“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…What other nation in the world could possibly have given us William Shakespeare, pork pies, Christopher Wren, Windsor Great Park, the Open University…and the chocolate digestive biscuit? None, of course.”
I think it’s safe to say that Bill Bryson loves the U.K. After a long stint throughout Europe (as documented in Neither Here Nor There, which will be highlighted in the coming weeks), Bill took residency in Britain in the 1970s. He met his future wife through his first job in the country, and they eventually settled down and started a family. After about twenty years in Britain, Bill and his family decided to relocate to his motherland of America. Before they left, however, Bill decided to take one more traipse throughout the region as a way to pay homage to the country that had since become his home. Notes From A Small Island is a result of that trip.
Before I continue I must divulge the fact that aside from a visit to Britain when I was a toddler, I have never been to the U.K. as an adult. Because of this, I may have more of a skewed view of the region. Keep that in mind as you continue to read, and if you have any suggestions or points of interest to share, please feel free to do so in the comments field below (Duncan, if you’re reading this, you can pipe in here 😉 ).
…and now on to the book…
I hate to admit this right off the bat, but his journey throughout the U.K. was for me more of an observance of the British people (coloured by his usual self-deprecating humour), and less of a travelogue documenting the cities he visited. For the most part, one town blended into another, and I can’t safely distinguish the difference between say, Settle and Exeter (both of which he visited). Unlike In a Sunburned Country, where one city or region of Australia is distinct from the next, Britain to me seems like one long-ass tea time, sullied by fog and rain and a general feeling of dampness.
I’m going to make a general assumption that this is a sentiment for the whole country — that this feeling of “sameness” extends throughout the land. Even Bill touches upon this towards the end of the book. After travelling to the north coast of Scotland, he finds himself at Dunnet Head, gazing out across the sea towards the Shetlands. Tempted to catch a ferry across to continue his exploring, he quickly changes his mind, noting:
Whatever its bleak and airy charms, Shetland would still be just another piece of Britain, with the same shops, the same television programmes, the same people in the same Marks & Spencer cardigans. I didn’t find this depressing at all — rather the contrary — but I didn’t feel any pressing need to see it just now.
This ongoing familiarity throughout the country is not necessarily a bad thing. Albeit there are definite distinctions throughout the shires — such as dialect, buildings of note, etc. — but I can see the positive side of being able to travel around an entire country and feel comfortable in knowing that you’re not going to find anything unexpected. It could even put a foreigner at ease (unless, of course they’re having a hard time figuring out the intricacies of Glaswegian, for example).
From the onset of his trip, Bill decided to rely solely on public transportation to get him around the isle. With the exception of having to rent a car twice, he was able to complete his travels using only buses and trains, and in some instances his own two feet. He has a general distaste for driving, so this could have been his motivation.
Now everyone drives everywhere for everything, which I don’t understand because there isn’t a single feature of driving in Britain that has even the tiniest measure of enjoyment in it. Just consider the average multi-storey car park. You drive around for ages, and then spend a small eternity shunting into a space that is exactly two inches wider than the average car. Then, because you are parked next to a pillar, you have to climb over the seats and end up squeezing butt-first out of the passenger door…Then you go hunting for some distant pay-and-display machine, which doesn’t make change or accept any coin introduced since 1976…Eventually you acquire a ticket and trek back to your car…squeeze pass the pillar…discover that you can’t reach the windscreen as the door only opens about three inches, so you just sort of throw the ticket at the dashboard (it flutters to the floor but your wife doesn’t notice so you say, ‘Fuck it’, and lock the door)…
One part that I quite enjoyed was when, early on in the book, Bill was describing his walk through Windsor Great Park in London:
It is the most splendid park I know. It stretches over 40 enchanted square miles and incorporates into its ancient fabric every manner of sylvan charm: deep primeval woodlands, bosky dells, wandering footpaths and bridleways, formal and informal gardens and a long, deeply fetching lake. Scattered picturesquely about are farms, woodland cottages, forgotten statues, a whole village occupied by estate workers and things the Queen has brought back from trips abroad and couldn’t think of anywhere else to put…
He even tells us about a special encounter he had there one day:
Indeed, because the public aren’t allowed to drive on the park roads, a significant portion of the little traffic that passes is generated by royals. Once, on Boxing Day when I was ambling along in a paternal fashion beside an offspring on a shiny new tricycle, I became aware with a kind of sixth sense that we were holding up the progress of a car and turned to find that it was being driven by Princess Diana. As I hastened myself and my child out of the way, she gave me a smile that melted my heart…
Could you imagine having the ability to walk through a park with the possibility of seeing a passing royal? The closest thing I have to offer as a comparison for Toronto is taking the GO Train home after work and sitting beside one of the hosts of Canada’s E Talk. True story. Not quite the same, but hey, it’s all I have.
