Bill Bryson was born and bred in the USA, but moved to England after high school and spent most of the next 20 years there. When he decided to move back here, he took a 7-week "farewell tour" of the UK. He toured the length and breadth of the isle, almost all of it by public transportation or on foot.
He visited large cities and small towns; famous landmarks and nondescript pubs and hotels. And in the end, he treats us to 30 articles about his stops along the way. Each is about 10 pages long, and they're all much more poignant than any travel guide could hope to be.
What's To Like...
Bryson's musings about his adventures (and misadventures) are amusing and entertainingly honest. He struggles with the inconsistencies of British mass transportation, gets rained on a lot (especially while walking), gets schnockered a couple times (gawd bless British suds), and partakes of a lot of ethnic cuisine.
Bryson pulls few punches. Sometimes the food, libations, and/or service is good; sometimes it's terrible. Soemtimes the people he meets are rude to him for no reason; sometimes he's rude to them for no reason. There's a kewl glossary of Britishisms in the back of book, and any book that mentions Chertsey (pg. 64) gets a thumbs-up. Bryson's insight is apparently accurate; in a 2003 BBC Radio 4 poll, the book was voted "that which best sums up British identity and the state of the nation".
Kewlest New Word...
Parlous : full of danger or uncertainty; precarious.
Some people simply should not be allowed to fall asleep on a train, or, having fallen asleep, should be discreetly covered with a tarpaulin, and I'm afraid I'm one of them. I awoke, some indeterminate time later, with a rutting snort and a brief, wild flail and lifted my head from my chest to find myself mired in a cobweb of drool from beard to belt buckle, and with three people gazing at me in a curiously dispassionate manner. At least I was spared the usual experience of waking to find myself stared at open-mouthed by a group of small children who would flee with shrieks at the discovery that the dribbling hulk was alive. (pg. 282)
Suddenly, in the space of a moment, I realized what it was that I loved about Britain - which is to say, all of it. Every last bit of it, good and bad - old churches, country lanes, people saying "Mustn't grumble" and "I'm terribly sorry but," people apologizing to me when I conk them with a careless elbow, milk in bottles, beans on toast, haymaking in June, seaside piers, Ordnance Survey maps, tea and crumpets, summer showers and foggy winter evenings - every bit of it. (pg. 316)
"Hae ye nae hook ma dooky?" (pg. 307)
Don't try to read Notes from a Small Island in one or two sessions. As Bryson himself notes, after a while, all the quaint little villages and big, sprawling cities start to look the same.
To boot, Bill Bryson is often in a grumpy mood - about the frequency of the rain (ya think, Bill?); about modernization (things change; get over it); about the drabness of his locale ("Bradford's role in life is to make every place else in the world look better in comparison.."), etc. About halfway through the book, I took to reading only one or two chapters a day, and suddenly the book got a lot more interesting.
NfaSI is not my favorite Bill Bryson book. But he's a gifted writer, and this does bring back fond memories of my trips to England. Plus a so-so Bryson book is still pretty good. 8 Stars.