Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

★★★★☆ (4/5)

And it occurred to me, not for the first time, what a remarkably, cherishably small world Britain is. 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.

With this delightful travelogue I’ve had a circumstantial stroll through much of Britain, albeit without any maps or pictorial evidence I’m still drawing a blank as to my own whereabouts. Bill Bryson does well in portraying Britain’s splendors and regress as a resident and a traveler. As a reader, I too have settled for “certain idiosyncratic notions that you quietly come to accept when you live for a long time in Britain.”

From the prowess of giving unasked directions in all its exhaustive and indecipherable forms to apologizing so frequently within a sentence that one forgets the real inquiry, from quaint villages with their cozy cottages to insipid and alienated building structures, from mild weather in which one decides to embark upon a casual promenade around the hotel to getting caught in an icy storm cutting through the skin with rage on the way back to the same hotel – this book indeed embodies most, if not all, aspects of British life a visitor might get to experience.

A blizzard, I explained, is when you can’t get your front door open. Drifts are things that make you lose your car till spring. Cold weather is when you leave part of your flesh on doorknobs, mailbox handles and other metal objects.

And with much unbound pleasure I can assuredly say that the claims made by this book don’t stray from what I’ve imagined so vividly in regards to life in Britain for a wayfarer. Coupled with humor, satire and sharp wit Bill Bryson revels in the excessive natural beauty of Britain, but also doesn’t shy away from citing the reasons as to why many cities have fallen from grace, why buildings and monuments are in a state of odd disrepair and meals are often quite different from what you expected.

Mostly what differentiated the North from the South, however, was the exceptional sense of economic loss, of greatness passed, when you drove through places like Preston or Blackburn or stood on a hillside

It’s a charming read, one which I might refer to in the future if I ever find myself stepping on the little island, with plenty of time to spare and preferably in an idyllic countryside. I just hope the paperback version comes with a map and a few photographs so I don’t get lost as often as the author did.

All I can say is that the Dales seized me like a helpless infatuation when I first saw them and will not let me go. Partly, I suppose, it is the exhilarating contrast between the high fells, with their endless views, and the relative lushness of the valley floors, with their clustered villages and green farms. To drive almost anywhere in the Dales is to make a constant transition between these two hypnotic zones. It is wonderful beyond words. And partly it is the snug air of self-containment that the enclosing hills give, a sense that the rest of the world is far away and unnecessary, which is something you come to appreciate very much when you live there.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

‘Idiosyncratic Notions’ of the British People

  • The fact is that the British have a totally private sense of distance. This is most visibly seen in the shared pretense that Britain is a lonely island in the middle of an empty green sea.
  • All those things that are necessary to the successful implementation of a rigorous socialist system are, after all, second nature to the British. For a start, they like going without. They are great at pulling together, particularly in the face of adversity, for a perceived common good. They will queue patiently for indefinite periods and accept with rare fortitude the imposition of rationing, bland diets and sudden inconvenient shortages of staple goods,

  • One of the charms of the British is that they have so little idea of their own virtues, and nowhere is this more true than with their happiness. You will laugh to hear me say it, but they are the happiest people on earth.
  • For the benefit of foreign readers, I should explain that there is a certain ritual involved in this. Even though you have heard the conductor tell the person ahead of you that this is the Barnstaple train, you still have to say, ‘Excuse me, is this the Barnstaple train?’ When he acknowledges that the large linear object three feet to your right is indeed the Barnstaple train, you have to point to it and say, ‘This one?’ Then when you board the train you must additionally ask the carriage generally, ‘Excuse me, is this the Barnstaple train?’ to which most people will say that they think it is, except for one man with a lot of parcels who will get a panicked look and hurriedly gather up his things and get off.
  • I took a train to Liverpool. They were having a festival of litter when I arrived. Citizens had taken time off from their busy activities to add crisp packets, empty cigarette boxes and carrier-bags to the otherwise bland and neglected landscape. They fluttered gaily in the bushes and brought colour and texture to pavements and gutters. And to think that elsewhere we stick these objects in rubbish bags.

  • One of the primary reasons so much of the British landscape is so unutterably lovely and timeless is that most farmers, for whatever reason, take the trouble to keep it that way.
  • Deference and a quiet consideration for others are such a fundamental part of British life, in fact, that few conversations could even start without them. Almost any encounter with a stranger begins with the words ‘I’m terribly sorry but’ followed by a request of some sort

Bryson’s Portrayal of the Small Island

  • 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 winds and weather systems, its own eerie noises and oily smells.
  • I have never bought into that quaint conceit about London being essentially a cluster of villages – where else have you seen villages with flyovers, gasometers, reeling derelicts and a view of the Post Office Tower?
  • This business of corporate sponsorship is something that seems to have crept into British life generally in recent years without being much remarked upon.

