I Think Bill Bryson’s ‘Notes from a Small Island’ was the second book of his I ever read. I loved his (short) book on Shakespeare and so began his famous critique of the British culture and places with high expectations which weren’t disappointed. I fell in love with his writing at that point. Every page contained either whoops of laughter from me or repeated finger stabbings accompanied by the cry “Yes! Oh God yes! He’s got us down to a T!” More often than not each page contained both – much to the annoyance of my wife sat next to me.
So there was no shadow of doubt in my mind about buying this 20-year anniversary sequel. Even without the fond memories of the original, it is my intention to read everything Bryson has ever written and I’m well on the way to doing it. I am a big fan, be in no fear of that fact. Bear that in mind then, as I tell you my thoughts about this book.
First of all, this is classic Bryson. The first few chapters in particular are genuine laugh-out-loud moments with fascinating well-researched snippets (such as the story behind the naming of Mount Everest) which are the hallmarks of Bryson’s writing skills. Fans will love the book, there’s no doubt of that, but I’m not sure this is a good introduction to the writer for someone who has never tried him before.
The problem is that it seems old age isn’t doing Bryson any favours. He’s grumpier than ever. While, again, his witty but sharp tongue is a well-known trait of his, there are times when this is caustic to the point of being uncomfortable.
He swears throughout the book, using the ‘F’ word in almost every way possible and often very personally about those he meets. This use isn’t unusual and is often perfectly placed but – there’s just so much of it! Certainly, if you’re not fond of such language, don’t buy this as an audio book.
Bryson also seems to attack certain people and establishments with something approaching cruelty. Pubs, restaurants, shops and various assortments of trades he meets on his ‘Bryson line’ journey often get the sharp end of his wrath. I’m amazed his publisher let him say some of it and how he isn’t being sued for slander is a wonder. That said, I can imagine some places being furious with what he said about them but still putting up little cards in their shop windows and webpages saying “as mentioned in Bill Bryson’s bestselling book…”. Such is the oddity of the British people.
But if grumpy swearword-laden writing is your thing (and it’s fine by me I guess) then it is okay – assuming you’re not one of those being attacked, that is. My village was mentioned and I have to attest that Bryson nailed it even down to a single short description of our local restaurant which I read to my entire family to vigorous nods of heads and murmurs of ‘spot on’. If Bryson is cruel at times, he never strays from validity. If he says it, you can be sure others are thinking it too.
By contrast, where Bryson is effusive in praise it is warm and loving and, I have to say again, he gets it right. He is the only ‘foreigner’ I’ve ever come across who so thoroughly understand the British psyche. It isn’t just that he’s been here a long time – I know plenty who have – but that he innately ‘gets it’, just ‘gets it’. It is that incredible ability which made me love his first book about us and he hasn’t lost it even if, it seems, he’s lost a little of his patience with age.
But my biggest criticism of ‘Little Dribbling’ is that it should really be called ‘The walk to Watford (and a quick drive everywhere else)’. Of 26 chapters in the book, Bryson spends 16 of them down south before he even makes it to the Midlands. That’s over 300 pages of 476 in the south.
With whole chapters spent on Dover, Cornwall or just a forest, he takes on the whole of the Midlands, The North and Wales in single chapters apiece. Unbelievably, he sleeps through the whole of Scotland (literally) and gives the majority of his last chapter to Cape Wrath, the end of his ‘Bryson line’ before summing up with what he loves about the British. While that’s quaint, it doesn’t do justice the rest of the Scotland which he admits is very beautiful, but says little else.
In short, it’s as though he walked the whole of the south coast and then ran out of steam when he got to London. What he writes about is brilliant but the locations he chooses are uneven and the silences a shame. I feel Bryson knows the south of England as well as any Englishman but, just like the Romans, the further north he goes, the more disturbing and unknown the country is to him.
However, with this book I don’t want to end on a critical note because, overall, this isn’t what I think of when I consider ‘Little Dribbling’. This is still Bill Bryson being Bill Bryson. No book is perfect but that doesn’t mean that this along with his original ‘Notes’ shouldn’t be considered classics. No one else comes close to getting it right when it comes to the British. Bryson’s love and devotion to the country isn’t in doubt and his observations about life and things that are wrong in it are spot on. I am quite certain that if I were sat in a pub with him, we’d get on famously and spend the whole evening drinking far too many beers and putting the world (AKA England) to rights. He’s a good man (albeit grumpy) and every single page of the book shines with his excellence. I just wish there was more.