Review of Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
Notes from a Small Island
by Bill Bryson
Since I moved to England this fall, I haven’t done too much travelling around the country. I’ve been to London a couple of times, neither of which I did much that could be described as a touristy; the same applies to my trips to Cambridge. I went up to Scotland during the half-term and had a good time there, but I’m looking forward to visiting a few other places around the UK. Until I do, travel writing like Notes from a Small Island will have to serve to whet my appetite.
Bill Bryson is a brilliant writer. A Short History of Nearly Everything is one of my favourite books. Bryson has a deft touch to description that makes him an apt writer of non-fiction; he manages to make something that could be dull and make it come alive through anecdotes and humour. I knew he had done some travel writing, a genre that’s been on my mind while teaching AS Literature. So I picked this up during a trip to Waterstones and settled into what I hoped would be a very unique perspective on Great Britain. Bryson didn’t grow up here but has lived here for decades. Preparing to move back to the United States with his family, he tours the island one last time. The result is certainly unique, but not in the way I wanted.
The prologue chapter is every bit as brilliant and entertaining as I had hoped it would be. Bryson relates his first days in England, in 1973. He describes butting heads with the formidable Mrs Smegma, the proprietor of a boarding house and perpetually disapproving of whatever Bryson does. He reminisces about his youthful awe over the differences between Britain and the United States, and it’s a delightful prelude to the beginning of his tour of the country twenty years later.
I’d be exaggerating if I said that the book goes drastically downhill after that strong start, but it would not be wild hyperbole. Notes from a Small Island suffers from two chief defects. Firstly, as I noted above, Bryson is a brilliant writer—and, unfortunately, he knows this. Secondly, it turns out that his reactions to various places in Britain are very similar and often involve a lot of unfavourable comparisons to how things used to be.
Bryson’s wit often seems to get the better of him here. Of course, there are plenty of moments when that humour works well and livens up what might otherwise be a mundane description of his travels through Brighton or Yorkshire. Unfortunately, it often seems like his humour is there to distract us from the fact that he isn’t actually talking about the particular place in question. There are segues into sexist ruminations on the differences between men and women (and he himself labels at least one such episode as sexist, as if that somehow excuses it). At least twice during visits to Chinese restaurants he makes comments that are, if not racist, then culturally insensitive. Such moments were enough to make me feel uncomfortable, particularly because I had so wanted to find this book funny. And throughout the book, he manages to portray himself as a short-tempered, intolerant, rude person who would probably make a terrible travelling companion. To be fair, he seems to be aware of these shortcomings and occasionally even apologizes for them. But he also seems to labour under the delusion that this makes him even more interesting rather than less.
The second defect concerns how Bryson describes the way the places he visits have changed over the decades. In almost every case, he manages to point out how development and change has ruined a city. He laments the arrival of indoor shopping malls and the slow destruction of Britain’s hedges. He complains about the motorways, about the rail system, about the distribution and diversity of restaurants. It wouldn’t be so bad if each successive chapter weren’t just more of the same. It’s as if he set out not just to tour Britain but to find as much fault with it as possible in order to justify his relocation to the United States. For someone who claims to love the country—and he does make several keen observations in favour of Britain and its people—he spends a lot of time sounding like someone who doesn’t want kids on his lawn.
It’s not all bad news. There is charm to be had in Notes from a Small Island. Bryson shares in common with certain humour writers that talent to transform what are assuredly mild incidents in their lives into wild, slightly absurd anecdotes that nevertheless have the ring of truth. These otherwise excellent moments are spoiled by how repetitive Bryson manages to make the book feel. After the first few chapters, the novelty has worn off. As I approached the end of the book, I was paying very little attention to what he was actually saying, because it felt like more of the same.
Notes from a Small Island doesn’t replicate the sense of wonder and enjoyment I derived from A Short History of Nearly Everything. It doesn’t quite give me a sense of the country in which I’m living either. Instead, it’s more like a catalogue of Bill Bryson’s unfavourable experiences across Great Britain. It’s occasionally funny and occasionally charming but not the encomium of travelling through Britain that I want or need.