23 June 2020

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

A few weeks ago Notes from a Small Island was mentioned during an episode of Daisy Buchanan's wonderful podcast You're Booked.  Daisy and her guest were discussing books they turn to as reliable comfort reads.   This same book was mentioned again, less than a week later, on Book Snob's blog.  I can't tell you how many times Bryson's travel memoir has crossed the desk at the library without a second glance, but suddenly I found myself in the midst of a severe case of FOMO. 

If a holiday in England isn't in the cards for me this year, the next best thing is to read about someone else's travels to my favourite destination of choice.  Within a few days I found a copy in a second-hand shop that was allowing three customers in at a time.  Decades of circulation experience at the library has taught me a thing or two.  For instance, I know when a book has been resting on a wet tummy in the bath.  Forensically speaking, the wavy water-damaged pages on the bottom of the book, mostly in the middle, are a dead give-away.  So it was a wide swerve on the second-hand copy, but within days I was able to buy a copy at our newly reopened bookstore!

'My first sight of England was on a foggy March night in 1973 when I arrived on the midnight ferry from Calais.'

Experiencing some difficulty in finding a room for his first night, modern readers will instantly appreciate what the internet has achieved for adventure seekers, holiday makers or people relocating to distant cities.  The lack of internet technology or cell phone usage adds a layer of charm that dates this book somewhat, but Bryson's muddling through makes for good stories.

After five months of travelling, Bryson was a day away from arriving at Heathrow for a flight back to the States to continue his university studies.  A last minute job offer at a local hospital changed the course of his future when he met the woman who would later become his wife, while working a shift.  Fast forward twenty years and a family, the author was busy preparing to relocate everyone to the States.  But not before embarking on a tour of Britain that would last seven weeks and result in a bestselling book.

By the the tenth or eleventh page I had already laughed out loud a few times and recognized a couple of sentiments.  From the stern B&B owner with a strong resolve about bathroom hygiene to a British fondness for what Americans would consider underwhelming nibbles, Bryson hit the mark.   

   'It's the most extraordinary thing.  They actually like their pleasures small.  That is why, I suppose, so many of their treats - teacakes, scones, crumpets, rock cakes, rich tea biscuits, fruit Shrewsburys - are so cautiously flavourful.  They are the only people in the world who think of jam and currants as thrilling constituents of a pudding or cake.

But beware, there are comic barbs to many of Bryson's observations that can sting a bit.  It's obvious he loves Britain and most of its citizens but his humour can run to the loutish every now and then.  

Bill Bryson has made me curious about visiting Salisbury, and I had no idea there are hedgerows still in existence that date back to Anglo-Saxon times.  Describing the friendly way people living in the Yorkshire Dales will let themselves into your home without knocking first (I'm sure he's making some sweeping generalizations) has made me keen to visit.  And can it be true that Blackpool served up the equivalent of forty acres of potatoes each day in chips during the 90s?!  But when Bryson is annoyed regarding a particular service, or what he perceives to be an excessive cost for an item, he doesn't come across as very patient or understanding.  My hope is that this is just a case of dramatic license in storytelling....or that Bryson has mellowed since the mid-nineties.

I spent most of the time reading Notes from a Small Island on the patio while landscapers sawed, shovelled, and bulldozed their way through a neighbour's back garden; a project that's been going on for weeks.  With so much stone cutting going on it would appear they're on their way to having their very own cathedral just behind the pool.  So was I happy to have a book that could distract me from all of the noise and dust?  Absolutely! 

View over Burnsall
Yorkshire 

9 comments:

  1. Darlene - take my word for it - you don't want to go to Blackpool!
    I dipped into one of Bill Bryson's more recent books for book group and wasn't keen. He came across as the kind of grumpy old bore you'd be edging away from if you met him in a pub!

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    1. But everyone on Coronation Street has a wonderful time in Blackpool, Mary!

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  2. I enjoyed reading The Road to Little Dribbling as a contrast/comparison to Notes from a Small Island. I do find Bryson an inconsistent author, but when he hits your mood his works can be very worth reading.

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    1. We were in Toronto yesterday, and I did see a copy of The Road....but I was already holding three other books. So many temptations! Since the library owns a copy it made sense to save the money there and place a hold. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts - it will be my next Bryson.

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  3. Glad you loved this Darlene! Though he certainly does have a potty mouth - and not much patience for others!! I thought of you today - I walked past the hotel you stayed in last summer and wished you would be able to visit this year too. I'd so love a wander around Bloomsbury with you and a nice cup of tea afterwards! Hope you're staying well x

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    1. I would love that too, Rachel! Fingers crossed, there'll be a vaccine sooner rather than later and I'll be back in 2021. My neighbour's son is a pilot for Air Canada and seems quite sure that's a realistic timeline, but without a crystal ball....
      In a worst case scenario, I can quarantine in my hotel room, lower a basket from the window of my room with a list, and being the lovely person you are...could fill my order at Waterstones! Tea could be a problem but where there's a will, there's a way. Let's just hope it doesn't come to that! Take care, Rachel.....x

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  4. Someone loaned me this book at the start of the year and I've left it gathering dust since then. You've persuaded me that I should brush off the dust and give it a go!

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    1. Oh Sandra, I was going to write that it's nice to have something of a change of scenery even if it's through a book but if you're in Cornwall...how beautiful.
      Do give it a try though!

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  5. Yes, I'm very lucky. But a change of scene is always welcome especially through the pages of a book 😊

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