Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island

American Bill Bryson penned his Notes from a Small Island after living and working in the UK for twenty years. It is supposed to be a travelogue as seen through the eyes of a foreigner. The problem is that after two decades he is not sure whether he is a Yank or a Brit, and he just comes across as a jerk.  Notes compares Bryson's memories from when he arrived in 1973 with his experiences during a 'valedictory tour' after he decides to return stateside in 1993.

He pines for the England he remembers from his early days, but he recalls a Britain that never actually existed.  It becomes clear that he is missing the cosy image of the UK as featured in 1970s television. It was not there in 1973, and still not there in1993.  He is angry that he cannot find what he is looking for.   He is actually angry about a lot of things: dogs (he wants to kick small ones and beat big ones with a stick); fat people (because they get to the dessert trolley before him); and Rupert Murdoch's takeover of the Times. (OK with hindsight he might have been right about that one.)

Bryson would be a most objectionable travel companion: glaring at anyone he deems less than perfect; ranting whenever he fails to get his own way; penny pinching on food and accommodation, then surprised at the poor standard he receives.

He spends a great deal of the book complaining, or damning with faint praise.  In spite of his regular assurances that he loves the country and will miss it when he leaves, he seems not actually to like a single thing in it. In fact at one point he devotes a whole page to listing things he dislikes about Britain, including Oxford. Within a very short time it becomes clear that he is a rude, self centred, overbearing, bad tempered tightwad.  

Perhaps he is trying to be funny, and there are moments in the book that made me laugh out loud, but even after twenty years, in common with many Americans, he fails to understand irony, and when he attempts it he just ends up being cruel.


Sandra Davies said...

Well, hallelujah! I've had this recommended to me so many times and could not get beyond the first few pages for precisely the reasons you give. I have to admit I AM allergic to comedians so perhaps that's it ...
(but have just re-read Iain Banks; 'Espedair Street' and laughed out loud half a dozen times in sheer joy at the deadpan asides of his hero Danny Weir!)

kaybee said...

I didn't get my copy free - paid good money for it, really expecting to enjoy a travelogue around my still much beloved country - but after a few pages it ended up in the trash.The thought of passing it on to someone else to be offended by it, horrified me.

"Within a very short time it becomes clear that he is a rude, self centred, overbearing, bad tempered tightwad." Couldn't have said it any better myself!

snafu said...

I have not ever felt the need to read it and now I am happy to find I have not missed anything. Like Sandra Davies, I also laughed out loud at Espedair Street. Always difficult when reading something like that on a crowded train, people stare so.

ChrisJ said...

Perhaps he was trying to copy the book "A Yank Back to England" . I'll have to Google the author. Unforgivable to forget the name of an author I know, but it was a good book and funny....WOW! I took off to Google and actually made it back here without losing my comment. The author's name is Denis Lipman.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Anne .. thanks for that - you've saved me reading it - I really can scan it and give it back to friends, from whom I borrowed it ..

Thanks for posting!! Cheers Hilary