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A few starting notes:
Written about 20 years ago, this nevertheless was on my tbr list simply because I thought that it would be interesting to see how a nominal American (with a strong adoptive link to the UK) would see Britain. Plus Bill Bryson always makes me laugh.
Before nipping off in a move back over the pond with his kids to give them a taste of American life, Bill Bryson decides to do a tour of the UK to say farewell to a land he has come to love.
This is the Britain that is truly British. Forget all the British values Bulldogs and Union Jacks nonsense that Mr Cameron is intent on fabricating, this is the true UK - the UK I grew up in. This is the land of queuing and Panda Pops and eccentrics - this is the real Great Britain. Now, I'm no happy-clappy Welsh nationalist (even if I was so inclined they'd never let me because my first language is English and I think that Cymdeithas yr Iaith need to think twice before vandalising historic buildings for ridiculous campaigns of inanity,) but like many, I have most definitely felt over the past few years that the English view of Britain only really includes England. After all, giving the same title of Prince of Wales to both Llewellyn the Last and Old Charlie Boy is down-right insulting, but thus it has been for centuries now without ever asking us what we think. This though showed me that I truly am British - it made me feel included again without resorting to God Save the Queen and Big Ben.
It's also exceptionally funny - I love Bryson's sense of humour, and his admiration for the beauty of Britain. He writes well and draws you along through the book. This is something that shows even more in non-fiction, where sometimes you can be stalled by stodgy writing and excessive details.
Not so great bits:
There's little to offend here, but there are a few off-key jokes which may offend some (including one about Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll's predisposition for little girls, for example,) but they are done in the time honoured tradition of dark humour. There's also much swearing.
This was written 20 years ago - and while it still feels pleasantly fresh in most places, there are moments relating to current events and politics which snap you right back to the fact that you're reading this with a time delay. It's not too much of a negative, but it's occasionally noticeable.
This is a fabulous book. I spent pages smiling for no real reason. I advise anyone who lives in, has seen, has been to, or has ever been interested in the UK to read it. It's worth the effort.
Originally published on my blog diaryofareadingaddict.co.uk under the username Cee Arr
Bill Bryson never fails to make me laugh with his books, and Notes from a Small Island is no different. After living in Settle, North Yorkshire for a number of years Bill decides to return to his homeland across the Atlantic Ocean, but not without a tour of the country he has grown to call home. There is not a single page in this book which doesn't at least raise a smile, and many pages evoke loud bursts of laughter. I think this book will appeal most to British people more than anyone due to the jokes revolving around the culture and values of the UK, although if you are not British this book will still be extremely funny. There is however, one huge disadvantage; this book is not suitable for public reading, as emitting loud snorts of laughter whilst on public transport raises a few eyebrows to say the least!
Bill Bryson lived in England for nearly twenty years, and as an American with a love of all things English, he was the perfect person to write this book, which is both a travel story (the tale of his trip around the country before leaving to return to America with his family) and a look at what makes England special.
Bryson is an extremely funny writer who has a real talent for recording conversations with people and describing them in hilarious style, and he is also able to make wonderful observations about the strange ways we do things in England and the curious traditions we have. As an outsider, but also someone who has had lots of experience of living in England, he is able to look at the country from a distance, which is at times incredibly funny.
The title of this seems to suggest that it goes alongside his later book Notes from a Big Country, but in fact this is much better. Whereas that book is a collection of columns looking at unrelated aspects of American life, this is one story that describes a continuous journey, and because of this, it´s much stronger. The story flows together really well as Bryson revisits places he´s been before and describes his travels, and it´s very easy to fly through it in the space of a day or two. It´s a shame I´ve read it already, as it was great fun to disappear into and laugh at his observations and adventures.
Overall, this is perhaps Bill Bryson´s best book. It´s funny, it´s perceptive, it´s clever and it feels very true. If you buy any Bill Bryson book, this would be an excellent place to start, and all lovers of travel literature should read this.
"After nearly two decades in Britain, Bill Bryson took the decision to move back to the States for a while, to let his kids experience life in another country, to give his wife the chance to shop until 10 p.m. seven nights a week, and, most of all, because he had read that 3.7 million Americans believed that they had been abducted by aliens at one time or another, and it was thus clear to him that his people needed him.
