Notes from a small island
Notes from a small island wasn’t exactly what i expected, and in a sense, I have to say I was a bit disappointed. I was looking forward (for a reason I can’t rationally explain) to a sort of mock journal – something in the vein of Three Men on the Bummel – with witty commentary on British eccentricities, gross and purposefully funny exaggerations and various misunderstandings. What I got was an actual travel diary of an American who lived in the UK for 20 years and suddenly decided to visit all the cities on foot or with the aid of public transportation. While that’s a perfectly cool idea, and something I’d enjoy doing myself, it’s really something better done than read about. Maybe I should have checked out a map, but I don’t have much patience for these things, so I read on about the hotels & shops in some British village, about forgotten roman ruins, medieval castles, graves, monuments, musings on transportation and weather. While it was funny at times and overall quite enjoyable, I’m afraid I wasn’t left with anything much. Should I ever have the unexpected luck of trying a similar endeavor, perhaps the book will come in handy – at least as far as comparisons might go. Besides, the book is rather dated by frequent references to one local political figure or other which, 15 years later, don’t mean anything to me (and probably to no one who isn’t British or very much into British politics).
And another thing that irked me? The constant reminder that things (like meals or museum entrances) are expensive and overpriced. Why is this even worth mentioning, when I believe it’s common knowledge to everyone that for a hotel breakfast not included in the room rate you will have to shell out considerably more than you would if you’d just run down to some café 2 blocks away? If this sort of consideration were coming from my friends, I’d ask them what the hell else they were expecting and then move on to another topic. I don’t enjoy talking about money with a large group of people (actually, the fewer, the better) and I particularly don’t enjoy listening to a pretty well to do writer gripe about a 14£ breakfast. I’m just saying…
On the other hand, it’s clear that Bryson loves the little island and is pained to see it ruined: apparently almost every town has a new architectural monstrosity to show for itself that completely ruins an otherwise perfectly quaint, Victorian street. But hey, this was 15 years ago – after all, he dissed Oxford and I was in love with it, so maybe things have changed…or we just have different standards 😉
Something quite touching I was left with – the story of a small mining town (Ashington) where, after 10 hours of work, miners would still find the time for higher purposes such as painting, reading and other cultural pursuits. To be fair, how many of us are really interested in anything beyond lying down like a sack of potatoes after 9 or 10 hours spent in an office sitting down and staring at a screen? And something funny he pointed out? The British propensity for weirdly twisted names: Scabcleuch, Whiterashes, Scurlage, Whelpo (Bryson’s right – it does sound like dogfood), Wigtwizzle, Chew Magna or Yonder Bognie. There’s something very endearing in all this.
But the best thing about the book – the fact that I woke in my a very deep desire to do something similar myself one day – not write a book, but travel across the country (preferably, his adoptive country and definitely not mine).