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Posts Tagged ‘Britain’

Notes from a Small IslandI got this book from an American guy I used to work with in Nowon in Seoul, back in 2009. I’ve noticed from one of the Facebook groups that he now also lives in Cheonan. It’s a small almost-island, I suppose.

In this book, Bill Bryson travels around Great Britain over seven weeks, using public transport (or his own feet), staying in modest hotels and wandering around the towns and cities he visits. It starts in Dover, where he recreates the moment a couple of decades earlier when he first arrived in England from France and ended up staying, marrying and having a family. The whole premise of the book was trigger by his imminent (at the time of writing – Notes from a Small Island is nearly twenty years old) move back to the States.

It’s a very entertaining book. Not only does it function as a travelogue, describing the various places and sights as well as his various modes of transport, but it has elements of memoir and polemic. Bryson talks about his first job in the UK, where he met his future wife; when he reaches Yorkshire he even takes a break from travelling to spend a night or two at home. He also rages against the various ugly buildings that have been inflicted on Britain’s High Streets and against the difficulties of journeying on bus and train networks that refuse to provide logical transfer options.

Highlights of his tour include, walking between seaside towns on the south coast, taking mountain train rides in Wales (or was it the Pennines?), visiting a wonderfully preserved Roman mosaic in a forest, only to be told by a reader (this later edition informs us) that it was a Victorian reconstruction, driving to John o’ Groats, watching one of the first IMAX films at what was then the National Museum of Film, Photography and Television and is now the National Media Museum.

And there’s plenty of observations about the British character, from the strange mix of the ancient, the old and the modern, the insular mentality – the bureaucratic to the individual – to endless debates about the best way to drive somewhere, being called ‘love’ or ‘mate’ by everyone, politeness and our genius for queuing.

CPRE Bill Bryson - Hamsphire-  South Downs - 3.jpg

Along the way, Bryson reveals his own occasional lack of politeness. He shouts at a hotel manager who’d locked him out one night and retired; the next morning, Bryson offers a miserable apology and the manager receives it with phlegmatic cheer. One particular low-point – where Bryson loses a few points in the Good Human Being stakes – is when he has a go at a McDonalds worker for asking if he wanted an apple pie with his McBreakfast – and continues to lay into him despite the lad calmly repeating that it’s just part of his McJob.

But this lapse doesn’t really detract from the fact that Notes from a Small Island is an engaging book full of laugh-out-loud moments and interesting musings on Britain and Britishness.

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Having successfully, though narrowly, avoided being sick on the aeroplane to Gatwick, I felt somewhat better by the time we disembarked. Going through Immigration was a breeze for me – there were no queues to speak of and the officer just glanced at my passport before allowing me through. Habiba had no such luck.

We screwed up when it came to preparing for this border crossing. Travelling between European countries was incredibly easy, even the non-Schengen ones, and we partly forgot to makes sure to be ready for the UK and partly didn’t realise it would be more difficult. As a result, Habiba didn’t have any of the print-outs for her onward travel with her.

As I waited in the area behind the desks, I could see and partly hear Habiba getting more and more upset. I moved closer to try to overhear what was going on, but the officer evidently noticed Habiba’s glance and turned around and told me to move away. After another few minutes, the officer left his post to talk to me and ask about our plans; he explained that we had no evidence that Habiba wasn’t going to disappear in the UK and live and work here illegally – with a British boyfriend, this was, apparently, a greater risk.

After this, the officer allowed Habiba to enter the country, although with some sort of flag connected to her passport that would tell future British Immigration officers what had happened.

We collected our bags, Habiba bemoaning the unfairness of her treatment, and headed to the railway station to catch a train to London Bridge. From there we went to the Tube Station, bought Oyster Cards, went a couple of stops along the Jubilee Line to Canada Water and walked to Colin’s place. I made friends with Colin, and also Drew and Pete, when I lived in London in 2007 and joined Pete’s roleplaying game. Colin kindly agreed to put us up for a couple of days and it was great to see him and spend some time with his partner Sally and cherubic young son, Alex.

The following morning, I was feeling worse. Habiba went to a nearby Tesco and got some supplies, including headache pills. After taking a couple each of a couple of different types and resting for a while, I started to feel a bit better. We ventured out and I took Habiba to have a look around Camden Lock and Stables markets – which she loved.

Then we headed a little bit further north to Hampstead and walked through the Heath for a bit (I hardly ever walked from Hampstead High Street to Hampstead Heath, so I wasn’t sure of the way; I have a good sense of direction, though, and I knew which way to head, so we got there by a reasonably direct route). We went from the pond by South Hill Mansions into the middle somewhere and head south again to Parliament Hill. From there we walked to Belsize Park Underground Station, with a diversion via Mansfield Road – where I used to live.

I was pretty tired by this point. Nevertheless, we headed to Leicester Square to meet Colin and Drew to have dinner – Japanese noodle soup at Wagamama – and watch a movie – The Avengers. The former, in my poorly state, didn’t strike me as the height of deliciousness; the latter, despite being expensive and shown on a rather diminutive screen, was a lot of fun. And, of course, it was great to see Drew again and hang out with him and Colin.

The next day, I was feeling better, but we didn’t get out and about until the early afternoon. At which point, I took Habiba on a tour of London. We took the Tube to London Bridge (Habiba wanted to know if it was falling down, falling down, falling down) and walked by the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, along the Thames to St Paul’s and across the Millennium Bridge to Tate Modern, where we got a coffee and ate our packed lunch. Then we continued along the South Bank to the Millennium Eye, Westminster Bridge, Parliament, Westminster Abbey, up to Trafalgar Square and finally through St James’s Park to Buckingham Palace.

The following morning, we said goodbye to Colin as he left for work, hung out with Sally and Alex briefly before heading to Victoria Coach Station to get the 11:00 National Express coach to Bath and our next host – another Alex.

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