But before leaving his much-loved home in North Yorkshire, Bryson insisted on taking one last trip around Britain, a sort of valedictory tour of the green and kindly island that had so long been his home. His aim was to take stock of the nation's public face and private parts (as it were), and to analyse what precisely it was he loved so much about a country that had produced Marmite, a military hero whose dying wish was to be kissed by a fellow named Hardy, place names like Farleigh Wallop, Titsey and Shellow Bowells, people who said 'Mustn't grumble', and Gardeners' Question Time."
Please permit me a short aside to explain picking up this book. For the last week or so I have been travelling - first to the States and then to France. On my flight out to the States I read Bill Bryson's Notes From a Big Country, helping to immerse myself in the culture of the country I was visiting. To celebrate my return home, I decided to book-end my trip with his Notes From a Small Island to prepare myself for coming back to our green and pleasant land.
As you can no doubt tell from the publisher's blurb on the back of the book, Bill Bryson takes a very irreverent look at England and the people who inhabit it. The humour is of a gentle teasing nature, however, and it is clear that Bryson has an enormous fondness for the country he is leaving.
The nature of the book is distinctly episodic, as Bryson uses public transport to take him to various locations around the country. Some of the places he visits are very personal to him (the only reason for some of them featuring in a book supposedly meant to represent England). These interludes are interesting and often funny, but don't add a great deal for someone who is reading this book to gain an impression of England. He skips some regions entirely - the Midlands really don't get a look in, which is sad considering there are such lovely towns and cities littering the middle of England.
I would also take issue with some of his complaints. If he tells us once, he tells us one hundred times that he feels the town centres have not been developed with any sensitivity to the original buildings. I happen to agree with his point, but sometimes this is all he mentions about a couple of the locations he visits. I would have liked to hear more about the special features of these places - this is loosely supposed to be a travel guide after all! And Bryson's mood on the day that he arrives does tend to influence his opinion of the city unduly.
If you take on board these criticisms, then the book is a very pleasant, easy read with some wonderful flashes of humour. In fact, the parts of the book I liked especially were where Bryson interjected his wry observations on matters as diverse as train spotters, the creation of chopsticks (why?!), and a little flirtation with some sexist commentary on the difference in the sexes as they shop.
It was exactly what I needed as I returned home, especially the following quote: "It looked so peaceful and wonderful that I could almost have cried, and yet it was only a tiny part of this small, enchanted island. Suddenly, in the space of a moment, I realised what it was that I loved about Britain - which is to say, all of it. Every last bit of it, good and bad - Marmite, village fetes, country lanes, people saying 'I'm terribly sorry but', people apologizing to me when I conk them with a careless elbow, milk in bottles, beans on toast, haymaking in June, stinging nettles, seaside piers, Ordnance Survey maps, crumpets, hot-water bottles as a necessity, drizzly Sundays - every bit of it.
What a wondrous place this was - crazy as f**k, of course, but adorable to the tiniest degree."
Seriously, makes me proud to be British!
Bill Bryson is probably the funniest person alive.
A big statement, I hear you say, but it's so true. I've read this book upwards of ten times now, and every time I find a new part of the book to laugh at (or, more frequently, a bit I've read already makes me laugh out loud). I've had some odd looks while reading this book in public due to my uncontrollable laughter.
If you're unaware of the premise of this book, Bill Bryson is an American who (used to) lives in England - this book is his take on the relatively unknown and uncelebrated parts of not just England, but the whole of Great Britain, via the means of a tour on public transport around the whole island (hence the title).
In another author's hands, this would be a dull book full of historical insight and boring interjections on the journey. Bryson, however, while keeping the historical insight - managing to keep it light and airy and easily digestible) includes much more of his personal feelings about the places he goes and how he gets there (and his dealings with English people and terminology) makes this book an absolute delight to read.
Before Bill Bryson moved back to America after 20 years of living in Britain, he wanted to take one last tour of this small island to properly say goodbye.
Travelling mainly on foot and public transport, Bryson spends a lot of time in coastal towns which inspired my recent trip to Weston-super-Mare. The enjoyment of that trip alone is reason to recommend this book but I digress.
