Reviewed by Harriet
I only have only one problem with Bill Bryson’s books – I have to be careful when reading them in public, as I’m prone to sudden loud guffaws. Yes, Bryson is a very funny writer, but he’s also a very serious one too, which is why I like him so much. In this latest book he turns his attention back to Britain, of which he has recently become a naturalised citizen, not exactly revisiting the same places he went to twenty years ago in Notes from a Small Island but contemplating in general the changes that have taken place in those two decades. And if that book was a love letter to Britain in all its strangeness and quirkiness, this one is more in the way of an elegy, as Bryson finds so much that’s changed for the worse. To give just one example, contemplating the newly designed bus shelters, in which it’s impossible to sit down, he asks ‘Why do these things have to be so horrible?’:
Britain used to have a kind of instinct for producing jaunty, agreeable everyday objects. I don’t suppose any other nation has devised more incidental infrastructure about which one can feel a kind of connectedness and fondness – black taxicabs, double-decker buses, pub signs, Victorian lampposts, red mailboxes and phone booths, the absurdly impractical but endearing policeman’s helmet and much more. These things were not always especially efficient or sensible – it could take a superhuman effort to open a cast-iron phone box door if there was a wind blowing – but they gave life a quality and distinctiveness that set Britain apart. And now they are nearly all gone….In countless small ways the world around us grows gradually shittier. And I don’t like it at all.
You might think this would make The Road to Little Dribbling a depressing book, but I can assure you that it is not. Bryson’s eye for strange little details and curious eccentricities is always entertaining, and his wit is a complete delight. I marked several passages that made me chuckle though they may not do the same for you. Here’s one of them, in the chapter on Skegness (which ‘wasn’t in the least bracing’):
I walked up and down the high street, Lumley Road. At one end was an old-fashioned store called Allison’s, where you could buy the kinds of clothes your grandparents used to wear, and beyond it was a selection of charity shops selling the actual clothes your grandparents used to wear.
I could go on, but if I quoted all the passages I marked we’d be here for a week. The fact is that Bill Bryson has that wonderfully rare combination of a great heart and a brilliant mind. Intelligent, enquiring, with an eye for the ridiculous, he is also absolutely full of love for his adopted country, so that The Road to Little Dribbling manages to be both an elegy and a eulogy. Yes, Bryson loves Britain. Amazingly (to me, an expat by choice) he even loves London, which he thinks is ‘the best city in the whole world’. Really? Well, one thing that makes it great, in his eyes, is the amount of greenery. With just 43 people per hectare – almost of half of the populations of both New York and Paris – it’s remarkably underpopulated, and this is largely owing to the parks, gardens and squares that fill its sprawling bulk. (You can always trust Bryson for interesting statistics).
I said earlier that he didn’t revisit places he’d been to in the earlier book, but this isn’t entirely true. He does go back to Dover, of which he is fond, it being the first place he set foot on British soil in the 1970s. He remembers gazing through the windows of a posh hotel, wishing he could afford a grand meal there. Now of course he can – but the hotel is closed and out of business, ‘Dover’s last touch of elegance is gone’. Even more disheartening is his return to Blackpool, which he remembers as ‘cheerfully downmarket’ but ‘good natured and fun’. Sadly, he now finds it ‘depressed and half derelict, its streets empty by day and intimidating by night’.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Indeed, despite urban decay and a general sense that many people, and all government institutions, have ceased to care about other people or the country they live in, Bryson finds much to admire and love about his adopted country. In fact in the final chapter he makes a list of reasons why he chooses to live there. He loves the unexpectedness, the quirkiness, the sanity, the quality of life, and, perhaps above all, the beauty of the countryside.
There isn’t a landscape in the world that is more artfully worked, more lovely to behold, more comfortable to be in, than the countryside of Great Britain. It is the world’s largest park, its most perfect and accidental garden. I think it may be the British nation’s most glorious achievement. All we have to do is look after it. I hope that’s not too much to ask.
It’s hard to argue with that. Lovely book.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Bill Bryson, The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island (Doubleday, 2015). 978-0857522344, 400pp., hardback.
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