There is a peculiarity to Englishness which is historical, polite, and understated. After all, consider that England was, at one time, one of the most powerful nations on the planet and remained so for many years, despite the size of its landmass being vanishingly small and its natural resources slight. At the same time it was flashing its Germanic roots by turning the rest of the world into its empire, it was also cementing its reputation for stodginess and quaintness. Bill Bryson, though a native of Iowa and everything that entails, lived in the U.K. for most of his adult life, before moving back to the US in 1995 (and eventually winding up back across the Atlantic in 2003).
To be sure, this isn’t an extended discussion of Anglo-American relations in the way that Hitchens’ Blood, Class and Empire. though of course Bryson’s dual nature as a corn-fed son of the Midwest and warm-lager-drinking adopted son of Britain is a subtle but persistent undercurrent throughout the book. Written as a sort of plaintive paean to his adopted country before leaving it to move to Vermont for a little under ten year, Notes from a Small Island documents Bryson’s travels across the UK, reliving some of his first experiences in-country in the 1970s as well as seeing some of the touristy and/or far-flung portions he’d never gotten around to seeing as a workaday journalist or writer.
His very first night in England, in fact, was spent on a bench in the cold; this being the era when British hostelry consisted mostly (as Bryson would characterized it) of rooms rented out by bitter old women, and only before sundown. Having little money, no contacts, and otherwise no recourse, a night spent in the out-of-doors was the only alternative. And what a testament to the staying power of England that the arrival of morning was enough to keep him there for another twenty years (though admittedly none of them spent sleeping on benches).
If you’re familiar with Bryson peripatetic works, such Neither Here Nor There or The Lost Continent, the style of Notes from a Small Island should come as no surprise. In that affably old-fashioned way of his, Bryson hikes, rides, and occasionally tumbles his way across Great Britain, wrinkling his nose at overly-touristy big cities, falling in love with the odd and lovely small hamlets, and drinking too much at a series of
bars pubs that range from swank to positively squalid.
When I read the book last time1, I recall feeling a bit left out in the cold, as though I had missed so many of the references that a native Briton would take for granted. Would an American know, for instance, that Marks & Spencer is the quintessential British department store? Regardless, I found this time around that I felt no such alienation; perhaps I’ve simply absorbed a little more about English culture since then, or more likely I’ve simply become a better reader since five years ago, and picked up on the subtle ways in which Bryson allows non-English readers to appreciate England without having been there. The droll way he references Marks & Spencer, for instance, makes it understood that it’s more or less a British Wal-Mart, ubiquitous and obnoxious and in a way comforting to the weary traveler.
Though Bryson is by nature self-deprecating, and uses his dry sense of humor to turn less-than-exemplary experiences for him into laugh-out-loud experiences for the reader, he is at his best when his travels take him to some undiscovered country, either some fascinating historical site2 unknown even to most Britons, or some far-flung coastal resort which instills in him the same sense of homey English comfort that pulled him in twenty years prior. Bryson is naturally curious and not a little nostalgic (bordering on wistful), but he doesn’t turn his last hurrah on Angleterre into a maudlin affair. Notes From a Small Island is more overtly comical than Down Under and a little less so than Neither Here nor There.
In all cases, though, he manages to bring across other points, as well. Though the U.K. is, physically speaking, so much smaller than the United States (and lord knows Bryson has driven across enough of the latter), it’s surprising how much of the former is still country, and just how many distant hamlets and coastal towns there are that one never hears about. In the dense cities like London or Manchester, it’s difficult to ever be alone since the population density is so high, but much of Bryson’s narration focused on the interstices: the rolling green hills between villages; the long, quiet (usually) train rides with cups of coffee. One gets the feeling that, though he’s thrilled to find towns which are thriving (and, more to the point, which haven’t effaced the historical buildings in favor of tacky modern contrivances) and peopled, he even more enjoys a contemplative solitude that seems somehow very much in keeping with the mild-mannered British spirit.
Though Notes From a Small Island doesn’t exactly answer the question about what it means to be quintessentially British (and, in fairness, it was never a stated goal), Bryson’s ability to make one yearn to see what he describes certainly makes me want to go there and see it for myself. That, I suppose, is one of the highest compliments you can pay to a place.