Many books are commissioned, but few as nakedly as this – Bryson openly admits that it was his editor’s idea to revisit the places he passed through for his earlier, and hugely successful, ‘Notes from a Small Island’ on the twentieth anniversary of the first book. Bryson has little interest in the idea, but has to make a living, and there are worse ways of doing so than this. In case we were in any doubt that this is a Notes Mark 2, the subtitle rubs the point in. As a result it is unavoidably obvious that Bryson is on auto-pilot for much of this book, going through the motions in a fairly loveless way.
Notes Mark 1 had a certain charm. It showed the newly arrived Bryson falling in love with 1970’s UK, rather remarkably given the many things he found profoundly wrong with the country, from its racist television programmes to its appalling customer service. A lot has changed since Notes Mark 1, and while Bryson clearly realises that revisiting the poorly remembered scenes of his first trip round the country is a mistake, he does it anyway. At least, he takes the trip after a fashion, although the visits to various locations are completely haphazard, fitted in around his busy schedule of readings and family commitments, giving the book a very fragmented flavour.
Some reviewers have been appalled at Bryson’s grumpiness at what he finds, and they have a point. But Notes Mark 1 found much to be grumpy about first time round, and the second time round the block he finds many things much improved. Inevitably much has also deteriorated, and many of Bryson’s complaints will be familiar – poor customer service, the loss of individual high street shops, green belt development, and so on. If this was all the book consisted of – a long whine about how things were so much better in the good old days – then I doubt I would have ever made it to the end, completist though I am. (Word doesn’t recognise that word, which is strange as it is in lots of online dictionaries. Go away red-underlining. Clicks ignore. That’s better). But happily there is more. Bryson has a wide range of anecdotes to tell about the places he visits, and some of these are entertaining and informative. I suspect his working method is something along the lines of telling a researcher he is going to Telford (or wherever) the following week, and asking them to come up with some interesting “QI” style facts about the town and its inhabitants, which he can then discover on location.
Now here is something slightly interesting – the American version of this book has a different subtitle, to whit “Adventures of an American in Britain”. This is wrong in several ways – Bryson isn’t an American, having taken British citizenship recently as explained in the book. He certainly doesn’t have any adventures – unless you call walking rainy streets looking for something to do, finding a discarded newspaper in the corner of a dingy backstreet pub, flicking through it, giving us one or two headlines, then retiring for a curry somewhere, adventurous. Bryson does little to disguise the fact that he often finds the whole exercise quite boring, and wishes it were over and he could go back to his family.
In between all the nonsense, Bryson occasionally has something interesting to say about the changes he sees in the country, best described here:
“It was known as the Sick Man of Europe. It was in every way poorer than now. Yet there were flowerbeds on roundabouts, libraries and post offices in every village, cottage hospitals in abundance, council housing for all who needed it. It was a country so comfortable and enlightened that hospitals maintained cricket pitches for their staff and mental patients lived in Victorian palaces. If we could afford it then, why not now? Someone needs to explain to me how it is that the richer Britain gets the poorer it thinks itself.”
Well said – only disappointing that he doesn’t follow this through to its inevitable conclusion about the way money is spent in this green and pleasant land.
There are also occasional glimpses of genuine wit, even if these stand out by their isolation, such as:
“According to Time Out magazine, at any given moment there are 600,000 people on the Underground, making it both a larger and more interesting place than Oslo.”
I’ll keep reading Bill Bryson, because I always feel slightly virtuous when doing so, but I am not sure I am ever going to enjoy him in the way I did when we were both a bit younger.