Monday, November 09, 2015

The Road to Little Dribbling

Hard as it may be for Bill Bryson fans to believe, his breakthrough book about England, Notes from a Small Island, is now 20 years old.  This may just be a little difficult for Bryson to believe also, because it was only after his publisher pointed the anniversary date out to him and inquired about a possible sequel that the author even considered such a thing worth doing. Coincidentally, Bryson had also just become a dual citizen of Great Britain and the United States, so he decided there was no better time to travel around his newly adopted country revisiting a few of the spots he highlighted in Notes from a Small Island and finally making it to some of the other places he had, up to then, managed to miss in his forty years of living on the island.  All of this would be accomplished, of course, with the new book firmly in mind. 

Early on in The Road to Little Dribbling, Bryson states that he never intended to follow literally in the footsteps of Notes because if he did that he feared that the new book would become little more than a whining narrative about how those places had all changed for the worse.  Nonetheless, as the author steadily makes his way around the U.K., a sense of loss begins to overwhelm both him and the reader. In Bryson’s defense, however, his readers will easily understand a feeling they are likely to have often had themselves when revisiting their own pasts. 

Times were simpler twenty years ago.  Because there were fewer cars on the roads, it was easier (if perhaps slower) to make one's way through a country so well serviced by its public transportation system.  People were more optimistic about the future and were enjoying life as the world moved further and further from the aftermath of World War II.  Roads were new, seaside resorts were still fresh and well maintained, and a feeling of economic restraint was nowhere to be found in Britain.  Today, while the natural beauty of the country is as great as ever, cutbacks and infrastructure deterioration are evident.  And despite the well-earned English reputation for stoicism, pessimism now seems more the order of the day. 

Author Bill Bryson
But don't let that worry you, as a reader, too much.  The old Bill Bryson is still very much in evidence, his sense of humor and irony are still intact, and this book is as much fun to read as I suspect it was for its author to write.  In one of my favorite bits from the book, Bryson even takes it upon himself to create what he calls “The Bryson Line,” map included, which more correctly identifies the two points in Britain with the most distance between them.  They are not Lands End and John O'Groats (as my journey completion certificate from the nineties attests) but Bognor Regis (well to the east of Lands End) and Cape Wrath (a bit west of John O'Groats).  So now I need to earn a new certification or stop telling complete strangers that I once completed the trip between the two most widely separated cities in the U.K.  Thanks for an excuse to revisit Britain, Bill.

 Traveling with Bill Bryson, even in print, makes for a fun trip because of the way he throws out little tidbits and observations when you least expect to hear them.  Here are a couple of my particular favorites:

            “It was as if they had died and gone to heaven, albeit a heaven populated largely by people with enormous bellies and neck tattoos...” – this while describing the reaction of his two London grandsons who were seeing an Everton football home match for the first time ever.  Previously, the only other live Everton fan they had ever seen was their father.

            “They all looked like the sort of people who had never had sex with anything they couldn't put in a closet afterwards.  I tried to imagine what the rest of their lives were like if this was the fun part, but couldn't.” – this an observation Bryson made when running across a small group of “trainspotters” in a Lancashire train station.

All in all, The Road to Little Dribbling (a place Bryson is still looking for, by the way) is great fun.  Longtime fans are certain to be pleased, and new ones are going to be eager to take more trips with Bill Bryson via his earlier books.  

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