Book Review: Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

The TL;DR version of this review: This is the travel guide to Britain you never knew you needed 😀 I’m a Bill Bryson convert. Just as he has adopted the British (genetic?) predisposition for sarcasm and deadpan delivery, I’ve adopted his unique writing style. Like many Americans, Bryson always wanted to visit Britain.

But his first visit to This Sceptered Isle was anything but the romantic vision he had built up in his mind. Arriving very late from France he was unable to get a room for the night and ended up spending it on the streets. He soon found himself questioning his sanity and dreams but after meeting his wife, he spent the next 20 years living here. On his departure, he quite realised he was going to miss the place and wrote a journal about some of his favourite and least favourite places to visit.

He takes us from Cornwall to the far north of Scotland, crossing the country by train and bus and coming up against the worst frustrations of the native: our poor transport network. As amusing as this book is, it’s now terribly dated. Hospitality has improved a great deal. Guest house owners are now more likely to treat you as one of the family for the duration of your stay than they are to lay down the law with a list of rules. Bus and rail services have improved somewhat, even if they are still not quite there, especially to some of the country’s smallest places. You’re unlikely now to find anywhere that has just two bus services per week.

Of course, most of this is written for the purpose of amusement. It’s written so we Brits can laugh at our little idiosyncrasies and for Americans to experience a less romanticised version of a country from where most of their ancestors probably came.

In amongst all this foreigner-grump, he offers some astute insights. His view of Blackpool is harsh but amusing, even for somebody who hasn’t been there. As a West Country lad (having lived here for all but 3 1/2 years of my life) I certainly recognise the small village attitudes and the problems of the twice per week bus service and trains that don’t run on Bank Holidays. Thankfully, most of his worst complaints are the confines of history aside from his negative perception of National Trust, most of which I largely agreed with.

Surprisingly, there are also poignant moments. I was keen to hear his opinion on places I know well, especially Exeter (which he finds attractive but jumbled) and he discussed a short stay at the Royal Clarence which sadly burnt down this time last year and he laments the changing face of our cities where old buildings are routinely demolished. This has changed. We now have more stringent protections than we did back then, but still, too many old buildings are being left to rot or torn down in the name of progress.

This is an easy read, conversational (as any good travelogue is) and hilarious in places.

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