Book review: ‘Notes from a Small Island’ by Bill Bryson

Notes from a Small IslandNotes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was the second of Bryson’s I read after first enjoying his short book on Shakespeare. That understated little classic told me Bryson was an informative author and makes anything fascinating, but it was this book which confirmed that his wit and incisive observations were my kind of thing. I am unashamed to admit that Bryson is one of my favourite authors and it is fitting, as an Englishman, that this book – which chronicles his last adventures around Britain before leaving to live back in his native America – should be the one to have set me on that literary love affair.

However, this doesn’t mean he is above criticism. When I read his 25-year anniversary sequel, The Road to Little Dribbling, recently I was interested to see how much had changed; Bryson, I felt, was now much more of a grumpy old man and I thought him too unfair to some people on his travels. So I felt it was only right to revisit this beloved book, almost ten years after first discovering it, and find out if my recollections of early Bryson were fair or not. It is a rarity for me to read a book a second time and this now joins just half a dozen books or so which belong to that elite group.

On the whole, yes, I had remembered Bryson accurately. He’s definitely grumpier now and so much fonder of the word ‘fuck’ than he used to be. Nevertheless, I had either missed or forgotten that the roots were all there in ‘Notes’. Although he doesn’t single out so clearly and distinctly as many people and businesses to come under his critical wrath, he does find some and he generally lays into whole towns and cities without a blush. But Bryson wouldn’t be Bryson if we didn’t have his sharp and sarcastic critique of…well, anyone and anything really.

The humour hasn’t dulled although much of the modern things of which Bryson speaks are now of the past. He mentions Woolworths several times, for instance, and some areas he considers in need of refurbishment and sprucing up have indeed had just that and transformed themselves. In that sense, it’s place as the superlative book on the British people is, perhaps, beginning to fade. It is, however, a fairer book than the sequel in that I felt on reading that he covers the British Isles more or less equally. In the second book, he spends the lion’s share way down in the south and it feels like he did little more than drive through most of the north; this is annoying to say the least.

It was nice then, to take this ‘double trip’ down memory lane. Double because ‘Notes’ reminds me of my youth growing up in 80s Britain; and of my first forays into Bryson back when I still had hair. I also found greater respect for the sequel too. Overall, it was a most pleasant journey and one which made me want to give the old chap a big manly hug and tell him ‘there, there, it will be ok Bill’, before then buying him a pint down the pub (he and I share that particular hobby greatly). And if fate allows, I might just venture back to this book again before the two of us grumpy old men leave this mortal coil.

View all my reviews

Writer and journalist D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page.

Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media.

D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at


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