Back in the day Bill Bryson wrote Notes from a SmallIsland. It was the tale of an American travelling around Britain and sharing his experiences. Twenty years on he has revisited the project in The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island.
As co-incidence had it I re-read Notes from a Small Island for a book group I am part of immediately before setting off on The Road for Little Dribbling. I had enjoyed the first book but been had been forced to re-evaluate my opinion of Bryson a little when somebody pointed out he was a little bit rude and not always politically correct. I was a little taken back by this criticism of Bryson at first. After all I had been a post-grad at Durham and for part of that time Bryson had been chancellor and to suggest he was anything less than a minor deity was really not the done thing. It was probably a good thing I came to this book ready to more objectively examine the nature of what was being written a little more.
There are points when Bryson’s opinion is biting and put forward in a way which is close to cruel. There is also an honesty about his speech which is not curbed by concerns about what might be politically right to say. That said it is part of the fun of Bryson and he is now a fully-fledged grumpy old man I would argue plays up to that in this book.
However, I disagree with the Telegraph writer Clive Aslet who says this is a made up account of Britain. With regard to Durham Bryson does admit fully to having a knowledge of the city and he does not for a moment suggest that his knowledge of the cathedral, which he does say he has visited often, comes from this visit. I would also say as a frequent train traveller who holidays in the UK rather than abroad I recognised much of what he said as being true. That said I do agree with the Telegraph writer that Bryson feigns ignorance on occasion for the benefit of the laughs. One example being I have no doubt that he understands the role that the Aldeburgh festival and it’s long association with Benjamin Britain, together with its close proximity to London play in making it a sea-side destination that has thrived when others have struggled. It was where the arty types of the mid-twentieth century chose to escape to before the younger generation discovered Whitstable.
The distain he feels for British service is sometimes justified and sometimes not. I would say one only needs to watch the Mary Portas programmes where she goes in and teaches customer service as an example of why much of what he says is correct.
In terms of the changing nature of the country and the way in which some areas are being revitalised whilst others are decaying that is also not deniable. What I suspect the Telegraph writer dislikes is at various points, as when he discusses Birmingham, Bryson lays blame at the door of the government for forcing huge cuts onto local councils.
That is not to say Bryson is a rabid socialist, he is way too politically incorrect for that. No, he is quite simply a middle of the road bloke who is taking a look at what is going on and making the same kind of comments many are when they take the time to look at the impact of the policies being pursued at the moment.
One of the comforting things I found about this book is I could imagine my father, who is of a similar age to Bryson making many of the similar observations.
It is not all doom and gloom though. Bryson is very careful to give credit where it is due, on occasion naming specific individuals who have served him well. He also makes, I believe, a fair assessment of the National Trust which he does join on route.
So do I recommend the book? Yes, if you like grumpy old men mumbling on and if you want an accurate snap shot of part of Britain at the moment. No, if you are too easily offended by men of a certain age being at various points rude, transphobic and generally miserable.
On that last point and referring to page 313 of his book it did disappoint me that he displayed so much of a lack of understanding about trans issues. In the unlikely event that (a) he should ever read this & (b) he should not dismiss me as another one of those book reviewers he dislikes I should like to invite him to find out more about what it is like for transsexual people. Preferably by sitting down and just chatting to somebody who is trans and finding out why referring to “Bruce Jenner in drag” is not a cheap laugh but really deeply unhelpful and problematic.