Friday, February 26, 2016

Tagging Along With Bill Through Britain

Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island is a fun romp around Britain through the eyes of an American ex-pat. If you enjoy PBS travel programs and/or British comedies, or frequently find yourself watching BBC America from your satellite provider but haven’t read this book, you jolly well better hoof off to the nearest book store or library and procure a copy for heaven’s sake!

Bryson lived in England for a number of years, having married a British nurse. One day after 20 years or so of being a part of the British landscape, Bryson and his family decided to move back to the United States. Notes from a Small Island is a memoir of the seven-week “farewell” trek through England, Wales, and Scotland Bryson made before departing. If you have read A Walk in the Woods (recently made into a film starring Robert Redford), then you know that Bryson is a walker. It is a habit he perfected during his years in Britain. Much of the journey he takes readers on is a walkabout through the countryside.

“I picked a mercifully level footpath and followed it for two miles through woods and fields along the crest of a secluded hanging Valley to rejoin the coast path at a lonely and dramatic eminence called Houns-tout Cliff. The view once again was stunning: whale-back hills and radiant white cliffs, dotted with small coves and hidden beaches washed by a blue and infinite sea. I could see all the way to Lulworth, my destination for the day, some ten miles and many daunting whale-back to the west.”

In addition to rich descriptions of the landscape, villages, and people Bryson encounters on his journey, there is also a good smattering of the irreverent humor one expects while reading anything by this author. I had many good laughs aloud (much to the consternation of my husband seated at the opposite end of the couch trying to make his way through the latest George R. R. Martin epic, A Dance With Dragons) as I joined Bryson’s farewell tour.

As an example, Bryson begins chapter 20 with: “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 ice cream wrappers, empty cigarette boxes, and plastic carrier bags to the otherwise bland and neglected landscape. They fluttered gaily in the bushes and brought color and texture to pavements and gutters. And to think that elsewhere we stick these objects in trashbags.”

His tale of the sign he found where a grumpy landowner did not want anyone turning around in their driveway, or the elderly train enthusiast he encountered on the train to Llandudno in Wales were a hoot! I can easily imagine that travelling with Bryson would make for a fun time. And indeed, it has each and every moment I have spent reading his books. The book should come with a warning that you may get some funny looks from people around you when you break into laughter in public. That being said, I would encourage you to read it--especially with a pint in hand and a marathon of British documentaries playing in the background.

From the Publisher . . .

Before New York Times bestselling author Bill Bryson wrote The Road to Little Dribbling, he took this delightfully irreverent jaunt around the unparalleled floating nation of Great Britain, which has produced zebra crossings, Shakespeare, Twiggie Winkie’s Farm, and places with names like Farleigh Wallop and Titsey.

About the Author . . .

Bill Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa. For twenty years he lived in England, where he worked for the Times and the Independent, and wrote for most major British and American publications. His books include travel memoirs (Neither Here Nor There; The Lost Continent; Notes from a Small Island) and books on language (The Mother Tongue; Made in America). His account of his attempts to walk the Appalachian Trail, A Walk in the Woods, was a huge New York Times bestseller. He lives in Hanover, New Hampshire, with his wife and his four children.

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