Bryson takes note of a small island's peculiar traits

October 4, 1998
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

The perfect book to read on a long airplane journey is a book about traveling. The book I chose for a recent flight to Ukraine was Bill Bryson's "Notes from a Small Island" (Avon, $12.50).

This was an excellent choice, I must say. The problem was, I finished the 324-page paperback too quickly and was left for some hours with nothing to read, which is my idea of hell. But his book had me chuckling out loud for as long as it lasted.

Bryson lived in England for nearly 20 years. But when he and his wife decided it was time to return with their children to the United States, he took one last walking tour through his adopted country. "Notes from a Small Island" chronicles his farewell journey.

I was reminded of others who have written about England: Paul Theroux, Susan Allen Toth, Calvin Trillin. Bryson isn't as critical as Theroux, as adoring as Toth or as funny as Trillin but he combines elements of these three and comes up with his own entertaining style.

"Throughout this trip," he wrote, "I would have moments of quiet panic at the thought of ever leaving this snug and homey little isle. It was a melancholy business really, this little trip of mine, a bit like wandering through a much-loved home for the last time. The fact is I liked it here. I liked it very much."

But he does not love blindly. Take driving, for instance.

"There isn't a single feature of driving in Britain that has even the tiniest measure of enjoyment in it," he says, backing up this bold statement with myriad examples. He rails against poorly designed car parks (the parking spaces are exactly two inches wider than the average car) to poorly trained drivers (there are millions of people like the guy in the Morris Minor who drives at a top speed of 11 miles an hour).

"Did you know," he asks the reader chummily, "that when they dedicate a new multistory car park the Lord Mayor and his wife have a ceremonial pee in the stairwell? It's a little known fact but absolutely true."

Well, if you're standing in a bookstore leafing through "Notes from a Small Island" trying to decide if you want to buy it or not, turn to Chapter 12. Bryson has taken the Exeter train to Weston, a town on the coast. This is wintertime and the crowds are thin and Bryson isn't having much fun.

He checks into a hotel ("you could do worse and I have"), has a mediocre Chinese dinner in the only restaurant that appeared to be open ("I was the only customer") and drinks a few pints in a pub ("unfriendly without being openly hostile"). He gets caught in a ferocious rainstorm and trudges wetly back to his hotel only to find that it is closed and locked for the night.

"I banged on the glass door with the flat of my hand, then with a fist, and finally with a stout boot and a touch of frenzy. I believe, on reflection, I may also have filled the quiet streets with shouting."

When the apologetic proprietor appears, Bryson gives him an earful: "May I remind you that two hours ago you said good-bye to me, watched me go out the door and disappear down the street. Did you think I wasn't coming back? That I would sleep in a park and return for my things in the morning? Or is it merely that you are a total imbecile?"

The unhappy owner offers him a tray of hot tea and sandwiches, offers to press and dry his clothes, offers to come to his room and turn on the radiator personally. Bryson, still furious, has none of it.

"In the morning, I presented myself in the sunny dining room and as I had feared the proprietor was waiting to receive me. I was dry and warm and well rested and I felt terrible about my outburst the night before."

He is greeted warmly, shown to the best table, and showered with attention.

"I found this unmerited bonhomie unbearable. I tucked my chin into my chest and in a furtive grumble said, 'Look here, I'm very sorry for what I said last night. I was in a bit of a temper.' "

The all-forgiving proprietor was a model of cheerful accommodation.

"He must have thought I was mad, an escaped lunatic perhaps, and that this was the safest way to approach me. Either that, or he was just an extremely nice person," concluded Bryson.

To me, the incident seemed uniquely British: irritating and charming at the same time. Bryson's book captures just this.

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