Notes from a Small Island – Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson seems to be able to take any relatively uninteresting subject and turn it into an anecdote. It is especially apparent in Notes from a Small Island, which simply gushes with facts, figures and obscure details about things which you would never have even thought of (or cared about). This is what makes his writing so enjoyable, even if it is a bit tedious at times.

Notes from a Small Island is all about Bryson’s last trip around Britain before going to live back in The States with his family. Starting off in Dover, where he set foot in Britain for the very first time, back in 1973, Bryson revisits old favourites, explores new places and takes a few accidental detours to unexpected areas. Travelling mostly by public transport and staying in modest hotels and Bed and Breakfasts, Bryson learns about Britain at its best and worst.

Bryson describes his experiences in a humorous way, that may not have had me laughing out loud in public, but certainly made me chuckle. Wondering through each town and village, he gives interesting facts about the history, politics, population and pays particular attention to architecture. If there is one thing we learn, it’s that Bill Bryson detests ugly office blocks and he has a startling number of rants about this very point. He has rants about a good many other things as well, including; the British transport system, the British weather, female shoppers and people who like to talk about cars (the last one did have me in stitches, and I couldn’t agree with him more!)

But don’t be put off,  Bryson does not complain all the way through the book! He has a lot to say on the positive side as well. Being a ‘Brit’ myself, I think it is obvious that he has lived in Britain for a long time. He speaks lovingly of our habits, customs and, of course, faults. It is true that almost all problems in Britain can be solved with a steaming pot of tea, we do like to over-analyse car journeys, apologise for things that aren’t our fault, and when in doubt, we know that we can always talk about the weather. At times, it may feel as if Bryson is being patronising (with phrases such as ‘bless them’), which many Brits may find offensive, but really he is just showing his appreciation for the people he has come to love.

I did enjoy Note from a Small Island, even if it sometimes dragged. There were some brilliant and funny moments, useful facts and interesting insights into British culture, but between these good bits, there was a lot of waffle. Bryson’s choice of towns was a bit of a let down. He left out lots of major cities and went to some awful places, knowing that he would dislike them, and then complained about them for pages. The constant reviews of hotels and guest houses got a bit repetitive, making me confused about what the book was supposed to be. Bryson couldn’t seem to decide between a light-hearted, factual book about Britain, a tourist guide for hotels to NOT visit or a humorous autobiographical look at his time spent on this ‘small island’. I wish that he had not taken this ‘last’ silly trip, and had instead pieced together his favourite moments from his life in Britain over the twenty years that he lived here. Surely there would have been plenty of material?

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6 thoughts on “Notes from a Small Island – Bill Bryson

  1. Maybe I should read this, I was sort of anti-Bryson after reading ‘neither here nor there’ especially after reading what he had to say about my beautiful city of Florence. I do enjoy his anectdotes but he sometimes reminds me of Rick Steves and this is not a good thing. Also I don’t really trust the ‘reviews’ of people who don’t spend a significant amount in any one place. However.. this does look interesting!


  2. Hehe… I love this book. Especially the opening scene where he sleeps on a beachfront with a pair of pants on his head!


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