I first read Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island when it was published back in 1995, and then a few years ago I picked it up again to see if it had anything to say about the Bournemouth area. It did (Chapters 6 and 8) because that's where Bryson first worked as a journalist in the UK. I can't say I found any useful insights for my holiday, but chuckled reading that the British "are the only people in the world who think of jam and currants as thrilling constituents of a pudding or cake". Well, I can't argue with that knowing my own fondness for an Eccles cake. So when I returned home I decided to give the book another go.
The main thing to note is that Bill Bryson has not written a travel guide. Sure, it describes a journey around Britain, but the chapters are numbered rather than identified by a destination, and there's no index. It's a memoir, and the places he visits mostly recall episodes in his life. For instance his first encounter with England in Dover, or when he met his wife in Virginia Water, or his first real job in Britain at the Bournemouth Evening Echo and his work at The Times newspaper in 1980s London during the "Wapping dispute".
It is funny tho'. I laughed out loud several times, really laughed. For instance when he gets drunk in Liverpool and when he can't understand the Glaswegian accent. I was thrilled to find he enjoyed the old Coronation Street Tour as much as I did, and nodded in agreement with his description of the rail journey along the North Wales coast. The humour is terribly British and may not be understood by all, nor be to everyone's taste.
If the humour's not your thing, a large amount of pleasure can be had in recognising destinations. Bryson's purpose is not to persuade you to discover new places, and although some towns sound horrible (Milton Keynes), the people are generally welcoming. Although I read somewhere that someone is attempting to recreate the tour and visit as many of the hotels, restaurants and pubs mentioned in the book that still exist.
Some things haven't changed. People still say you're brave if you're "planning to travel around Britain by public transport", and that "everyone, but everyone, you talk to in Oxford thinks that it is one of the most beautiful cities in the world". Also that "a place as prosperous and decorous as Harrogate could inhabit the same zone of the country as Bradford or Bolton". I can't speak for Bradford, but it's certainly true about the once great Lancashire town, tho' you wouldn't think so if you'd seen Bolton's eponymous fee-paying school in Cold Feet, and the town centre's Le Mans Crescent in Peaky Blinders.
Things have changed a lot in the past 25 years and I'm not sure it still reflects Britain and the British. Bryson mentions his "greatest admiration for the A-Z" but who uses that anymore in the age of mobile phones and Google maps? On the underground I was recently disabused of the "orderly quiet; all these thousands of people passing on stairs and escalators", after being elbowed out of the way and told to f*ck off at London Bridge tube station. One thing Bryson would perhaps consider a change for the better tho' is that these days the BBC is no longer showing repeats of Cagney and Lacey.
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