Review: Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

A few weeks ago, I received a message asking for travel book recommendations. Hardly surprising given that summer is undoubtedly the season for spur of the moment backpacking trips. I empathise completely with the itchy feet syndrome – a depleting bank account is all that prevents me from taking myself off to some unknown location. Travel books are a fantastic resource for those of us lacking the time and/or financial supplies to embark upon our own journeys. They also offer a remarkable insight into the various dimensions associated with travel, as well as providing an opportunity to add to our expanding ‘To Visit’ lists. While I have been lucky enough to travel fairly extensively in Europe and the US, there are so many more places that I cannot wait to explore. In the meantime, however, it is to the travel writers that I turn – for vicarious living of the best kind. With a fairly extensive list of travel reading recommendations, honing in on my favourites is problematic. Of all that I have read, however, one stands out as the funniest and most insightful – Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson.

“I went now to Chancery Lane and caught an Underground train. I do like the Underground. There’s something surreal about plunging into the bowels of the earth to catch a train. It’s a little world of its own down there, with its own strange noises and oily smells. Even when you’ve descended so far into the earth that you’ve lost your bearings utterly and wouldn’t be in the least surprised to pass a troop of blackened miners coming off shift, there’s always the rumble and tremble of a train passing somewhere on an unknown line even further below. And it all happens in such orderly quiet: all these thousands of people passing on stairs and escalators, stepping on and off crowded trains, sliding off into the darkness with wobbling heads, and never speaking, like characters from Night of the Living Dead.”

After living in the UK for almost 20 years, Bill Bryson made the decision to return to his American homeland – largely explained as the result of reading that “3.7 million Americans believed that they had been abducted by aliens at one time or another, and it was thus clear to him that his people needed him.” Before departing his adopted home, however, Bryson decided to take a farewell trip around Britain. It is this trip that Notes from a Small Island details. Visiting those places that hold particularly poignant memories or serve as important landmarks for the UK, Bryson circles the island, determined to account for the peculiarities that inform the British character and made him fall in love with the place.

Notes from a Small Island is one of my favourite books and typically features on any list of non-fiction recommendations. It is accessible to all – an account that will be enjoyed by those for whom Britain is home, as well as those who have nothing more than a passing familiarity with the UK (or impressions based purely on watching reruns of Downton Abbey). Bryson is able to bridge this gap through his own experience, as an outsider who has come to understand those characteristics so exclusive to the British population.

“What a wondrous place this was – crazy as fuck, of course, but adorable to the tiniest degree. What other country, after all, could possibly have come up with place names like Tooting Bec and Farleigh Wallop, or a game like cricket that goes on for three days and never seems to start? Who else would think it not the least odd to make their judges wear little mops on their heads, compel the Lord Chancellor to sit on something called the Woolsack, or take pride in a naval hero whose dying wish was to be kissed by a fellow named Hardy? (‘Please, Hardy, full on the lips, with just a bit of tongue.’) What other nation in the world could possible have given us William Shakespeare, pork pies, Christopher Wren, Windsor Great Park, the Open University, Gardener’s Question Time, and the chocolate digestive biscuit? None, of course. How easily we lose sight of all this.”

Bryson is a master of the art of travel writing. His style is completely devoid of pretension – he writes as he talks and his humour oozes from the pages. While much of the book speaks to his opinions and personal experience, it is also hugely informative. As a Brit, I was surprised by how much I was able to learn about the UK. For anyone looking to gain some knowledge about Britain, out of interest or perhaps with a view to visiting, Notes from a Small Island serves as a fantastic resource. It delivers on facts but consistently balances these with the cultural and experiential insights that make for top travel writing.

And for those of us lucky enough to actually be British, the book delivers something more. It gives us an opportunity to laugh at ourselves (something at which we are actually pretty accomplished) while also reminding us of just how lucky we are.

“I can never understand why Londoners fail to see that they live in the most wonderful city in the world. It is far more beautiful and interesting than Paris, if you ask me, and more lively than anywhere but New York – and even New York can’t touch it in lots of important ways. It has more history, finer parks, a livelier and more varied press, better theatres, more numerous orchestras and museums, leafier squares, safer streets, and more courteous inhabitants than any other large city in the world. And it has more congenial small things – incidental civilities you might call them – than any other city I know: cheery red pillar boxes, drivers who actually stop for you on pedestrian crossings, lovely forgotten churches with wonderful names like St Andrews by the Wardrobe and St Giles Cripplegate…What other great city would trouble to put blue plaques on houses to let you know what famous person once lived there or warn you to look left or right before stepping off the kerb? I’ll tell you. None.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of critical observation in this book. But what you must understand in reading Notes from a Small Island is the extent to which we British look upon ourselves and our country with a hugely pessimistic eye. One need only observe the determination with which we stuck to predictions of an Andy Murray-Wimbledon-failure to understand the extent of our self-criticism. Quite where this comes from, I am not sure. But it means that we take some reminding of how good we have it here. For this reason, Notes from a Small Island is unique in its ambition. I do not believe that this was written, as most travel writing is, to investigate and recommend travel options. It is not even really a reflection on the travel experience. Rather, it is a cultural narrative. After two decades in the UK, Bryson offers Notes from a Small Island as his parting gift to us. To remind us that, while there may be areas of British culture and history that deserve critique, we remain a place of unique character and heritage. We have much to celebrate. We did, after all, give the world Marmite.


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