Friday, 6 April 2012
Devouring Books: Notes From A Small Island by Bill Bryson
In Notes from a Small Island, Bryson basically undertakes the thrilling quest of travelling around Britain (well, not Northern Ireland, but the other bits) for 7 weeks, as a little nostalgia/learning trip before moving back to the history vacuum that is America (sorry. But, you know, comparatively, yeah..). All of which, to me, sounded like a fairly unexciting premise for a book, since I live here and all, and hey, it's not that exciting! This is perhaps why the book languished on my shelves for a very very long time, since my brain went 'ooh Bryson!' when I saw it and bought it, and then the second I got it home and read the back of it, I was like 'okaaay... maybe I'll just shelve that one for a while...'
Big mistake you guys! Because Bryson, as I've seen many times before, isn't afraid to take the piss out of things he is fond of, and he's very fond of England. That means that, when he grumbles about the fact that all high streets in England (in fact, in Britain) literally look exactly the same (and oh my gosh, it's so true! Even in like Stratford Upon Avon, there's all the same shops as there are in the nearest town to me, except they look slightly more Tudor-ish. Sad but true story.) I'm right there with him, but also when he says things like how English people think that taking one chocolate when it's offered is really naughty, and go "oooh, I shouldn't, but go on then!", I'm in complete agreement with him that it's kind of adorable!
As is the case whenever I read Bryson, I forgot to write down any quotes from it, which is such a shame because it's so funny, and sometimes crochety, and just all round good stuff, and yet I can't even remember a lot of my favourite bits. I do remember his meeting 'the most boring man in the world', and when telling his readers that the man was a widower, he says, 'his wife having presumably committed suicide', which is at once SO mean, and yet SO funny! Somehow I let Bryson get away with things that I would mostly find sort of offensive or mean, and that's down to both delivery, and to the underlying love he always always shows for his subject. In Notes from a Big Country, whenever he was being mean about Americans (calling them stupid and whatnot) there was an underlying appreciation for their politeness and smileyness, and that made everything ok, and the same thing applies for this book.
I didn't think Notes from a Small Island was perfect- there was slightly too much moaning about architecture (which are probably valid arguments, it's just that I haven't seen these monstrosities he goes on about and hence don't really care about them) because it just got a bit too moany, and it was also a tiny bit dated. This is obviously nothing to do with Bryson or his writing, but it's just that things are a bit different here now than they were in 1995- the high streets all look similar because of all the empty shops on them, and I'm sure there are even more ugly buildings. Having said that, there is still the great north and south divide that Bryson talks about, Stonehenge is still something you really only need to see for about two minutes, and there's even a brand new Tory government that's probably even worse than the one in charge when Bryson was writing. And above all, British people remain remarkably similar- the apologising when someone walks into you (I genuinely do that all the time), the innate willingness to queue, and the weird national obsession with cricket (or maybe that's just my dad...). It all just made me go 'awww, Britain!' really, and just want to gather the whole country in a big hug.
So, yeah. Bryson's really done the unthinkable in getting me to appreciate my own country more, and for that I applaud him. It's even inspired me to want to visit a lot more English places (and considering that I have no money, that's probably the best holiday I can hope for anyway!) and to possibly even venture up to Scotland one day (if you only knew how much I dislike Scotland, that would freak you the hell out). But everything about Britain is in here: the good, the bad, and the indifferent, and this statement which is wholly accurate: "What a wondrous place this was - crazy as fuck, of course, but adorable to the tiniest degree." Yep. And there you go- endorsed by an English person. What more could you need to read this?!