Strike out a few sections and this narrative could well be the take of a jolly Edwardian gentleman in a frock coat, bow tie, and pinstriped trousers, on present day England.
What’s funny, though, is that “Notes from a Small Island” is written by a baby boomer, who isn’t even a Briton, but an archetypal American, born in Des Moines, Iowa.
The thoughts expressed here, however, aren’t the hurried, sketchy, jottings of a passing tourist, but the reflections of a foreign-born permanent settler.
Bryson first sailed to the English shores as a backpacker, on a misty March night, in 1973, on a “midnight ferry from Calais” and was so enchanted by a “lonely island in the middle of an empty green sea” that he dropped anchor there for good, staying on for the next twenty years.
His travelogue is a valedictory look at his adoptive country, a farewell gift, of sorts, penned shortly before his brief move to the U.S.
It’s in many ways, the converse of Richard Grant’s “American Nomads.”
Grant is a Briton, who got tired of England’s geographic smallness, its blocks of council estates, its wet weather and struck out for America, wandered through it for fifteen long years, before deciding to settle down in Tucson, Arizona.
While “Notes from a Small Island” is the result of a tour of affection, “American Nomads” was born out of Grant’s pulsating lust to roam, a yearning triggered by his fascination with seemingly limitless territory, the never-ending roads, infinite horizons, and sunny skies—all of the joys that Bryson, for obvious reasons, can’t gush about.
Rather, he marvels at the English’s “idiosyncratic notion” that “Britain is a big place.” He’s “ dumbfounded” by the short flight time between London and Paris, Brussels, Frankfurt, or Rome, which takes “less time than it [does] to get the foil lid off the little container of milk for your coffee”—
Grant embraced a nomadic lifestyle, making a makeshift home of his car, driving from place to place.
Bryson is at the opposite end of the spectrum, his peripatetic mission being rendered possible only by public transport—buses, trains, and the tube—save for two occasions when he was compelled to rent a vehicle.
When he alights anywhere new, he merrily switches to a private mode of transportation—his own two feet—and takes unbridled delight in being a flâneur, discovering a less-traveled cobbled street, a forgotten tarn, a non-touristy beach, an obscure hamlet.
Bryson’s dispatches are peppered with crackling humor and a “dry, ironic sense of wit,” the very sort he admires in the Britons himself.
Never missing an opportunity to chuckle at the nation’s eccentricities—always using droll metaphors, of course—he also doffs his hat to the remarkable qualities of its people.
In the manner of a gruff old fellow, he scolds Britain’s careless developers and planners for having despoiled its glorious and abundant architectural heritage by shoehorning incongruous, modern glass windows into Victorian frontages “without even the most fleeting nod to their character or age,” bulldozing parks to erect shopping malls and rolling out acres of parking lots.
He doesn’t spare Britain’s world famous natural wonders, his affectionate belittlement, reducing the White Cliffs of Dover to an “800-million-year-old chalk,” the Stonehenge as a gathering of “brooding stones” and the Thames an “ambitious stream.”
Never mind that Britain is the proud owner of 445,000 ancient or historic buildings, 12,000 medieval churches, 1.5 million acres of common land, 120,000 miles of footpath, it pays little heed to preserving its golden treasures, he bemoans.
He expresses alarm at the government’s callous policy towards it landscape, with the result that 96,000 miles of hedgerows disappeared between 1945 and 1985.
While he salutes Oxford for its “tireless intellectual toil,” he laments that “so much of it is so ugly.” He pooh-poohs a building on its hallowed grounds, as a structure that resembles a “toaster with windows.”
Yet, he can’t seem to stop himself from being impressed by cozy names of train stations (“Bromley-by-Bow”) and street names (“Cinnamon Street” in Wapping).
He is eternally charmed by the Britons’ remarkable ability to take delight in the smallest of pleasures (“That is why so many of their treats—tea cakes, scones, crumpets, rock cakes, rich tea biscuits, fruit Shrewsburys—are so cautiously flavorful), or “to get genuinely excited by the prospect of a hot beverage,” or how “easy they are to please.”
Bryson has obviously covered a lot of ground, physically, and charted his journey using a meticulously detailed survey map. If only he’d shared it with his readers, they’d have gotten a better grasp of the magnificent locations he visited.