Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

Notes from a Small Island is the book that made Bill Bryson famous. It starts with his arrival in Dover, where a string of bad luck begins. And as if that weren’t enough, his landlady is pretty nightmarish:

“Over the next two days, Mrs. Smegma persecuted me mercilessly, while the others, I suspected, scouted evidence for her. She reproached me for not turning the light off in my room when I went out, for not putting the lid down in the toilet when I’d finished, for taking the colonel’s hot water – I’d no idea he had his own until he started rattling the doorknob and making aggrieved noises in the corridor – for ordering the full English breakfast two days running and then leaving the fried tomato both times. `I see you’ve left the fried tomato again,’ she said on the second occasion. I didn’t know quite what to say to this as it was incontestably true, so I simply furrowed my brow and joined her in staring at the offending item. I had actually been wondering for two days what it was. `May I request,’ she said in a voice heavy with pain and years of irritation, `that in future if you don’t require a fried tomato with your breakfast that you would be good enough to tell me.’

Abashed, I watched her go. `I thought it was a blood clot!’ I wanted to yell after her, but of course I said nothing and merely skulked from the room to the triumphant beams of my fellow residents.”

However, then he comes across a tea-room, and things start to change:

“The tea-room lady called me love. All the shop ladies called me love and most of the men called me mate. I hadn’t been here twelve hours and already they loved me… And they drove on the left! This was paradise. Before the day was half over, I knew that this was where I wanted to be.”

Bill can laugh at himself, which is very refreshing: “I sat there for some time, a young man with more on his mind than in it.”

When laughing at others, it is good-naturedly, sweet, and really funny: “This is something that has been puzzling me for years. Women will stand there watching their items being rung up, and then when the till lady says, ‘That’s £4.20, love,’ or whatever, they suddenly look as if they’ve never done this sort of thing before. They go ‘Oh!’ and start rooting in a flustered fashion in their handbag for their purse or chequebook, as if no-one had told them that this might happen.”

Or: “Is it raining out?’ the reception girl asked brightly as I filled in the registration card between sneezes and pauses to wipe water from my face with the back of my arm. ‘No, my ship sank and I had to swim the last seven miles.”

Anyway, he finds a job at a psychiatric hospital. “It is an interesting experience to become acquainted with a country through the eyes of the insane, and, if I may say so, a particularly useful grounding for life in Britain.”

There, he meets a nurse and falls in love head over heels. She will become his wife later.

While traveling across Great Britain, Bill has weird thoughts: “Here are instructions for being a pigeon: (1) Walk around aimlessly for a while, pecking at cigarette butts and other inappropriate items. (2) Take fright at someone walking along the platform and fly off to a girder. (3) Have a shit. (4) Repeat.”

Or: “And I find chopsticks frankly distressing. Am I alone in thinking it odd that a people ingenious enough to invent paper, gunpowder, kites and any number of other useful objects, and who have a noble history extending back 3,000 years haven’t yet worked out that a pair of knitting needles is no way to capture food?”

Bryson also talks about the British mentality. On World Book Day in 2003, British voters chose Notes from a Small Island as the book that best sums up British identity and the state of the nation. He praises them for their fortitude in grave times, like the World Wars. And when he laughs at them, it is charming: “If you mention in the pub that you intend to drive from, say, Surrey to Cornwall, a distance that most Americans would happily go to get a taco, your companions will puff their cheeks, look knowingly at each other, and blow out air as if to say, ‘Well, now that’s a bit of a tall order,’ and then they’ll launch into a lively and protracted discussion of whether it’s better to take the A30 to Stockbridge and then the A303 to Ilchester or the A361 to Glastonbury via Shepton Mallet. Within minutes the conversation will plunge off into a level of detail that leaves you, as a foreigner, swivelling your head in quiet wonderment.

‘You know that layby outside Warminster, the one with the grit box with the broken handle?’ one of them will say. ‘You know, just past the turnoff for Little Puking but before the B6029 mini-roundabout. By the dead sycamore.’

At this point, you find you are the only person in the group not nodding vigorously.

‘Well, about a quarter of a mile past there, not the first left turning, but the second one, there’s a lane between two hedgerows – they’re mostly hawthorn but with a little hazel mixed in. Well, if you follow that road past the reservoir and under the railway bridge, and take a sharp right at the Buggered Ploughman –’

‘Nice little pub,’ somebody will interject – usually, for some reason, a guy in a bulky cardigan. ‘They do a decent pint of Old Toejam.’

‘– and follow the dirt track through the army firing range and round the back of the cement works, it drops down on to the B3689 Ram’s Dropping bypass. It saves a good three or four minutes and cuts out the rail crossing at Great Shagging.’

‘Unless, of course, you’re coming from Crewkerne,’ someone else will add eagerly. ‘Now, if you’re coming from Crewkerne …’

Give two or more men in a pub the names of any two places in Britain and they can happily fill hours. Wherever it is you want to go, the consensus is generally that it’s just about possible as long as you scrupulously avoid Okehampton, the Hanger Lane gyratory system, central Oxford and the Severn Bridge westbound between the hours of 3 p.m. on Friday and 10 a.m. on Mondays, except bank holidays when you shouldn’t go anywhere at all. ‘Me, I don’t even walk to the corner shop on bank holidays,’ some little guy on the margins will chirp up proudly, as if by staying at home in Staines he has for years cannily avoided a notorious bottleneck at Scotch Corner.”

In his humorous style, Bill also provides little-known historical information about the places he visits, and he visits almost every corner of the Small Island. He is fascinated by the fact that Great Britain has 445,000 listed historical buildings, 12,000 medieval churches, 600,000 known sites of archeological interest, and that the Yorkshire village he was living at has more buildings from the 17th century than the whole of North America.

In short, Notes from a Short Island should be a manual for travel writers. Bryson combines facts, his personal experiences and musings with a great sense of humor. Or humour in British-English. That is why this isn’t a typical book review since I thought that quotes would give you the best taste of Bryson’s writing.

Genre: Travel, Nonfiction, Humor, Memoir

Describe this book with one word: Hilarious

The perfect beverage to sip while reading this book: Light beer

This book’s best musical buddy: Ullo John, Got a New Motor? – Alexei Sayle

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