The magic of Bryson's writing is that he converses with so many locals and really paints a picture. One of his greatest traits is his ability to be informative yet casual, often taking tangents that are brilliantly entertaining. And of course, he is hilarious.
The comedy starts early on with his description of Dover and the regulars in the guesthouse in which he stays. I'm not going to spoil it for you but it's very funny.
The thing that strikes you the whole way through is that although this is technically travel writing, this book actually serves a method of portrayal of British people, their quirks and eccentricities.
This is a much recommended book but I would not recommend it as an introduction to Bryson.
Paperback: 282 pages
This was the first book that I read of Bill Brysons. One of my friends recommended his books. She really enjoyed him and found him very funny. On reflection, I enjoyed this book, but I do not think I would read any of his other books. What I most enjoyed about this book was reading about ciities and places that I had visited or would like to visit after reading about them. (After reading about Salisbury, I would love to book a visit there) I do not think that I would enjoy a book based on Europe or America.
I found the book slightly funny in places, but not as funny as I thought I would. I had heard so many people say that Bill Bryson was really funny, I was expecting more humour.
Bill moved to the UK with his family and he was returning to America. This trip was a final farewell to the UK before he left. He sails into Dover and then travels around the country, normally using public transport and staying in B&Bs. Some of his comments on the English habits and ways of life are interesting and thought provoking.
I think a lot of people do not take the chance to see their own country, and so quickly travel abroad on holiday. This book does give you a flavour for cities and places around the UK.
Bill writes in a colloqial and easy style of read. He writes what he is thinking and it is very easy to read. I did find it a bit slow in places.
Bryson delivers, in parts, an hilarious book based on his observations of British culture as he travels around the country. I say hilarious in parts, though, because while being extremely funny, his understanding of the history and the development of the British ways of life make it also a very poignant, and sometimes quite sad book.
This is not a travel book in the true sense of the word. It is not written for people who visit Britain and want to see the sights and catch up on the history, it is written for the British, and uses the sense of nostalgia in the same way that Peter Kay does in his comedy- the book is at it's best only if Bryson's experiences mean something to the reader.
Bryson's strength as a writer is that he is able to pick up on the tiny idiosyncracies of a nation and present them back to the reader in a fresh and insightful way, sometimes this makes for hilarious results, and other times it highlights just what corporate conglomeration, mass media representation and governmental 'advances' now deprives us of- the true freedom of eccentricity. Bryson seems to miss his good old days, his early years in this country.
Bryson succeeds in making us laugh out loud at the 'old Britain' while at the same time mourn it's demise, which I'm sure is exactly what he intended to do.
This has got to be my all time favorite of Bill Bryson's books.
Notes from a small Island takes in everything british. It is a funny read and you find yourself laughing out loud in public at some of the things he writes about.
The book basically takes you around Britain, taking in all the typical british things, for example trying to park a car in a multistory car park, his comments on Blackpool Illuminations "Blackpool's Illuminations,"" he says, ""are nothing if not splendid, and they are not splendid." He visits a lot of places throughout the UK on his 7 week trip before returning to his home country including Bradford which left him with nothing but this comment "Bradford's role in life, is to make every place else look better in comparison, and it does this very well."
This is what the book is like all the way though, funny comments and opinions about our beloved Brighty, and no matter how much it seems that he dislikes this place, he simply can't get enough of it.
A must read for anyone who likes a bit of comedy, travel or Britain.
I don't want to say anything more as I don't want to spoil it, all I can say is read it for yourself!
Bill Bryson's take on various aspects of Britain in travel diary format.
As an American living in Britain for around 20 years, the book is written around a last 'road trip' (mainly on public transport) around Britain before moving back to the States.
Being British myself I found a lot of the anecdotes and factoids amusingly familiar and true! It's written in his usual light hearted style with a number of moments that had me laughing out loud... his humour is great even on repeated readings and I've returned to this book quite a few times since the first reading.
Although it's in chapter format (unlike his book "Notes from a Big Country" which is in 'essay' format, having been published originally as separate columns) it's possible to dip in and out of the chapters (especially if you have already read the book before).
