Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson was first published in 1995. In it he tells of the grand tour of Britain which he took just before he left Britain with his wife and family. They were going back to his homeland the US for a time, to give his children the experience of living in his homeland.
I found this to be an amusing read, in fact Bryson now says of his earlier writing that he felt he had to have a laugh a page, which he just about has in this one. There are some parts which are quite hilarious, and others which are quite depressing.
For me it was a bit of a reminder of some of Britain’s past, such as the mayhem of the Thatcher years and all the industrial strife. It’s all history now, they study it in school!
The book begins with those sorts of pub conversations which I was amazed to witness when I moved down to the south of England, they might be still taking place for all I know. Those ones where men of a certain type witter on about the best way of getting from A to B – bizarre, and I’m glad that I’m not the only one who thinks so.
Over the last few years Jack and I have been doing road trips around Britain too, so I had visited a lot of the places which Bryson visited. I was surprised that he wasn’t all that enamoured with either Oxford or Cambridge. He can be a bit sniffy about modern buildings. He wasn’t at all impressed with Cambridge with its market place surrounded by concrete buildings, I wonder if he meant the art deco ones which we admired. He should have taken a closer look at the market too as it has great secondhand book stalls, I bought several, including a hard to find Angela Thirkell.
He does however love Durham and I agree with him on that, it was a big surprise to me how lovely it is – and nobody ever mentions it as a place to visit.
When Bryson gets to Scotland he’s surprised that it feels like a different country from England and Wales. I’m always amazed when people say that, I find it weird that they would think that Scotland should be just like England, with worse weather. He had some trouble understanding people in a pub in Glasgow, which is fair enough as I had no idea what two men from Fife who I happened to overhear talking today were saying, and I’ve lived in Fife for donkey’s years.
It isn’t all humour, there are some important observations too, such as the fact that the north of Britain has lost over 100 times the amount of jobs which the south of Britain has. He wondered what was going to happen to a country which had got rid of most of its industries, it worried him.
Of course we know now what happens when there is very little in the way of opportunities and work for people, it’s a disaster for the economy and for society. I could go on about that problem for a long time.
Bryson went back to America with his wife and young family after this book was published but they didn’t stay there long. It seems that England is where his heart is. I’m looking forward to reading his next book which is due out in the Autumn.