Bill Bryson has a certain fondness for small towns, beautiful vistas, and quaint cafès. I know this because he spends much of Notes from a Small Island hopping from village to village, hill to hill, bay to bay on the British Isles. Actually, the book reads a lot like his previous effort, The Lost Continent, in which he searches from the quintessential American small town.
Some of this book was lost on me: despite Bryson’s including a Diary, many of the British cultural references went right past me (for instance, I understand the Marks & Spencers must be a rather ubiquitous feature of British towns, but having not shopped in or even seen one, I can’t quite appreciate the jokes as a normal Briton would). Thankfully, the native humor comprised a relatively small amount of the book, the rest of it made up of Bryson’s unique travel writing. It’s a mix of crude humor, personal anecdote, obscure trivia, and hotel/food critic mixed into one.
Overwhelmingly, Bryson’s odyssey across the whole of Great Britain is positive, as he so wrly understates in the beginning: “I like the place.” Still, readers are treated to accounts of pisspoor Bed & Breakfasts, bleak little towns, and a rather damning view of the modernization that is hitting a lot of cities. Oxford, Bryson cites, is a terribly ugly city, what with its electrical pylons and squat, concrete buildings. The same happens to a lot of beautiful villages: they old Victorian and Georgian houses are torn down in the name of progress and replaced by boxy, concrete monstrosities or some equally offensive sight. Bryson is a stickler for the old-fashioned æsthetics of Britain. His own stone home, he says, predates America. That’s the kind of statement that really makes you wonder.
If you read this book and aren’t familiar with British culture, be prepared for a learning curve: even by the end, I had a sneaking suspicion that I had only absorbed about 75% of the book: the rest was unavailable to me, a private joke between Bryson and Britain’s natives. Still, like all Bryson literature, the writing is wryly funny, terribly informative, and a blast to read.