  • There are villages without number whose very names summon forth an image of lazy summer afternoons and butterflies darting in meadows: Winterbourne Abbas, Weston Lullingfields, Theddle-thorpe All Saints, Little Missenden. There are villages that seem to hide some ancient and possibly dark secret: Husbands Bosworth, Rime Intrinseca, Whiteladies Aston. There are villages that sound like toilet cleansers (Potto, Sanahole, Durno) and villages that sound like skin complaints (Scabcleuch, Whiterashes, Scurlage, Sockburn). In a brief trawl through any gazetteer you can find fertilizers (Hastigrow), shoe deodorizers (Powfoot), breath fresheners (Minto), dog food (Whelpo) and even a Scottish spot remover (Sootywells). You can find villages that have an attitude problem (Seething, Mockbeggar, Wrangle) and villages of strange phenomena (Meathop, Wigtwizzle, Blubberhouses). And there are villages almost without number that are just endearingly inane – Prittlewell, Little Rollright, Chew Magna, Titsey, Woodstock Slop, Lickey End, Stragglethorpe, Yonder Bognie, Nether Wallop and the unbeatable Thornton-le-Beans. (Bury me there!) You have only to cast a glance across a map or lose yourself in an index to see that you are in a place of infinite possibility.
  • I couldn’t say where I went exactly because Manchester’s streets always seem curiously indistinguishable to me. I never felt as if I were getting nearer to or farther from anything in particular but just wandering around in a kind of urban limbo.
  • It is remarkable to me how these matters have become so thoroughly inverted in the past twenty years. There used to be a kind of unspoken nobility about living in Britain. Just by existing, by going to work and paying your taxes, catching the occasional bus and being a generally decent if unexceptional soul, you felt as if you were contributing in some small way to the maintenance of a noble enterprise – a generally compassionate and well-meaning society with health care for all, decent public transport, intelligent television, universal social welfare and all the rest of it.
  • And so I went to Edinburgh. Can there anywhere be a more beautiful and beguiling city to arrive at by train early on a crisp, dark Novembery evening? To emerge from the bustling, subterranean bowels of Waverley Station and find yourself in the very heart of such a glorious city is a happy experience indeed.

Humor

  • Much as I admire sand’s miraculous ability to be transformed into useful objects like glass and concrete, I am not a great fan of it in its natural state. To me, it is primarily a hostile barrier that stands between a car park and water. It blows in your face, gets in your sandwiches, swallows vital objects like car keys and coins.
  • There’s nothing like having nothing to drink to bring on a towering thirst.
  • Standing as it does in the midst of flat fenlands, it has a kind of menacing, palpably ancient air, but also a feeling of monumental folly. It required an immense commitment of labour to construct, but it didn’t take a whole lot of military genius to realize that all an invading army had to do was go around it, which is what all of them did, and within no time at all the Devil’s Dyke had ceased to have any use at all except to show people in the fen country what it felt like to be sixty feet high. Still, it offers an agreeable, easy stroll along its grassy summit, and on this bleak morning I had it all to myself.
  • Bradford’s role in life is to make every place else in the world look better in comparison, and it does this very well.

  • ‘Have you been here long?’ I asked. He exhaled thoughtfully and said: ‘Put it this way. I was clean shaven when I got here.’ I just love that.
  • When the man in the window passed them to me he said: ‘The ticket’s free . .. but it’s eighteen-fifty for the receipt.’
  • And that is what I like so much about Liverpool. The factories may be gone, there may be no work, the city may be pathetically dependent on football for its sense of destiny, but the Liverpudlians still have character and initiative, and they don’t bother you with preposterous ambitions to win the bid for the next Olympics.

  • There is almost nothing, apart perhaps from a touching faith in the reliability of weather forecasts and the universal fondness for jokes involving the word ‘bottom’, that makes me feel more like an outsider in Britain than the nation’s attitude to animals. Did you know that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was formed sixty years after the founding of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and as an offshoot of it? Did you know that in 1994 Britain voted for a European Union directive requiring statutory rest periods for transported animals, but against statutory rest periods for factory workers?
  • For the benefit of foreign readers, I should explain that as a rule in Britain no matter how many windows there are in a bank, post office or rail station, only two of them will be open, except at very busy times, when just one will be open.

Points to Contemplate

  • 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.
  • To an American the whole purpose of living, the one constant confirmation of continued existence, is to cram as much sensual pleasure as possible into one’s mouth more or less continuously. Gratification, instant and lavish, is a birthright.
  • Second, you are alive. For the tiniest moment in the span of eternity you have the miraculous privilege to exist. For endless eons you were not. Soon you will cease to be once more.
  • When a nation’s industrial prowess has plunged so low that it is reliant on Korean firms for its future economic security, then perhaps it is time to re-address one’s educational priorities and maybe give a little thought to what’s going to put some food on the table

  • But now, no matter what you do, you end up stung with guilt. Go for a ramble in the country and you are reminded that you are inexorably adding to congestion in the national parks and footpath erosion on fragile hills.
  • One thing I have learned over the years is that your impressions of a city are necessarily coloured by the route you take into it.

  • What other nation in the world could possibly have given us William Shakespeare, pork pies, Christopher Wren, Windsor Great Park, the Open University, Gardeners’ Question Time and the chocolate digestive biscuit? None, of course.

Beautifully Constructed Sentences

  • The world was bathed in that milky pre-dawn light that seems to come from nowhere. Gulls wheeled and cried over the water. Beyond them, past the stone breakwater, a ferry, vast and well lit, slid regally out to sea. I sat there for some time, a young man with more on his mind than in it.
  • For much of its length, the beach is reserved for naturists, which always adds a measure of interest to any walk along it, though today, in fact, there wasn’t a soul to be seen along its three fetching miles; nothing before me but virgin sand and behind only my own footprints.
  • You have in this country the most comely, the most parklike, the most flawlessly composed countryside the world has ever known, a product of centuries of tireless, instinctive improvement, and you are half a generation from destroying most of it forever. We’re not talking here about ‘nostalgia for a non-existent golden age’.

    by Ashington Group of artists who met regularly from 1930’s to 1980’s

    We’re talking about something that is green and living and incomparably beautiful.

  • But the paintings (by Ashington Group) provide a compelling record of life in a mining community over a period of fifty years. Nearly all depict local scenes – ‘Saturday Night at the Club’, ‘Whippets’ – or life down the pits, and seeing them in the context of a mining museum, rather than in some gallery in a metropolis, adds appreciably to their lustre. For the second time in a day I was impressed and captivated.
  • I spent a long, happy afternoon wandering through the many rooms, pretending, as I sometimes do in these circumstances, that I had been invited to take any one object home with me as a gift from the Scottish people in recognition of my fineness as a person.

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