Books

Book Review – Notes From a Small Island: Bill Bryson

In Notes From a Small Island, Bill Bryson takes the reader on a hilarious 3-week journey travelling within England - An ode to the country that was home for many years, before returning to the states.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

When you are reading a travelogue without actually travelling to the place, you need to have two things:  a) a vivid imagination, and b) a vague idea about the place you’re reading about. Thanks to an introvert brain and a recent 2-week trip to England, I have both. With two big ticks on the criteria, I sat down to read Bryson’s account of his journey in England.

Prior to this, I had read The Body and A Short History of Nearly Everything. The former I LOVED, the latter not so much. Bryson has an uncanny knack to make the most dry and boring subject seem interesting; I experienced this with ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ so you can only imagine what magic he creates with topics that are fun to read – in this case travel. If I had to give an analogy, imagine Lonely Planet meets P.G Wodehouse. Yes, it really is a passable travel account and yes, it is equally hilarious!

From my England trip two years ago, I hardly remember the city of London. Where my memories of one of the most popular and exciting city fails me, equally strong are the moments and visions of my experience of the British countryside. My husband and I spent all-together a week visiting Derby, Yorkshire, Birmingham and Oxfordshire and when I think of our British sojourn, it is some of these lesser visited cities that I recall first. Once you remove yourself from London and journey into the heartland, you really find out what the country is all about. Bryson does exactly this. In the book, his stay in London perhaps runs for a couple of pages, after that his focus is to travel the length and breadth of England – unearthing interesting facts and visiting small towns with intriguing names.

Each chapter in the book (roughly 8-10 pages) is dedicated to a district/city/village or town. Armed with a rucksack and a sturdy pair of legs, Bryson relies heavily on the extensive rail network and sparingly (and under dire circumstances) splurges on cabs. He makes his way through alleys opening up to beautifully maintained gardens, gets caught in the quintessential Brit shower and aimlessly meanders in search of long forgotten landmarks. While reading the book, there were only a few times when I wished I had seen the place for myself, but it only hits you for a moment before you let Bryson’s words let you guide towards using your imagination.  

It’s very interesting to note that in his travel accounts Bryson has a need (almost an obsession) to identify the soul of each place. In millennial tongue, it would refer to the vibe. What makes Blackpool different from Liverpool? Both have an extensive industrial history, but what is it that really puts them apart? To be honest, in hindsight, I remember very little of each city – character, soul or history. I can only recall the book as a whole – a lighthearted account of his journey and his reflections on the citizens of the country and their quirks, likes and dislikes. 

Bryson does not attempt to gloss over the murky bits. He has a bad encounter with a McDonald’s staffer – it goes in the book. He snaps and humiliates an innkeeper – you can read about it in the book. His failed attempt to understand the Scottish dialect – it’ll be in the book. He writes these controversial pieces with as much confidence as the funny anecdotes, and this honest quality is what kept me interested. Otherwise, this would have been a book commissioned by the tourism authority of the United Kingdom or some such government body.

In a way, it is only right. As a traveller, how often are we in the best of moods 24×7? Rarely! Unless you check in a luxury resort on a secluded island – then a shitty mood makes no senses. But for a nomad who is literally taking each day as it comes, cut him slack! You’re bound to spew a few cuss words at a missed train or an annoying waiter hell bent on up-selling you an apple pie with your breakfast order.

This book was published in 1997, so a lot of it might be outdated information. I’d recommend it as a read if you have an interest in traveling extensively within England. If nothing else, it’ll give you an idea of the place that once was. 


Featured image by Abbilyn Zavgorodniaia on Unsplash

4 comments on “Book Review – Notes From a Small Island: Bill Bryson

  1. What a great review and sounds like a fantastic book to read. You certainly have been to some amazing places whilst you enjoyed your trip in England, especially my nearby city Derby! I hope one day when it’s safe you’ll be able to come back to England and explore more of this historic country 😁

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds like an interesting read. I haven’t made it to England yet but I’ve always wanted to go. It’s funny that he even included his experience at McDonald’s.

    Liked by 1 person

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