Being from a country whose history spans just a few hundred years, I’m always blown away to find in my travels a church, or roadway, or house, that is older than my nation. Britain is well-stocked with these examples of antiquity:
It sometimes occurs to me that the British have more heritage than is good for them. In a country where there is so astonishingly much of everything, it is easy to look on it as a kind of inexhaustible resource. Consider the numbers: 445,000 listed buildings, 12,000 medieval churches, 1,500,000 acres of common land, 120,000 miles of footpaths and public rights of way, 600,000 known sites of archaeological interest (98 per cent of them with no legal protection). Do you know that in my Yorkshire village alone there are more seventeenth-century buildings than in the whole of North America? And that’s just one obscure hamlet with a population comfortably under one hundred. Multiply that by all the other villages and hamlets in Britain and you see that the stockpile of ancient dwellings, barns, churches, pinfolds, walls, bridges and other structures is immense almost beyond counting.
I have had personal interaction with the oldest building on the Canadian side of Lake Ontario. I’m proud to say I’ve even slept in it. I love this logwood cabin and cherish every chance I have to visit the property. However, this building only dates from around 1820-1840. That’s absolutely ancient in our books. Britain has buildings that pre-date that by two to four hundred years AT LEAST.
Take Stonehenge for example. This site dates back to 2000 BCE.
I know this goes without saying, but it really was the most incredible accomplishment. It took 500 men just to pull each sarsen, plus 100 more to dash around positioning the rollers. Just think about it for a minute. Can you imagine trying to talk 600 people into helping you drag a 50-ton stone 18 miles across the countryside, muscle it into an upright position and then saying, ‘Right, lads! Another twenty like that, plus some lintels and maybe a couple of dozen nice bluestones from Wales, and we can party! Whoever was the person behind Stonehenge was one dickens of a motivator, I’ll tell you that.
Or how about a Roman villa?
At a place called Cole’s Hill the path plunged abruptly into a seriously overgrown wood, dark and primeval in feel and all but impenetrable with brambles. Somewhere in here, I knew, was my goal — a site listed on the map as ‘Roman villa (remains of)’. For perhaps half an hour, I hacked through the growth with my stick before I came upon the foundations of an old wall. It looked like nothing much — the remains of an old pigsty perhaps — but a few feet further on, all but obscured by wild ivy, were more low walls, a whole series of them, on both sides of the path. The path itself was paved with flagstones underneath a carpet of wet leaves, and I knew that I was in the villa…the floor had been carefully covered with plastic fertilizer bags weighted with stones at each corner…underneath those bags was a virtually complete Roman mosaic, about 5 feet square, exquisitely patterned and flawlessly preserved but for a tiny bit of fracturing at the edges. I cannot tell you how odd it felt to be standing in a forgotten wood in what had once been…the home of a Roman family, looking at a mosaic laid at least 1,600 years ago…
Every time I read a Bryson book my bucket list grows. Honestly.
