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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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