Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
I am not, overall, a fan of Bill Bryson. I found a lot of his stuff condescending (the European book), boring (Walk in the Wood) or rather adolescent (flatulence based humour); but this was the first book of his that I ever read and it my mind remains his best one, at least as far as travel writing goes.
|Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson|
|Reviewer: Magda Healey|
|Summary: If you like Bryson as an author and are not familiar with this, you will almost certainly love it. For Bryson virgins, it's a good place to start if you wish to. This humorous account of a tour of Great Britain is OK as light entertainment but don't expect particularly beautiful prose nor deep insights.|
|Buy? No||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 259||Date: August 1996|
|Publisher: Black Swan|
'Notes' is essentially an account of a journey that Bryson makes round Great Britain some time in the early 90's after deciding that he will leave UK and go back to the United States. He starts with a recollection of his first arrival in Dover good 20 years before (this *IS* truly hilarious, had me actually laughing out loud, even at the adolescent humour, I have to admit) and then repeats the Calais-Dover journey and continues the tour (mostly by public transport) that takes in - amongst others - London's Wapping; Dorset Coastal Path, Salisbury, Lincoln, Bradford, Port Sunlight, Inverness and Wick.
There is, as a cover-quoted reviewer noticed, as much of Bryson in this book as of Britain; and I have to say that as much as I enjoyed the 'Britain' element, I wasn't particularly enamoured with the 'Bryson' one.
Granted, he manages a non-scatological joke from time to time and he is often pleasantly (and Britishly) self-depreciating which lightens the book and gives it a personal angle, so important in any travelogue.
But his politics are mostly suspicious (the worst part of the book is a long ranting story of the London printers' strike at the time of Rupert Murdoch taking over) and his obsession with conservation, especially of the lovely English countryside, verges on pathological.
On the other hand, the book is not just a catalogue of Bryson jokes, there is a lot of rather nicely done if somehow idiosyncratic description there and some chapters are gems of light travel writing. He seems decidedly better at describing cities and town than countryside: I enjoyed his notes on Salisbury, Durham and Morecambe particularly, while the interest in the peculiar, obscure and not-so-well-known was well served by his accounts of places like Saltaire or Welbeck Abbey.
Research in this book is of bit, let's say, variable quality. On some subjects Bryson is extremely detailed, on others what seems like purposefully ignorant. Some of the content is slightly dated, but for now the book is still reasonably viable and not just a historical record.
All in all, 'Notes from the Small Island' presents an informative, personal and mostly warm portrait of this island and its inhabitants. Bryson shows the British how lovable they really are and how quirkily interesting, beautiful and worth knowing their land is - and he does a decent enough job of it especially as the whole thing is injected with vast quantities of the quality so admired by the natives: humour. If you are British (and especially English!) you will be mostly flattered: he is a true Anglophile after all.
'Kingdom by the Sea' or 'How to be an Alien' it ain't but you could do worse when choosing a British themed travelogue/humour book and if you like Bryson as an author and are not familiar with this title, you will almost certainly love it. For those who are Bryson virgins, it's a good place to start your acquaintance with the author if you ever have such a desire.
Overall, OK as light entertainment but don't expect particularly beautiful prose nor deep insights.
You might also enjoy Mr Gig by Nige Tassell.
Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson is in the Top Ten Books about Britain, Britishness, and the Brits.
You can read more book reviews or buy Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
You can read more book reviews or buy Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson at Amazon.com.
Like to comment on this review?
Just send us an email and we'll put the best up on the site.