Book review: “Notes from a Small Island” by Bill Bryson

There are travel books, and then there are travel books.

One sort, such as Fodor’s, is jammed with facts about hotels, trains, battlefields, subways, mileage, restaurants, museums, exchange rates, airports, safety tips, trails, cathedrals, stadiums, cruises, tours, shopping…. You use this sort when you are going to a place as a tourist, and it functions as a handy, cleverly packaged, compact database to help you maneuver around.

The other type of travel book — such as Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island — isn’t about taking a journey yourself. It’s about going along for the ride without ever leaving home.

And what’s really curious is that it really isn’t so much about the place that’s being visited. It’s about hanging out with someone who is interesting, thoughtful, funny and alert.

That’s Bryson.

bryson --- small island


Cringe-producing moments

Certainly, no travel companion is perfect, and Bryson is smart enough as a writer to include a few cringe-producing moments like those that happen on any trip.

In Edinburgh, for instance, a “spotty young man” behind the counter at McDonald’s takes his order and then asks, “Do you want an apple turnover with that?” Bryson, who describes himself at this point as “fractious and impatient,” proceeds to browbeat the poor acne-plagued kid for nearly a full page — and then has the gall to complain that the kid isn’t filling his order fast enough.

Such moments, though, are few and far between. True, Bryson does go on a rant every once in a while — what good travel companion doesn’t have strong ideas and opinions? — but usually he’s just ranting to the reader rather than at someone.

And, even when he does rant, there’s always more than a touch of humor involved, such as when he thunders out his loathing of parking garages where, he notes, “everything about the [parking] process is intentionally — mark this, intentionally — designed to flood your life with unhappiness.”

You can’t help but laugh as Bryson lists all the many unhappy aspects of parking garages — especially when he concludes with this observation:

Did you know — this is a little-known fact but absolute truth — that when they dedicate a new multi-storey car park the Lord Mayor and his wife have a ceremonial pee in the stairwell? It’s true.


“The first visitor”

As you might guess from the spelling of “multi-storey” in that quote, Bryson wrote Notes on a Small Island for a British audience in 1995, and offered to American book buyers a year later.

Iowa-born, Bryson had come to the U.K. in the 1970s for a visit, got a job, fell in love and put down roots. By the mid-1990s, he and his English wife had decided to move their family to the United States.

So, as a sort of farewell, Bryson took a seven-week tour around the whole of England, Wales and Scotland, almost always getting places by bus or train. (His problems with parking garages are a subset of his problems with automobiles and roadways.)

Often, when he could, he walked.

And, if you like to walk, you know the experience of finding cool stuff that you never knew was there and that you’d never have come upon if you were barreling across the landscape at 70 miles an hour (or whatever that is in kilometers).

Cool stuff, such as King Arthur’s Cave:

A mile or two further on, I paused to study the map and noticed a spot on a nearby hill called King Arthur’s Cave. I couldn’t pass that up, so I lumbered up the hill and poked around among likely spots. After about an hour of clambering over boulders and fallen trees, I found it, to my mild astonishment. It wasn’t much — just a shallow chamber hewn by nature from a limestone cliff-face — but I had a pleasing sense of being its first visitor in years. At any rate, there were none of the usual signs of visitation — graffiti and abandoned beer cans — which may make it unique in Britain, if not the world.


“People in togas”

On another day, he strolled up a path called Salt Way before coming to a thick, tangled wood within which, he’d been told, were the remains of a Roman villa with a nearly pristine mosaic floor, about five feet square.

After half an hour of chopping his way through the brambles, he found it.

I cannot tell you how odd it felt to be standing in a forgotten wood in what had once been, in an inconceivably distant past, the home of a Roman family, looking at a mosaic laid at least 1,600 years ago when this was an open sunny space…It is one thing to see these things in museums, quite another to come upon one on the sport where it was laid….I don’t know what seized me more, the thought that people in togas had once stood on this floor chatting in vernacular Latin or that it was still here, flawless and undisturbed, amid this tangle of growth.

