As you might already know, I am an avid fan of Bill Bryson. I reviewed his book One Summer and since then have read three of his other books (during my hiatus period) which were all equally as good. I love how he’s able to make even the most science and technical books (such as The History of Nearly Everything) fun and engaging. I couldn’t stop laughing throughout and he makes things that I never thought I would be interested in, very fun to read about.
You could therefore appreciate my excitement when I decided to treat myself to this book. I loved the premise of it; Bill Bryson traveling around the UK stopping at different locations throughout the country and reviewing those places, along with a few rambles about the current affairs, some random unknown infamous people and just his general thoughts. I already appreciated his humour and I was curious to know where he would stop on his journey and get his musings on life in the UK. Likewise, I was hoping to use this as inspiration for any future road trips throughout the UK, thinking he might stumble upon and highlight some little gems that aren’t as obvious.
The book started off in Bryson’s usual happy-go-lucky attitude and humour. We first covered the south of England, and it included a few interesting points about London. The one thing I absolutely loved was the foreign perspective he had on the UK – felt right at home to me. He’s actually born and raised in Iowa, of all places, but has lived and worked in the UK for over twenty years. I loved how he pointed out the oddities that he encountered in the UK about it’s culture, because these mirrored me feelings and thoughts about the UK too. Take this quote for example:
“The most dismaying loss, I think, is of front gardens. People seem strangely intent on getting their cars as close to their living rooms as possible, and to that end have been ripping out their little front gardens and replacing them with service areas so that there is always a place for their cars and wheels bins. I don’t quite understand why they are permitted to do this since nothing more obviously ruins a street.” (88)
I totally agree with him, and since reading this bit have brought this up with my friends and have just noticed it more in real life which is really neat for a book to resonate with you like that.
Likewise, throughout the book, he highlighted some shocking and poignant aspects about British culture as well as the changing attitudes. For example, he highlights the importance of keeping green belts instead of building semi-faster trains between late cities:
“The first and most dangerous charge routinely laid against the green belt is that it isn’t actually all that special, that much of the land is scrubby and degraded. Well, you decide. According to a study by the Campaign to Protect Rural England, green belts in England contain 30,000 kilometres of footpaths and other rights of way, 220,000 hectares of woodland, 250,000 hectares of top quality farmland, and 89,000 hectares of Sites of Special Scientific Interest. That sounds to me like things worth keeping.” (164)
This rant is great because he not only highlights his opinion but also provides supplementary facts to back up his thoughts. I always appreciate when authors do this as it makes it much more poignant, instead of an author just going on about what they think. So this explains why this book has earned the 2 stars that I had given it.
Unfortunately, things take a turn for the worse for Bryson as the book goes on.
His rants stop being well thought out, and rather turn a bit pessimistic and confusing. He visits some towns and complains how devoid of people and tourist they are and how sad that is, but then also complains about the “thriving” towns for being overpopulated and too crowded. He doesn’t really express what the happy medium is for him which makes him just sound grumpy and irritable.
There is also a lot of repetition and I feel like he just rushed the second half of the book. He provided little interesting facts about the town and kept just repeating himself. He also described the types of shops that the town had open, i.e. cafes, restaurants, pubs, grocery stores etc, in great length, which was fine as the high street is reflective of how “well” a town is doing, but he could have been more creative about talking about other elements as well. This way they all blended into one for me and he failed to provide any interesting insight.
He also completely dismisses some towns and cities as being not worth his time without giving them a chance which I found a bit annoying. For example, when he arrives into Manchester all he can manage to do is grumble about having to pay 30p to use the loo (interestingly he doesn’t highlight that the same principle applies throughout many central stations such as London Euston). He literally dedicated an entire paragraph about that. From that paragraph he just launches into a another rant, this time about the food tax which he happen to experience when at Manchester Piccadilly. That lasts about 5 paragraphs. The only other thing he mentions about Manchester:
“I had decided already not to stay in Manchester. It was a Sunday and I couldn’t face spending a Sunday evening wandering around a dead city centre town.” (390)
I found this to be very dismissive and parochial view on England’s second biggest city.
Lastly, based on his extensive rants and “thoughts”, he doesn’t sound like the person I envisioned him being. He comes across pompous at times, and is often irritated. He has a handful of outbursts when things don’t seem to go his way, or he privately thinks some pretty awful things about people. The first few times it’s funny, but because of how often he does it, it comes across as pompous to me, for example:
“I had a sandwich and a cup of tea in the cafe and was feeling so benignly pleased with the whole experience that I didn’t bitch even privately to myself that the sandwich was a little dry and cost roughly double what, in a reasonable world, it should have. Well, maybe I did bitch inwardly just a little, but I didn’t say anything grumbly to anyone and that is surely a mark of progress.” (273)
I don’t really see the point of highlighting that repeatedly throughout the book. It made him sound like an awful person, whether someone deserved it or not. This alongside his other behaviour actually made him sound quite pretentious and it did ruin the book for me.
It’s a bit of a shame because I was really looking forward to reading this book. I’m not sure if his first Notes from a Small Island book is any better, but I felt this one didn’t live up to my expectations so I am in no hurry to find out. I also feel like I know the author better, but not sure it does him any favours for me. By the end of the book, he sounded like an old grumpy man that wanted a platform to rant about how terrible the country is and how it’s going to the dogs. Not really the type of read I particularly choose to read! The only other positive thing I could say about this book, is that I got in on offer so only wasted about £2.95 and half a day of my life reading it. I think that’s a loss I am willing to take.
Q: Have you ever been disappointed by one of your favourite authors? If so, who were they and what disappointed you?