One word kept coming to mind while I was reading this book: “tarchan“. It is a word in Hebrew than I find difficult to translate into English. Perhaps fussy or fastidious or maybe even nit-picker would help to convey its meaning. Bill Bryson reveals himself to be a real tarchan in this book, fastidious to the point of being almost unbearable to read. Considering I loved the only other book I had read by Bryson – A Short History of Nearly Everything – it was even more disappointing to find out that he can be such a fussy fellow.
Notes From a Small Island is a travelogue. After living in England for almost 20 years and before moving back to his native USA, Bryson took a seven-week trip around Britain – from Dover in the South to John O’Groats in the North – in order to “analyse what precisely it was he loved so much about” this small island. The book gets off to a brilliant start, with Bryson recounting his first arrival to England on a ferry from Calais to Dover and his first experiences with British culture and people. This first encounter is written beautifully and Bryson fulfills the promise of the quote from The Times on the front cover: “not a book that should be read in public, for fear of emitting loud snorts”. But then something goes terribly wrong.
It is obvious Bryson loves Britain. He also loves the British people and their sense of humour. Appropriately, he mimicks that sense of humour in the way he tells his story. However, he misses one important, indeed crucial, aspect of the British raison d’etre: the understatement. Just like a typical American (and I apologise for the generalisation) he overdoes it. Page after page, city after city, Bryson whines and moans about things he does not like. At first, it is funny and somewhat endearing; very quickly it becomes tiresome and annoying. Very quickly I was asking myself: how can Bryson love Britain as much as he says he does, if he feels so much is wrong with it? I guess it is OK to be critical of the subject of your infatuation, but it is quite another to bash it around mercilessly and endlessly.
Here are some random examples:
… Lulworth wasn’t anything like I remembered. Its central feature was a vast and unsightly car park, which I had quite forgotten, and the shops, pubs and guesthouses along the street to the cove were dusty and looked hard up… (I) made a small, heartfelt vow never to return to Lulworth as long as I might live (pp. 125-127)
Exeter is not an easy place to love… there seemed to be no reastaurans in Exeter… Exeter was in a foggy glooom that didn’t do anything for its appearance (pp. 133-135)
There are certain things that you have to be British or at least older than me, or possibly both, to appreciate… I’m not saying that these things are bad or boring or misguided, merely that their full value and appeal yet eludes me. Into this category, I would also tentatively insert Oxford (p. 152)
My gripe with Oxford is that so much of it is so ugly (p. 154)
I didn’t hate Milton Keynes immediately, which I suppose is as much as you could hope for the place (p. 176)
Bradford’s role in life is to make every place else in the world look better in comparison, and it does this very well (p. 196)
My problem with Manchester, you see, is that I have no image of it, none at all (p. 224)
And so on and so forth, ad nauseam. I avoided quotes about how miserable Bryson felt because of the weather, the food, the service, the trains, the architecture and God knows what else. I think you get the picture.
Interestingly, in the concluding chapters of the book, as Bryson tours Scotland and the northernmost areas of the British Isles, the tone changes and the mood is palpably more positive and upbeat. Alghouth he does not stop the whining completely (I suppose that would be too much to ask for) it does get considerably smaller and further apart. Perhaps it was the indecipherable Scottish accent that made him less angry at everything and everyone. Or perhaps he was just happy to be getting close to the end of the trip and being put out of his misery.
I still think Bryson is a good storyteller and I believe I will be reading more of his books. I just wish Notes From a Small Island would not have been my first dip into the world-famous Bryson travelogue books. The bad taste will remain with me even if his other books do turn out to be less annoying.