Over the years I have collected books by Bill Bryson, and they now fill a bookshelf of their own. The one I have chosen here is ‘The Road to Little Dribbling’ but it could have been any of five or six others. I go back to it every year. It is the story of Bryson’s journey around the UK after many years of living here. It tells of his encounters in hotels, shops and country houses. Not, you might think, material for a bestseller but Bryson is Bryson, and you must never underestimate him.
I look forward to the latest Bryson book as I used to look forward to Woody Allen films when I was younger, and like those films, the books never disappoint.
About 20 years earlier he had written another book on Britain. This was ‘Notes from a Small Island’. ‘Little Dribbling’ compares the UK now with how it was then. Usually then was better.
It begins in France. Bryson was hit on the head by a parking barrier. To find out why, buy the book. Here he describes his reaction.
“Well, I have never been hit so startlingly and hard. Suddenly I was both the most bewildered and relaxed person in France. My legs buckled and folded beneath me and my arms grew so independently lively that I managed to smack myself in the face with my elbows. For the next several minutes my walking was, for the most part, involuntarily sideways. A kindly lady helped me to a bench and gave me a square of chocolate, which I found I was still clutching the next morning.”
Sometimes he goes back to his first steps in England.
“Years ago, when my wife and I were just dating, she took me on a day trip to the seaside at Brighton. It was a fairly warm day – I remember the sun came out for whole moments at a time – and large numbers of people were in the sea. They were shrieking with what I took to be pleasure, but now realize was agony. Naively I took off my T-shirt and sprinted into the water. It was like running into liquid nitrogen. I dived into the water and then straight back out again, backwards, and have never gone into an English sea again.”
He tells us of his various encounters with people on the way. Here is one with a surly innkeeper.
“I went in a snug-looking pub and noticed that one of the guest bitters was from the Ringwood Brewery in my part of the country.
“They do a very nice lager too,” I said to the barman, just making conversation.
“We do very nice lagers ourselves,” he responded defensively as if I had just told him his wife was ugly.
I was taken aback. “I wasn’t suggesting anything about your lagers. I just thought this was a good one you might not have heard of.”
“As I say, we have very good lagers already,” he said icily and handed me my change.
“And you’re a bit of a jackass,” I thought, and went with my beer to a corner table.”
There are passages which fill in the factual background. With a journalist’s touch, Bryson makes each one interesting.
There is the story of the rise and fall of the holiday camp in Britain, and the decline of Grimsby as a fishing port.
Or the sad story of William Huskisson, the first person to be killed in a train accident.
Or Mrs Pretty, and the Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo in East Anglia. Read how the local amateur archaeologist, Basil Brown, was side-lined by the London specialists who arrived when everyone realized just how important Basil Brown’s discovery was.
Or the scientists of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, of whom 29 have won Nobel Prizes. One of these was Sir Lawrence Bragg. When he left Cambridge to become president of the Royal Institution in London, he loved gardening but had no garden So without presenting a cv, he worked one day a week in the garden of a lady in South Kensington. Bryson imagines her conversation with a visiting friend at tea. The friend asks, “My dear, why is the Nobel laureate Sir Lawrence Bragg pruning your hedges?”
He ponders over the logic behind the numbering of British roads. For example, why does the A34 disappear in Oxford and reappear in Birmingham? London’s postal districts are similarly unruly. SE2 is twelve minutes from SE1. E4 is not in East London at all, but in the north. We have lived with these vagaries for years without realizing that basically systems in Britain are unsystematic.
He takes topics which we would all like to complain about but lack the courage. We feel that the fault lies in ourselves, and we say nothing. Bryson is the champion of all quiet citizens without a voice. Take his encounter with the internet, for example:
“When I did ‘Notes from a Small Island, I stayed at the Pavilion Hotel in Bournemouth. It was a pleasant, old-fashioned place and I thought I would stay there again, but it turns out that the Pavilion was torn down in 2005. It took me some time to work this out, because when I googled ‘Pavilion Hotel, Bournemouth’, I got responses from seventeen hotel booking companies all faithfully promising to get me a room at the Pavilion Hotel at a very attractive rate. The first one turned out to be for the Pavilion Hotel in Avalon, California.
As usual I am staggered by the internet. How can anything be so useful and stupid at the same time? Does somebody somewhere in the Google universe really think that I am looking for any hotel in the world called the Pavilion and that one in California will do me as well as one in Bournemouth?”
And then there’s another one about …… I could go on and on, but I will stop.
It’s best if you go to the nearest bookshop, buy the book and enjoy it for yourself.
Bryson, B. (2015). The Road to Little Dribbling. New York: Doubleday.