He writes with a good combination of travel diary and personal experience and insights - I have never met him personally but get the impression he would be quite good company to chat to in view of always having a suitable anecdote!
As a more general note, I've read most of his other books and would also recommend them. Mostly of the travel writing format, but one ('A Short History of the Nearly Everything') being based more on science and the natural world, though presented in a similar format.
Highly recommended as light reading especially if you are British or familiar with Britain yourself and can appreciate the references!
Bill Bryson is a well known travel writer, and this time it's our very own United Kingdom under his humorous microscope. After almost 20 years' living in the UK, the Bryson family are returning to the USA so Bill decides to take one last jaunt across our island, revisiting old favourites and finally checking out places he always meant to visit but never quite got around to until now.
Bill Bryson grew up in Iowa, USA in the 1950s (as he describes in his autobiography 'The life and times of the thunderbolt kid') and has since travelled much of the world, writing around 10 books based on these explorations, including 'The lost continent' (America), 'Neither here nor there' (Europe) and 'Down Under' (Australia). He has a highly unique writing style that is rather sarcastic and occasionally a bit 'grumpy old man' but always absolutely hysterical. His observations of his own and foreign cultures always nail that culture to a 'T', often with comments about something that you'd never really noticed yourself but as soon as you read it you're nodding and going 'that is sooo true!'. The witty stories are always cleverly interwoven with well-researched, interesting background information, facts and figures. Personally I love his writing style (and secretly wish I was brave enough to say the rather succinct things he says to the complete imbeciles he meets!) and would recommend any of his books without hesitation.
In 'Notes from a small island' Bryson explores the cities, countryside and culture of Great Britain, pondering the unique idiosyncrasies that make our country so interesting. Although American, Bryson lived and worked in the UK for almost 20 years so he has a good grounding in the niceties of British life and has had time to get acquainted with some of those strange tics that you wouldn't find anywhere else. In true Bryson style, right from the start of the book he was pointing out, with precise accuracy, the things in British life that I completely take for granted but that, viewed by a stranger to the lands, are, it has to be admitted, a bit odd. For instance, he explains that while staying in Dover in a boarding house, the landlady came into the residents' lounge with tea and biscuits and 'everyone stirred friskily to life, rubbing their hands keenly and saying, 'Ooh, lovely.' To this day, I remain impressed by the ability of Britons of all ages and social backgrounds to get genuinely excited by the prospect of a hot beverage.' This is a very astute observation - who among us hasn't sat in a tearoom on a washed-out holiday with howling gales outside, but when they bring over your cup of tea suddenly everything is all right with the world and your holiday's ok after all? (well, I have anyway). It's so British, it's brilliant.
These hitting the nail on the head observations continue as Bryson braves buses, trains, hiking and the occasional hire car to visit old and new haunts in London, Bournemouth, Exeter, Oxford, Porthmadog, Liverpool, Bradford, Glasgow, Inverness and John O'Groats, among others. His slightly potted route varied according to places he used to live and wanted to re-visit, places he'd heard of and always meant to visit, places that sounded interesting as his train went past, and places that happened to be the first train out of the current hellhole he was in. Thus, he sees an eclectic mixture of cities, historic towns, new towns, and countryside. His adventures in each are faithfully recounted, although sometimes somewhat exaggerated for comedic effect (I hope!): 'By mid-afternoon I found myself increasingly crawling under barbed wire, fording streams with my pack on my head, wrenching my leg from bear traps, falling down, and longing to be elsewhere.' Personally this is exactly my sense of humour and my husband was rather disturbed by me continually laughing out loud as I read.
What really makes this book, as a Brit, is that, despite the large number of unique 'interesting' traits us British have, and once Bryson starts pointing them out you notice we have a lot, Bryson does genuinely like Britain and the British, so while pointing out our oddities as the craziness they are, he does so with good humour and warmth. It is, after all, these strange cultural quirks that make us British. Bryson writes colourfully, bringing the UK to life for those who have never visited and sending the rest of us into flashes of recognition of ourselves and our island co-habiters. The book is full of interesting information that I certainly never knew about our island - did you know we have 12,000 medieval churches and 600,000 known sites of archaeological interest, for example? - and although Bryson does take the piss out of us, he does it engagingly and in the knowledge that he actually loves Britain and will miss it greatly on his return to the USA, so it doesn't jar with a British reader. I'd thoroughly recommend reading this, or any Bryson book, to any travel writing fan, although some people may be offended as he does swear quite a bit, particularly when having a bad British Rail day (completely understandably!).
