There’s a reason I’ve blogged about more of Bill Bryson books than anyone else’s. He’s a particular pleasure to read, he’s funny (sometimes laugh-out-loud funny), he digs up facts no one else seems able to uncover, and he almost never writes a dull sentence. This adds up to a critical mass that says, “You gotta tell a lot of people about this book.”
So his latest was a shoo-in. In it, the American born, longtime UK resident travels around his adopted home, seeing the what and how of change that’s worth writing up since he did a similar thing twenty years ago in Notes From A Small Island (yes, I recommend it).
This time around Bryson is older, crankier, more confrontational, and more fun to read. He does solid prep research but occasionally slips in his judgements. For instance, in a section where he convincingly goes on about how physically attractive Britain is, he clumsily asserts that “almost none of it [was] undertaken with aesthetics in mind.” This doesn’t succeed, as I think it was intended to, as a witty undertow barb. Instead it succeeds in clobbering the previous hosanna. Bryson, who otherwise has praise for immigrants, leaves the Natural History Museum because it is full of “unpleasant” foreigners. For Bryson, crankiness is sometimes the enemy of sense.
But these are small complaints when you consider the overall impact of the book. With all of the author’s books, there are many bits I want to share. Here are a few appetizers that will probably lead you to the main course:
- Eating whelks is “like finding a golf ball, removing the cover, and eating what remains.”
- Sign at a train station: “Irk Valley Junction To Oldham Mumps.”
- “Calke Abbey has never been an abbey—the family that owned it just called it that to make it sound more interesting.”
- A very influential academic study demonstrated that, “if you are truly stupid you not only do things stupidly but are in all likelihood too stupid to realize how stupidly you are doing them.” This study, Bryson feels, helps to explain why Brits mess things up.
- A British government employee, researching a geography question for Bryson, admits that the government’s official total of 1,330 islands in Britain wasn’t “anywhere near right.” Bryson concludes: “I think it’s rather charming that Britain doesn’t quite know how much of itself there is.” (That “rather charming” shows that Bryson has been in Britain a long time.)
- France invaded Wales in 1797 in order to get them to help with the revolution back home. The invasion was led by an American.
- Brits are dedicated nature-watchers. There’s even a “Slime Mold Recording Scheme, whose manager—I’m so pleased to tell you this—lives in Mold, England.”
- If you travel on Scottish trains, you have the option of eating haggis, neeps, and tatties.
- The history of the [Scottish] Highlands is “five hundred years of cruelty and bloodshed followed by two hundred years of way too much bagpipe music.”
- “All known archaeological sites in Britain would require no less than 11,500 years of your time” if you were to visit them.
Along the way you’ll learn about Basil Brown, a farmworker “with no archaeological training… [who] found the greatest haul of treasure ever discovered in Britain.” He was never recognized for this. And how two cotton mills in the Peak District, seldom visited by tourists, established the modern factory system. And many more absorbing and alarming accounts.
If all this isn’t enough to get you going on The Road (Last Chance Gas), there are many funny instances of Bryson encountering indifferent-to-rude shopkeepers that recall Monty Python and how they basically made a career of sending up such places. Though “black taxicabs, double-decker buses, pub signs, Victorian lampposts, red mailboxes and phone booths” are nearly all gone, the country remains sensible, reasonable, and “grown up,” with a high degree of “life satisfaction.” That puts shopkeepers into perspective. By the way, there’s no such place as Little Dribbling—it’s a comment on the plethora of silly place names in Britain.