Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

An eminently readable book and, as ever, very entertaining. Bryson had lived in England for some 20 years before taking six weeks out to travel the length and breadth of the country, mostly by public transport, before he and his family left for the United States. So these are not the reflections of a newcomer. These are the observations of a man who has spent most of his adult life in England, but he still adopts the posture of the surprised and often shocked American who is still veritably puzzled by much of what he encounters.

Notes from a small islandNow, Bill Bryson is a much respected writer, whose books have sold in their millions. One time Chancellor of Durham University, awarded severally by different bodies around the world, including the Royal Society of Chemistry, and an honorary OBE for services to literature…….. he has a lot of status in the world at large and is a household name in many countries. If he weren’t American, we might even claim him as one of our national treasures.

But this, my second reading of Notes from a Small Island, has been an occasion for studying his style and format a little more closely, appreciating the appeal that brought him to prominence in the 1990s, but also revealing some of the ‘cracks in the paintwork’ of his writing. Like many, I could revel in the perceptiveness and self-deprecating humour of many of his anecdotal stories, but as the journey proceeded, I found myself growing a little weary of a travelogue that is dominated by repetitive train and bus journeys, ugly 1960s shopping centres, the food and beer that he consumed (and the mediocre restaurants and pubs he patronised), hotel rooms that he slept in, and the never-ending nostalgia for those lost ‘architectural gems’ of the past……which in many cases were insanitary monstrosities belching out filth that shortened peoples’ lives by at least a couple of decades.

His prose would have been better populated by the people he could have met, the social/political/religious/ethnic and other experiences that would have given the impression that he was actually travelling in a country of 60 million inhabitants, and not just fleetingly glancing at environments that he pretended to understand by simply walking through them. A day visit to a city doesn’t make you an authority on that city, nor bestow the privilege to lambast the local town planners for their ‘heathen tendencies’. Am I being harsh?

As for his use of the English language, this master wordsmith had my brows arching from time to time, with phraseology such as: “but I trust he had better weather than I”, “a relative of my wife’s” and “what a remarkable series of improbabilities were necessary to its construction”.

Now some of you will go ‘tut tut’ to these observations, because Bryson is only reflecting what is common usage in modern English, but I would say that a man of his literary talents should be setting us all an example. After more than 20 years in the UK, married to an English lady and working for several reputable British newspapers, he can’t use the US/UK linguistic divide to explain away some of his language foibles.

Having said all of that, if you haven’t already read this eminently digestible volume, read it as a kind of dessert if you’ve just finished something like War and Peace, or the complete edition of the Barchester Chronicles. It will settle the stomach for you……


About Frank Burns

Looking for the extraordinary in the commonplace………taking the road less travelled……..striving for the ‘faculty of making happy chance discoveries’ in unremarkable circumstances. Click on the Personal Link below to visit my webpages.

Posted on August 15, 2015, in Book reviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I remember reading this quite a long time ago. I do remember laughing out loud–of course I was on a commuter train in Japan, so the locals probably thought I was nuts.

  2. Seems like you may have gotten the point and missed it all at once. Of course, by acedemic standards I’m stupid, so maybe I’m wrong.

    • …..probably more an indication that you read Bryson’s books once, enjoy the hilarity……but don’t go back to them, for fear of being critical. Despite my observations, I do still enjoy his irreverent sense of humour.

  3. My first experience of Bryson and a fond one, because it took me into the rest of his work.

    I also enjoyed this book because I am married to someone who also moved to England. So often I would find out that both she and Bryson agree on our odd ways and I kept saying to her “that’s what you said” so I suspect there is much truth in his observations.

    As for the grammar I used to be in a book group where one of the members would occasionally condemn a briliant yarn because “it wasn’t well written” which always really annoyed me – so I guess I lack that critical facility.

    • I know what you mean but……… a fellow traveller (albeit on two wheels), I find it much more interesting to try to connect with the people and see them in the context of their circumstances. Bryson, on the other hand, is a self-confessed loner, a truly solitary traveller, who finds it challenging to make a real connection with people. He lives in his own world of observation, and much of that relatively shallow…….but I have to admit to chortling and enjoying much of what I read, but the more I read of him, the more I detect shortcomings.

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