Bill Bryson speaks a language happily understood by anyone who has spent some time in the British Isles, and many people who haven’t. In Notes from a Small Island, Bryson recounts his farewell travels around Britain as he prepares to return to the United States to live. Twenty years have Anglicized Bryson a bit. But his affectionate and often irreverent look at his adopted country is told with a combination of British respect for tradition and American exasperation with the disregard for that very tradition. The results are often hilarious.
Bryson begins his journey in Calais, the spot where he first glimpsed England twenty years before. From Calais, he’ll ferry to Dover, journey to London, and then set off around the country using public transportation as much as possible, and foot transportation as well. Six weeks or so will take him all the way to John O’Groats and back to his home in the Yorkshire Dales. The towns and villages he’ll pass through are places with wonderfully memorable names like Studland and Worksop and Porthmadog, as well as better-known spots like Lincoln and Liverpool and Edinburgh.
Calais offers a gleeful opening to the rest of the journey. Bryson muses on its purpose ("Calais is an interesting place that exists solely for the purpose of giving English people in track suits somewhere to go for the day"), its architecture ("Because it was heavily bombed in the war, it fell into the hands of postwar town planners and in consequence looks like something left over from a 1957 Exposition du Cément") and the quirks of the French ("For reasons I have never understood, the French have a particular genius when it comes to tacky religious keepsakes").
With his own Virgin Mary with Seashells Occasional Light tucked into his knapsack, Bryson makes his way to the Dover ferry, emerging on English soil to find the town drastically different from twenty years earlier. Georgian homes have given way to brick apartment buildings, the streets have become near-highways, and "the trouble with English towns is that they are so indistinguishable from one another. They all have a Boots the Chemist and W.H.Smith Bookshop and Marks & Spencer department store. You could be anywhere really." An observation that will strike a familiar chord with most Americans.
Indeed, Bryson particularly laments the destruction of historic buildings and their replacement with modern architectural monstrosities. In the town of Salisbury, he describes one such building vividly, if not affectionately:
" In the center of town, on a corner that ought to have been a visual delight, there stood a small building occupied by a Lunn Poly travel agency. Upstairs the structure was half-timbered and quietly glorious; downstairs, between outsized sheets of plate glass covered with handwritten notices of cheap flights to Tenerife and Málaga, the facade had been tiled -- tiled -- with a mosaic of little multitoned squares that looked as if they had been salvaged from a British Rail toilet. It was just awful…and the thing was that it was really not a great deal worse than many other frontages along the street."
Yet Bryson finds much to compliment on his travels, wonderful places found in towns that are off the beaten path or not the usual tourist destinations: Durham Cathedral, one of the finest in all of Britain. The Burrell Collection, a renowned art museum in Glasgow. Liverpool. Inverness. The Pentland Hotel in Thurso, about as far north as one can go in Britain and still be on the mainland. Witty, warm and honest, his travels will become yours as he struggles with the vagaries of the British Rail system, surly hoteliers, and English weather, only to find that part of his heart will always remain in Britain.
For anyone who has ever traveled in Britain, or anyone who has a desire to, or for that matter anyone who wants an Anglicized American perspective on our friends across the big water, Notes from a Small Island is a must.
Bryson’s newest book deals with his return to the States and is titled I’m a Stranger Here Myself. Can’t wait to go find it.