Book Review: Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson (1993)

For a good few years now, I’ve been a fan of Bill Bryson. Unlike some travel writing, he manages to capture the feel of an environment, whilst also providing insight into his sarcastic, light-humoured personality.

Recently, I just finished reading his novel about Britain – Notes from a Small Island. It tells of the journey Bryson took around Britain in the latter half of the 20th Century, using only public transport. His accounts take us from Dover all the way up to Inverness, before he (rather happily) returns back to his home in Yorkshire.

However, if you thought that this was going to be another propaganda piece, as to why Britain’s muggy fields and failing high-streets really are the place to visit, you thought wrong.

Instead, Bryson shows us the realistic pitfalls of travelling our humble isles. Late trains, irregular buses, unfriendly hotel staff and over-priced lunches all feature, something that we can recognise and sympathise with, even today.

And the rain! I found myself subconsciously counting the amount of times Bryson recounted horrific downpours and even slightly grey skies. Britain in October/November rarely features a clear day, and poor Bryson becomes victim to soggy shoes and dampened jumpers thanks to our delightful weather.

At the time of writing Notes from a Small Island, Bryson had been living in the UK – a small village in Yorkshire to be exact – for many years. However, being an American, he still finds himself reflecting on certain customs and conversation topics that we British are (shamefully) obsessed with.

One of the bits I found most accurate and equally as hilarious, was the section in which he talks about the British fascination with giving directions. He points out that drivers interrogate you profusely once you declare that you will shortly be travelling for over 3 hours – again he notes that in America this is an acceptable amount of time to go even to the shops. Being a foreigner, he finds himself bombarded with confusing ‘A-roads’, ‘M-roads’, service stations and obscurely named roundabouts. I found myself laughing along – whenever we have family up to visit, (or vice versa,) older generations spend a good 10 minutes discussing how the traffic was, what roads we took, and how long the journey was. And I’m sure, like Bryson’s encounter, they could easily spend much longer had specifics gotten involved.

It is refreshing however, that rather than grumble and complain the entire time about British behaviour and bleak towns, Bryson seems to accept it. Without our dodgy estates and failing seaside attractions, Britain would surely not be the same. Notes from a Small Island shows us how our densely packed island is truly unique, and something that we should celebrate. I loved that he picked out the fact that we did have too many Woolworth’s, and that every high-street looks the same. That B&B owners are usually rude, unwelcoming, and offer only over-priced rooms. That some areas of towns you really shouldn’t venture into, and that the government spend a measly amount on train travel each year, but still manage to offer (mostly) adequate services. Bryson ends the novel, returning home, with ‘I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I like it here. I like it more than I can tell you. And then I turned from gate and got in the car and knew without a doubt that I would be back.’ If American’s can learn to love our British quirks, I’m sure we can too.

Reference – Bryson, Bill, Notes from a Small Island, (Black Swan: London, 1999)

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