some people, usually old lonely men, will persist in engaging him in ridiculous conversations. He even describes learning about somebody’s ill-placed colostomy bag (under the arm). I laughed out loud. Bryson is quite funny at times. And other times he is trying to be funny but just comes across as rude.
So I guess I can’t say I really liked this book, but I didn’t hate it either. I’m sort of neutral while leaning toward slight dislike, if that’s possible. I can see how this book would appeal to many people, however, and the humor is a plus with Bryson’s writing.
Have you read this book? What did you think?