Bill Bryson doesn’t need reviews, but I write in the same genre, travel memoir, and sometimes my book has nestled thrillingly alongside his in the online booksellers categories (a very comfortable spot, thank you). Reading him again has been a reinvigorating experience, which I daresay he’d be quietly pleased to know.
Bryson’s cleverness lies in his ability to tell a story in which the joke is at his own expense and in which he might have a bitch about some gripe common to us all. It makes him human and keeps him at our level as a narrator, someone we can relate to. This he interweaves with journalistic ability to posit theories and back them up with research and his own crystalline summing up. He’s particularly good at this on aspects of cultural or political life, such as Britain’s green belts, why they matter, and the lunacy of wanting to build on them.
In Little Dribbling he’s very good at portraying the Britain of a bygone age and harking back to it in a way that seems only too reasonable. When the staff of the Holloway psychiatric institution played cricket on the lawns outside at the end of a June day, when life wasn’t driven by beauraucracy or economic growth, but was kinder and gentler and things like community life were highly valued and still organically present.
One of the sorrows he expresses frequently in this book is the demise of the small town centre, of high streets with all the things people need to live and comingle well, like libraries, butchers, post offices, museums, fishmongers, small hardware shops, now often replaced by empty premises or a succession of coffee shops and shops selling pieces of timber with inspirational sayings painted on them.
This made me reflect on how lucky we are in Tasmania, because we still have townships with those things in them. In my local town hub of Exeter, we have two small supermarkets, a long standing bakery, a petrol station, post office, chemist, two hairdressers, a doctors’ surgery, a takeaway, a small barber’s which nobody has ever seen open, a pub with a Thai takeaway out back, a new café that everybody’s very excited about, a hardware shop that has the best community notice board, a gift shop, a vet, a clothes shop and a wine bar, a honey shop stocking everything to do with Tasmania’s premium honey, a farm and feed barn, an information centre, and a local library which is the size of a dog kennel but cosy, friendly, run by the same two women who worked in it when I arrived thirteen years ago, and serves as a waiting room for one or two children when they get off the bus in the afternoon. How lucky we are.
There’s always a coffee-spitting moment in a Bryson book and in this one it’s the gentleman standing behind him and three members of his family including two young boys at a football game, who has an issue with eighteen century German metaphysics, and keeps repeating ‘fucking Kant’ throughout the match.
The book is almost worth reading for Bryson’s encounters with British railway officials alone. But as if just for me, he goes to Lytham St Annes, where I grew up, finds it delightful, and goes for a pint at the end of the day at the Ship & Royal, the pub I worked in during my student days. How I wish I’d still been behind the bar – it would have been a handle glass for Mr Bryson for sure!
Some of the descriptions of the Yorkshire Dales and Durham saw me reaching for the iPad and tapping away at Google images, and longing to move back there. His ability to pay tribute to the combination of bucolic countryside and engineering achievements like the Dent Head Viaduct is profound and moving.
Pleasingly, he visits Lytham St Annes, where I grew up, and finds it delightful, calling in for a last pint of the day at the Ship & Royal. How I wish I’d still been behind the bar there – it’d be a handle glass for sure.
He’s the best sort of political in this as his other books: not drilling down into the tedious nitty gritty, but just putting a selective and well-argued point of view which is far too sensible to argue with. On the subject of immigration control, he lists a number of incredibly accomplished friends – a paediatric oncologist among them – who are also from the United States like him, so immigrants. The British government would count it as a net gain if they left. ‘If you think the only people you should have in your country are the people you produced yourselves, you’re an idiot,’ he says.
The world would be a better place if Bill Bryson’s common sense and world view prevailed.