Bryson's Cranky Look at Britain Has Sublime Moments

By Bill Bryson
Doubleday, 2015, 376 ppp.
* * *

Few travel writers rival Bill Bryson's magical mix of humor, celebratory wonder, and gentle critique. Bryson’s search for the ‘perfect’ American small town in The Lost Continent (1989) is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. In it—and books such as I’m a Stranger Here Myself (1999) and his hilarious Australian sojourn In a Sunburned Country (2000)—Bryson manages both to expose readers to godforsaken locales, yet find the sublime in small moments and unexpected discoveries. He has always called attention to head-scratching idiocy, and has expressed bafflement when finding Homo sapiens in habitats unfit for human consumption, but his barbs generally battle for attention with self-deprecating humor.
The Road to Little Dribbling—the title is ironic; no such place exists—is a sequel ­to Notes from a Small Island, his 1996 walkabout Britain. Bryson is an Iowan by birth, but has lived much of his life since the 1970s in England—first as a student working at a defunct sanatorium in Surrey, but also in Dorset, Yorkshire, Hampshire, and London. He is married to an Englishwoman and is in the process of obtaining UK citizenship. Little Dribbling contains numerous laugh-out-loud passages and, like his other books, takes us to out of the way places where few wander and more should—Noar Hill, Silbury, the remnants of Motopia, the Meon Valley, and Derwent Water among them—and regales us with tales of long-forgotten English eccentrics. (No one does eccentricity as well as Brits!)
What’s missing from Little Dribbling is empathy. What once amused Bryson now infuriates him. The book is filled with discursions and rants that, frankly, only a writer as famous as he could get past editors without reworking the tone. At age 64, Bryson seems to be cultivating the image of grumpy misanthrope. There is liberal use of the F-bomb, mostly for cheap affect, and even more liberal denunciation of people he encounters as “idiots” and “cretins.” Sometimes it’s richly deserved. He recounts an incident in Austin—though what a trip to Texas has to do with a book about Britain is uncertain—in which he checked into a major hotel. When he gave the clerk his London address, she asked where it was located. When she couldn’t locate England, Britain, or the UK on her computer pull-down menu, she insisted there could be no such place. I despair for America’s future. How does one get out of junior high school without having heard of London? But, wait—it gets worse.  Our dumb-as-dung cowgirl was perfectly content when Bryson told her to try “France!” Okay, she deserves the label “idiot.” But the overall sense of the book is that a lot of people annoy Bryson—sometimes merely for their audacity of occupying physical space.
At his best, Bryson makes us chortle. Little Dribbling is filled with quotable hoots. His take on Britain’s declining rail service: “It is like rigor mortis with scenery.” He skewers a talentless but venomous authoress as an airhead who finds herself “progressing through life with breasts that must weigh thirty kilos each.” He uses the phrase “knobhead in ermine” to lampoon an archaic British class system that bestows honors on people who don’t actually do anything. He is equally witty in discussing Britain’s legendary inefficiency, its penchant for erecting monuments to people it forgets the moment the first pigeon alights, and its obsession with rules, especially those that are contradictory.
The overall portrait of Britain from Bognor Regis to Scotland’s Cape Wrath—places Bryson determined are the actual most-distant points in the United Kingdom, not Land’s End and John o’Groats as the tour books say—is less sunny than that of Notes from a Small Island. He sees a nation in the midst of transformations that are destroying remaining pockets of charm and replacing them with squalor, noise, and litter. He confesses missing the Britain he came to love in the 1970s. Is he right, or is this a further manifestation of encroaching Old Fuddydom? I’ve been to many of the places he writes about and if the losses he mentions are accurate, I’d cast my vote for saying that Bryson is on to something. Britain without charm is, well, Sheffield and Birmingham. There is a palpable sense that Britain outside of Greater London is a dire place interrupted up by enclaves of grace.  
U.K. readers are sure to notice that Bryson gives short shrift to Wales and Scotland and doesn't go to Northern Ireland at all. Although he didn't intend this, Bryson's Anglo-centric travel through what he constantly calls "Britain" might be a harbinger of the U.K.'s post-Brexit future. Scotland desperately wishes to remain in the European Union and will probably schedule a new independence vote. Northern Ireland leaders now ponder whether unification with the E.U.-member Republic would be better than remaining inside a declining United Kingdom, and some Londoners have pondered leaving as well. Oh dear! Again, without intending to do so, Bryson allows readers to imagine a post-empire Britain. In an odd way, he gives comfort to American readers. At least we have our collective idiocy to keep us together!
I don't mean to make this book sound glum.  Bryson recounts some truly magnificent moments—and describes places I've added to my bucket list.  His humor is sharp, even when he's more acerbic than amusing. My advice is to give it a spin, but don't be afraid to skim when Bryson's ramblings turn into rants. Decline—broadly defined—isn't pretty, but remembrance, time warps, and unexpected renaissance can be. A final thing—avoid Bognor Regis!
Rob Weir

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