I'll finish with one of my favourite quotes from the book: 'I have a small, tattered clipping that I sometimes carry with me and pull out for purposes of private amusement. It's a weather forecast from the Western Daily Mail and it says, in toto: 'Outlook: Dry and warm, but cooler with some rain.''
Thanks for reading :)
This is my favourite Bill Bryson book and I have read it many many times. It tells of
his travels around the uk when he first visited here from the United States as a youth
in the seventies. I know a lot of the places he visits and some of his observations are
incredibly accurate. I've discussed the book with friends who don't like Bryson's
writing because they feel he is patronising to the British people but if you read any of
his books he writes the same way about all the places he visits including the United
States. The book is very funny with lots of laugh out load moments and can easily be
read time and again. My favourite part is when he wakes up in a bus shelter with his
under pants on his head! Sometimes the humour can be a little childish but on the
whole this is a very good book. You really should read this book! He has also written
similar books about Europe, America and Australia.
Whats is all about?
Shelf-marked as a travel humour book this is indeed travel with humour at its core. The entertaining experiences told of one last trip an American man makes around Britain, after living in Yorkshire for almost twenty years. As he visits the nooks and crannies far and wide - from John O Groats to Exeter from Dover to Portmadog, he attempts to dissect the essence of inherent Britishness, wryly observing our old-fashioned ways, and reaffirming his love for the landscape and curiosities of our small island.
What has made it so popular?
Over 10 years have passed since this huge best seller was published and I can see why it was so popular. It came out in 1995 - a time when Cool Britannia ruled the airwaves and we regained a sense of patriotic fervour.
Us Brits have a habit at poking fun at ourselves and he does the same without being too rude or self-indulgent in any way but with reverence for the things which make us different. In a way hes one of us.
Spot on observations
In many parts, like the preserved check-table-clothed teashops of seaside towns, times havent changed since he wrote the book. Others where our Asbo culture manifests itself and a pace of life that passes within the space of a new coffee shop opening have though. Still, the seeds of these exist in the less exaggerated form they once were throughout the book.
His comments ring true about the way we obligingly let corporate sponsorship increasingly pervade our lives with the Coca-Cola Cup, the Embassy World Championships and others. The day cant be far off , he muses, when we get things like the Kelloggs Pop Tart Queen Mother, the Mitsubishi Corporation Proudly Presents Regents Park, and Samsung City (Formerly Newcastle).
While some of the characters and places he meets confirm to the stereotype - prim and proper landladies from B&Bs, anorak-clad train-spotters, he need make no apology for that. He speaks as he finds and his observations, made with frank and dry wit, are nonetheless captivating to read. Like the landlord who despite having his hotel door rattled by an abusive, disgruntled Bryson in the small hours, managed to appease the situation with typical English dignity using a round of sandwiches and copious apologies.
British culture from an outsiders perspective
Many tourists come back to Britain time and time again to soak up its quaint old-fashioned character. Bryson is perhaps no different to them.
Upon finding a section of Walking Guides in a bookstore he is puzzled and amused adding, Where I come from people did not as a rule require written instructions to achieve locomotion, but later realised this was a pursuit that involved stout boots.
He revels in the beauty of Britain. And deplores the sense that as a nation we dont care enough about losing the beautiful historical architecture we have and which America somewhat lacks. He once laments about despite Britain having the stockpile of old buildings (in his Yorkshire village there are more seventeenth century buildings than in the whole of North America), even in conservation areas a houseowner can put up stone-cladding, replace all the windows and doors, and the like, all within the law. And cant see why we would want to substitute red telephone boxes for what he calls shower stalls.
