It’s somewhat typical of Britain that it’s favourite travel writer and biggest fan should be an American expat. That sums the nation up well really. And of course, the book that secured Bill Bryson his place in Britain’s heart is the one in which he roams around our nation relentlessly taking the piss out of us.
Notes from a Small Island charts an expedition around Britain which Bryson undertook in the ’90s, more or less wandering from place to place as names took his fancy. With a seamless blend of American sarcasm and absurd British wit he takes our nation to task, exploring our most famous landmarks and uncovering the fascinating crannies we often overlook, whilst berating us for every flaw he can find.
It’s good-natured ribaldry though, and Bryson is clearly very fond of his adoptive homeland. His gripes are similar to many of our own: the tearing down of landmarks and the little businesses that make towns unique in favour of large shopping sentences, the rising price of everything, and the often infuriating bureaucracy that complicates any excursion within the UK. Often, Bryson’s a bit of an arsehole, but that’s half the fun.
Whether it’s realising that there’s not all that much to do at Stonehenge and sticking around out of a mixture of embarrassment and politeness, or running from a Glasgow pub because he was unable to understand anything that the barman or the one local in there were saying to him, there’s a lot to relate to in here and it’s often very funny. When it’s not, Bryson’s keen to point out the history and heritage we often miss being too familiar with our land. As an American, he has a keen eye for this, as many of our younger towns are older than the oldest U.S. settlements.
Overall, it’s a lot of fun to listen to Bryson as he marvels at our ability to form one queue at two train ticket booths and laments our identikit shopping malls. Occasionally, he can blather into the territory of a grumpy, change-hating old man, but most of the time he hits his mark. All in all, Notes from a Small Island is a great way for both tourists and residents to get to know this strange isle.