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Oh, those crazy Brits

Notes From a Small Island
Notes From a Small Island
By Bill Bryson

William Morrow and Company: 1996

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This review first appeared in the American Reporter in 1996.

After 20 years, Bill Bryson is coming home. The only problem seems to be that after living nearly half his life in Britain, the U.S.-born Bryson is no longer quite sure just where home is.

That seems the theme for Bryson's "Notes From a Small Island," if such a crazy quilt of a book can be said to have a theme. After he and his English wife would move back to the United States, Bryson – who also wrote the best-selling "The Mother Tongue" and "Made in America" – decided to take a final tour around his adopted land before leaving. In so doing, Bryson discovers that he's become nearly as British as he is American – and ends up wondering if he's going home or leaving it.

Subtitled "An Affectionate Portrait of Britain," the resulting book is a love letter to a nation from an adopted son. Like any truly affectionate son, Bryson knows the faults of his beloved parent – knows them and embraces them, for they are what define the object of his devotion. And so the bad food, the cranky hoteliers, the sewage-encrusted beaches are no longer national embarrassments, but become treasures we share through Bryson's eyes.

The only time Bryson truly loses his patience with the British is when it comes to the lack of appreciation they have for their own historical heritage. When Bryson comes across mirrored office buildings set smack dab in the midst of a 300-year-old stand of row houses, he is able to work himself up into a bout of truly British self-righteousness. Witness this gem when he visits Oxford and wanders about town, comparing the new buildings with the old:

What wort of mad seizure was it that gripped the city's planners, architects, and college authorities in the 1960s and 1970s? ... Just look at the Merton College Wardens' Quarters – which is not by any means the worst building in the city. What a remarkable series of improbabilities were necessary to its construction. First, some architect had to design it, had to wander through a city steeped in eight hundred years of architectural tradition, and with great care conceive of a structure that looked like a toaster with windows. Then a committee of finely educated minds at Merton had to show the most extraordinary indifference to their responsibilities to posterity and say to themselves, "You know, we've been putting up handsome buildings since 1264; let's have an ugly one for a change." Then the planning authorities had to say, Well, why not? Plenty worse elsewhere.' Then the whole of the city – students, dons, shopkeepers, office workers, members of the Oxford Preservation Trust – had to acquiesce and not kick up a fuss. Multiply this by, say, two hundred or three hundred or four hundred and you have modern Oxford. And you tell me that it is one of the most beautiful, well-preserved cities in the world? I'm afraid not. It is a beautiful city that has been treated with gross indifference and lamentable incompetence for far too long, and every living person in Oxford should feel a little bit ashamed.

His time in Britain has definitely given Bryson an English sense of humor. At its funniest, "Notes" is more like P.G. Wodehouse come to life than it is any dry travelogue. And given the decidedly odd and eclectic roster of place names dotting the British countryside, Bryson has no trouble sliding in utterly fictitious (one hopes) names of towns that still sound plausible in a Monty Pythonesque sort of way. I mean, when you have REAL towns and neighborhoods with names like Snaresbrook, Barnstaple, East Grinstead, Lessness Heath, Weston-super-Mare or Wapping, who on Earth is going to blanch when Bryson announces he's off to East Stuttering, Bakelite, St. Andrew by the Wardrobe, or Buggered Ploughman?

One of the funniest passages isn't even about the British – it's about the French. Of course, picking on the supercilious French is great British sport, so Bryson remains true to the spirit of the book when poking fun at France in the first chapter as he prepares to retrace his original arrival in England via ferry from Calais 20 years earlier:

For reasons that I have never understood, the French have a particular genius when it comes to tacky religious keepsakes, and in a gloomy shop on a corner of the Place d'Armes, I found one I liked: a plastic model of the Virgin Mary standing with beckoning arms in a kind of grotto fashioned from seashells, miniature starfish, lacy sprigs of dried seaweed, and a polished lobster claw. Glued to the back of the Madonna's head was a halo made from a plastic curtain ring, and on the lobster claw the model's gifted creator had painted an oddly festive-looking "Calais!" in neat script. I hesitated because it cost a lot of money, but when the lady of the shop showed me that it also plugged in and lit up like a fun-fair ride at Blackpool, the only question in my mind was whether one would be enough. "C'est tres jolie," she said in a kind of astonished hush when she realized that I was prepared to pay real money for it, and bustled off to get it wrapped and paid for before I came to my senses and cried, "Say, where am I? And what, pray, is THIS tacky piece of Francomerde I see before me?" "C'est tres jolie," she kept repeating soothingly, as if afraid of disturbing my wakeful slumber. I think it may have been some time since she had sold a Virgin Mary with Seashells Occasional Light. In any case, as the shop door shut behind me, I distinctly heard a whoop of joy.

And so it goes, throughout Bryson's trip around England, Scotland and Wales – he's an eye for the odd and a truly British knack for using understatement to bring out the absurd. At the back of the book is a glossary of terms British. It is absolutely not comprehensive; most likely (given Bryson's warped sense of humor), it's not meant to be. But American readers will find it hilarious. (The British, one suspects after reading Bryson, would be utterly lost as to the jocularity of the glossary.)

Anglophiles will just love this book – it's the kind of book that will appeal to those whom Wodehouse makes pee their pants in outrageous laughter.