A bit of a prince Charles character is some ways. But then even he wouldnt describe the coast of North Wales looking like [from the train] as endless ranks of prison-camp caravan parks.. an odd holiday option that would involve crossing the rail line and dual carriageway and hiking over a desert of sinkholes in order to dip your toes in a distant sea of Liverpool turds.
Places on his itinerary
Much of Britain he explores by public transport which means that the places much of us work and live in (off the map of any tourist itinerary) dont get much of a look in. A bit disappointing but then there is always a danger of that when youve got some many places to visit and some many things to do. Most of the towns throughout this land are desperate clones of each other anyway so perhaps he has spared us the boredom of reading about them. Some towns turned into what we now call High Street Clones get picked out though.
Among the places he visits (in no particular order): London, Windsor, Stonehenge, Manchester, Milton Keynes, Cambridge, Blackpool, Barnstaple, Weston-super-Mare, Lyme Regis, Harrogate, Bradford, Lincoln, Retford (wheres that?), Llandudno, Glasgow plus lots of towns and little villages in between.
Theres a quite a funny bit where he groups villages together giving them a whole new meaning. Ones that sound like skin complaints - Scabcleuch, Whiterashes Scurlage, Sockburn; others that have an attitude problem - Seething, Mockbeggar, Wrangle etc.
Bill Bryson has published several books based on his travels around different parts of the world:
The Lost Continent
Neither Here Nor There
Made in America
Walk in the Woods
Out of the lot though this is my favourite. I would say unlike in his other books, his travels in Notes From A Small Island seem to arrive at him realising something new about the country he already thought he knew a lot about. While much of what he encounters may not be new to us the main pleasure of this book is reading how he discovers them.
In all I highly recommend you to read this book. Although some of the places he visits are hardly hotspots for culture or anything else for that matter, you can gloat in the satisfaction that you havent had to go there to find that out yourself. A guide to Britain thats not afraid to go to the rough parts.
Above all, its funny throughout, includes sharp observations of British people, places and culture and with lost of captivating tales from his travels.
About the author
Bill Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa in 1951. In 1977 he settled in England with his English wife and four children and lived here for around 20 years before making the move back to America.
* Published by Doubleday/ Black Swan 1996
* 352 pages
* Original price £6.99
* I picked mine up from the most British of shopping experiences - a car boot sale - for the quaint old price of 20 pence.
Previously published by myself, aka simoncjones, at Ciao
I have to say I am not a massive fan of Bryson, I found a lot of his stuff condescending (the European book), boring (Walk in the Wood) or rather adolescent (flatulence based humour); but this was the first book of his that I ever read and it my mind remains his best one (I use it as my bath/toilet book a lot).
'Notes' is essentially an account of a journey that Bryson makes round Great Britain some time in the early 90's after deciding that he will leave UK and go back to the United States. He starts with a recollection of his first arrival in Dover good 20 years before (this *IS* truly hilarious, had me actually laughing out loud, even at the adolescent humour, I have to admit) and then repeats the Calais-Dover journey and continues the tour (mostly by public transport) that takes in - amongst others - London's Wapping; Dorset Coastal Path, Salisbury, Lincoln, Liverpool, Bradford, Port Sunlight, Edinburgh, Inverness and Wick.
There is, as a cover-quoted reviewer noticed, as much of Bryson in this book as of Britain; and I have to say that as much as I enjoyed the 'Britain' element, I wasn't particularly enamoured with the 'Bryson' ones.
Granted, he manages a non-scatological joke from time to time and he is often pleasantly (and Britishly) self-depreciating which lightens the book and gives it a personal angle, so important in any travelogue. I have to admit to nodding several times while reading some of his more sarcastic comments on British peculiarities including saying sorry when somebody steps on your toe and belief that jam and rasins are exciting igredients in a pudding and the fact that NATIONAL Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children was established 60 years after the ROYAL Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
But his political attitudes are annoying: it's not that he is a hard-line conservative, he has a healthy dose of the New-World mistrust of the class system (especially as related to the land-woning aristocracy and their rights) but some of his comments seem naive at best. The worst part of the book is a long and rather ranting story of the London printers' strike at the time of Rupert Murdoch taking over). His obsession with conservation of architecture but especially of the lovely English countryside, verges on pathological.