Most of the time, except when he’s “fractious and impatient,” Bryson approaches each day of his journey with a delight at the wonders and surprises that are likely to await him.

He’s able to do this, in large part, because he’s willing to look and really see. And he’s bright and imaginative enough to find deeper experiences than simply what’s there on the surface.


“Alone out of doors”

For instance, he writes that one city’s bay is “lined along its broad front with a huddle of prim but gracious nineteenth-century hotels that reminded me in the fading light of a line-up of Victorian nannies.” And that, on a train ride, “We chuntered along between wooded hills, scattered farms, churches with square towers that made them look like leftover pieces from a very large chess set.”

That’s the sort of travel companion you want — someone who can come up with metaphors like those. And who can find wonder at the peckings of pigeons on a railroad platform:

They really are the most amazingly panicky and dopey creatures. I couldn’t imagine an emptier, less satisfying life. Here are instructions for being a pigeon: 1. Walk around aimlessly for a while, pecking at cigarette butts and other inappropriate items. 2. Take fright at someone walking along the platform and fly off to a girder. 3. Have a shit. 4. Repeat.

And who can find serenity on the sands at Morecambe at low tide:

It was quite wonderful…It is an odd sensation to be walking about on a seabed and to think that any time now this could be under 30 feet of water. I especially liked the solitude. One of the hardest things to adjust to, if you come from a large country, is that you are seldom really alone out of doors in England — that there is scarcely an open space where you could, say, safely stand and have a pee without fear of appearing in some birdwatcher’s binoculars or having some matronly rambler bound round the bend…


“Immensely richer”

In a poll in 2003, Notes from a Small Island was voted the book that provided the best representation of Britain, and that’s not surprising at all. Bryson may be a Yank, but he is sloppily affectionate about the U.K.

In a churchyard in Sutton Courtenay, he visits the graves of poet Matthew Arnold and George Orwell, author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Call me a perennial Iowa farmboy, but I never fail to be impressed by how densely packed with worthies is this little island. How remarkable it is that in a single village churchyard you find the graves of two men of global stature. We in Iowa would be proud of either one of them — indeed we would be proud of Trigger the Wonder Horse or the guy who invented traffic cones or pretty much anyone at all.

Not just greatness, though. Bryson is also impressed with British simplicity and smiling endurance:

I used to be puzzled by the curious British attitude to pleasure, and that tireless, dogged optimism of theirs that allowed them to attach an upbeat turn to phrase to the direst inadequacies — ‘well, it makes a change,’ ‘mustn’t grumble,’ ‘you could do worse,’ ‘it’s not much, but it’s cheap and cheerful,’ ‘it was quite nice really’ — but gradually I came round to their way of thinking and my life has never been happier. I remember finding myself sitting in damp clothes in a cold café on a dreary seaside promenade and being presented with a cup of tea and a teacake and going ‘Ooh, lovely!’ and I knew then that the process had started…My life became immensely richer.


“Fondness and familiarity”

Yes, it’s fun and enlightening and startling and comfortable traveling with Bryson.

For me, the best moment came when we were in the Scottish National Gallery, and Bryson nudged me in the ribs and got me to look over at two patrons:

In one of the salons I noticed that there was a man, accompanied by a boy of about thirteen,,,They were from what I suspect the Queen Mother would call the lower orders. Everything about them murmured poorness and material want — poor diet, poor income, poor dentistry, poor prospects, even poor laundering — but the man was describing the pictures with a fondness and familiarity that were truly heartwarming and the boy was raptly attentive to this every word.

But Bryson doesn’t leave it there.

Like any lover, he can look at Britain and see its flaws as well as its beauties, and, in this case, he notes that he is often amazed at how many people of the “lower orders” in Britain have great knowledge about some of the most esoteric fields.

Does this say something good or bad about Britain?

He wonders “whether this is a country where engine drivers know about Tintoretto and Leibniz or a country where people who know about Tintoretto and Liebniz end up driving engines.”

That’s the kind of travel companion you want — someone who can raise a question like that.

Patrick T. Reardon

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