I am a huge fan of Bill Bryson (see my blogs on Bill Bryson and Going Down Under) so was delighted when his latest book The Road to Little Dribbling was released last year. I loved Notes From a Small Island, which this book in some ways revisits, and his outsider take on our quirky English ways.
So I was somewhat surprised when I started The Road to Little Dribbling that I didn’t laugh out loud until, according to my kindle, I was 31% of the way through the book. Maybe there is something different about writing about Britain as an insider who was once an outsider. But for me, the first part was a bit of a moan and he sounded at times like a grumpy old man remembering with sad nostalgia the sunny uplands of his youth, wistful for a lost John Mayor England of old maids cycling past cricket teas.
Near the beginning he says: ‘That was the Britain I came to. I wish it could be that place again.’ OK, so I’m not old enough to remember what that Britain felt like as an adult, but I’m very glad it’s changed from the 1980s I remember growing up in. It feels a lot more tolerant and inclusive, a lot less sexist, the food is loads better (especially for a vegetarian) and it’s less drab. There’s less litter and dog poo around, there’s more to do, there’s the Internet. Although today does feel like a harder place for girls and young women to grow up in, and sometimes it feels like individualism is all pervasive.
He does acknowledge that his memories are shaped by being young and in love ‘when I close my eyes it’s always sunny’ and that some of his current feeling about Britain are really about age: ‘the older you get, the more the world seems to belong to other people’.
I did agree with Bill Bryson, however, that on some things we are going backwards. In particular, I agreed with his passionate defence of the green belt. I grew up in a small village in the Hampshire countryside and now am back living on the Hampshire, Sussex, Surrey border surrounded by breathtakingly beautiful countryside. It’s not NIMBYism wanting to protect it – it’s our heritage and once it’s gone it’s gone. So I agree with Bryson that defending the countryside is not ‘an elitist conspiracy that stops affordable housing from being built’. He makes an excellence defence of preserving the beauty of the British countryside, which is why I was delighted when he was appointed a few years ago to be President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England.
But The Road to Little Dribbling to me felt like it lacked a narrative to pull it all together. There would have been one if he had journeyed up the ‘Bryson line’ or retraced his steps from Notes From a Small Island, but as he did neither it sometimes read more like a collection of essays. Thankfully though, it really picked up a third of way in and went back to the wry, amusing commentary that I love and expect from him.
In fact the longer the book went on the funnier it got and I found myself laughing out loud – hilarious observations of human nature and of British culture that are Bryson at his witty best. I also totally agree with his complaints about the attitude in many British shops, which seem pleased when you turn up at closing time and they can tell you to go away rather than actually sell you something. Shopping definitely needs to become a bit more like the American experience.
Like Bryson, I also recently found myself by mistake stuck in ‘Blenheim: The untold story’ which was a horrendous ‘attraction’ at Blenheim Palace that they literally won’t let you out of once you go in until it’s finished, and it’s awful. It’s in stark contrast to the rest of the Palace, which is wonderful. I also enjoyed his many spot-on observations about life in Britain – like when he points out that living in the British climate teaches patience and stoicism and means that the British remain happy where others would falter.
So, overall I’m glad I read The Road to Little Dribbling, but for me it’s not Bryson at his glorious and hilarious best.