Along with the interspersed history lessons, Bill also includes his never-tiring brand of self-effacing humour and his jealousy-inducing ability to perfectly provide a vivid description of someone he’s only just met (or is forced to sit across from). Here are some perfect examples that grabbed me while I was reading:
..realizing that somehow everything I did this day would be touched with disappointment, I went and had a pint of beer in an empty pub, a mediocre dinner in an Indian restaurant, a lonely walk in the rain, and finally retired to my room, where I discovered that there was nothing at all of note on television, and realized that I had left my walking-stick in Newmarket. I retired with a book only to discover that the bedside light bulb was gone — not burned out but gone — and passed the remaining hours of the evening lying inert on the bed and watching a Cagney and Lacey rerun, partly out of a curious interest to detect what it is about this ancient programme that so besots the controller of BBC1 (only possible answer: Sharon Gless’s chest) and partly because of its guaranteed narcotic effect. I fell asleep with my glasses on and awoke at some indeterminate hour to find the TV screen a frantic, noisy blizzard. I got up to switch it off, tripped heavily over some unyielding object and managed the interesting trick of turning off the TV with my head. Curious to know how I managed this, in case I decided to make it a party piece, I discovered that the offending object was my stick, which was not in Newmarket after all, but on the floor, lodged between a chair and a bed leg. ‘Well that’s one good thing,’ I thought and, gracing my nostrils with two walrus tusks of tissue to stanch a sudden flow of blood, climbed wearily back into bed.
It was costly and time-consuming and left me feeling a tiny bit fractious, not least because the train from Euston was crowded and I ended up sitting facing a bleating woman and her ten-year-old son, who kept knocking my shins with his dangling legs and irritating me by staring at me with piggy eyes while picking his nose and eating the bogies. He appeared to regard his nose as a kind of mid-faced snack dispenser.
I gave an economical nod of acknowledgement for his quip and returned my attention to my book in a gesture that I hoped he would correctly interpret as an invitation to fuck off. Instead, he reached across and pulled the book down with a crooked finger…The next thing I knew the book was in my lap and I was listening to the world’s most boring man. I didn’t actually much listen to what he said. I found myself riveted by his soaring eyebrows and by the discovery that he had an equally rich crop of nose hairs. He seemed to have bathed them in Miracle-Gro.
To pass a half-hour, I went to the residents’ lounge to see if I couldn’t scare up a pot of coffee. The room was casually strewn with ageing colonels and their wives, sitting amid carelessly folded Daily Telegraphs. The colonels were all shortish, round men with tweedy jackets, well-slicked slivery hair, an outwardly gruff manner that concealed within a heart of flint, and, when they walked, a rakish limp. Their wives lavishly rouged and powdered, looked as if they had just come from a coffin fitting. I felt seriously out of my element, and was surprised to find one of them — a grey-haired lady who appeared to have put on her lipstick during an earth tremor — addressing me in a friendly, conversational manner.
The way he observes people and then writes about them makes me wonder what he’d say about a late twenty-something with a travel blog who is clearly obsessed with his work. Hmmm…
For someone like myself who has a plethora of places to visit on their bucket list, but has shamefully seemed to overlook Britain, reading this book definitely piques my interest in the isle. How could you not want to visit a destination that fits this description?
That is its glory, you see — that it manages at once to be intimate and small-scale and at the same time packed to bursting with incident and interest. I am constantly filled with admiration at this — at the way you can wander through a town like Oxford and in the space of a few moments pass the home of Christopher Wren, the buildings where Halley found his comet and Boyle his first law, the track where Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile, the meadow where Lewis Carroll strolled; or how you can stand on Snow’s Hill at Windsor and see, in a single sweep, Windsor Castle and the playing-fields of Eton, the churchyard where Gray wrote his elegy, the site where The Merry Wives of Windsor was first performed. Can there anywhere on earth be, in such a modest span, a landscape more packed with centuries of busy, productive attainment?
Bill slowly draws his story to a close with a declaration of admiration for his adopted land:
Suddenly, in the space of a moment, I realized what it was that I loved about Britain — which is to say, all of it. Every last bit of it, good and bad — Marmite, village fetes, country lanes, people saying ‘mustn’t grumble’ and ‘I’m terribly sorry but’, people apologizing to me when I conk them with a careless elbow, milk in bottles, beans on toast, haymaking in June, stinging nettles, drizzly Sundays — every bit of it.
Bill, you can keep the Marmite. Everything else, though, I might have to see for myself. Especially that hidden, Roman villa.