On the other hand, the book is not just a catalogue of Bryson jokes, there is a lot of rather nicely done if somehow idiosyncratic description there and some chapters are gems of light travel writing. He seems decidedly better at describing cities and town than countryside: I enjoyed his notes on Salisbury, Durham and Morecambe particularly, while the interest in the peculiar, obscure and not-so-well-known was well served by his accounts of places like Saltire or Welbeck Abbey. In his - much too brief for my liking - account of Scotland Bryson seems to fall into the condescending mode he adopted in his book about Europe.
Research in this book is of bit, how to say it, variable quality. On some subjects - the ones he is interested in - Bryson is extremely detailed, on others what seems like purposefully ignorant (his view of Beatrix Potter); but overall I learned some facts I have not known before.
All in all, 'Notes from the Small Island' present an informative, personal and mostly warm portrait of this island and its inhabitants. Bryson shows the British how lovable they really are and how quirkily interesting, beautiful and worth knowing their land is; and he does a decent enough job of it especially as the whole thing is injected with vast quantities of the quality so admired by the natives: humour. If you are British (and especially English!) you will be mostly flattered: he is a true Anglophile after all.
'Kingdom by the Sea' or 'How to be an Alien' it ain't but you could do worse when choosing a British themed travelogue/humour book and if you like Bryson as an author and are not familiar with this title, you will almost certainly love it. For those who are Bryson virgins, it's a good place to start your acquaintance with the author if you ever have such a desire.
Some of the content is slightly dated, but for now the book is still reasonably viable and not just a historical record.
Overall, recommended as light entertainment (good bath/toilet book) but don't expect beautiful prose nor deep insights.
It's available on Amazon for £6.39 (paperback) or from marketplace for 1 penny (plus postage of £2.75 to the UK).
This sort of book would not be my first choice of material, but finding myself away from home with Tonsilitis and a limited choice of reading material available I reluctantly picked up what I considered the best of a bad selection, and was very glad I did. Not knowing much about the author, the thought of an American writing a travelogue of our green and pleasant frankly seemed daunting. After all England is a place of subtlety and reserve, and most of the people that were born here dont really understand it, how would a stranger from the colonies understand our ways. The answer is of course, exceedingly well.
Bill Bryson first came to England in 1973 and spent his adult life here. This book was inspired by the fact that before relocating back to the land of his birth in the mid nineties, he wanted to take a trip around the island, taking in some of the places he first encountered as a student and adding new experiences along the way. Notes From a Small Island is the result of that journey.
The first thing that strikes you about Brysons writing, is that he not only understands his adopted home and its people, but he generally loves the place. It often takes someone from the outside to understand the way a culture works and Bryson has the benefit of being on both sides of the fence. Having lived here long enough to be "one of us" as it were, he still has the ability to view the place as a tourist, ask those questions that normally remain unasked.
The second quality that shines through is the sense of humour that peppers his account. Even when in full flow pointing out the strange and illogical ways of the English, it is done with a gentle affection, never is there any malice attached. There is an almost Monty Python like quality in the way that he makes up names of long forgotten places and people. Mrs Smegma the Dover guesthouse keeper from his first days in England and The Buggered Ploughman an imaginary pub in the south west both have an authentic ring to them. He also has a fascination with place names, a theme that crops up on a few occasions.
The journey he undertook begins in Dover, the place that he first arrived at all those years ago, and then heads slowly north, taking in some of Wales to end eventually many weeks later in the most northerly tip of Scotland. The book is a mixture of the young Bryson of the early seventies wandering through the bewildering customs of a new country and the adult Bryson visiting these same places twenty years the wiser to our ways.
It is a surprisingly easy book to read, the style is very down to earth, almost chatty and the humour and a surprising amount of information helps carry the whole thing along. On reflection possible only someone looking in from the outside could have produced a book this good, most people are blind to the strangeness of their ways and its not until someonr turns up and says why, or how, do they question any of it. Take the book at face value, one mans view of the idiosyncracies of his adopted homeland and its a rewarding read. Its not meant to be a critique on English culture ot a treatise on its people, remember that and you are in for a rewarding journey on English public transport with a humourous and genial traveling companion.