Bill Bryson is a wonder. Here is a man who can write a page about ordering a cheese sandwich – and make the reader care about the sandwich. And the server of the sandwich. And the eater of the sandwich. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised: for the cheese sandwich lies behind Bryson’s love of Britain.
He arrived here in the early Seventies, an accidental pilgrim, and discovered a country entirely different from the place he might have imagined. A place where, in those dark days, ham and cheese could never be found between the same two pieces of bread; and where a cheese sandwich, if eventually you got hold of one, was served with “what looked to me then like what you find when you stick your hand into a clogged sump”. The mystery sump-stuff turned out to be Branston Pickle, of course. “Gradually it dawned on me that I had found a country that was wholly strange to me and yet somehow marvellous. It is a feeling that has never left me.”
Now, Bryson’s readers – that is most of us – know quite a lot about that feeling already, not least thanks to Notes from a Small Island, his bestselling travelogue published 20 years ago. Bryson frankly says that this sequel arises from a suggestion made by his publisher who, in these lean times for the book biz, is keen for a hit. (“In his eyes I could see little glinting pound signs where his irises normally were.”) And so Bill, who is a nice chap, and not the sort to let anyone down, obliges, setting off from Bognor Regis on a winding journey that reflects but does not duplicate his adventure of two decades ago. From Bognor to London, from the far west to the far east (not China but north Norfolk, which feels nearly as far as Beijing, if you’ve got to travel with Abellio Greater Anglia), to Cambridge and Oxford, the Peaks and the north and finally up to Cape Wrath, Bryson’s journey has the oxymoronic air of an energetic amble. Sometimes he’s too tired to have much of a look at anything beyond the welcoming door of a pub; sometimes he’s happy to lace up his walking boots and stride along for miles.
The result is a grumpy paean of praise to a place we’ve grown used to doing down. Bryson can be as grumpy as any of us when faced with the moron in the ticket office or the dog owner who refuses to scoop the poop, but still and all he reminds the reader what an extraordinary place this island is. Yes, he’s done it before; but it all bears saying again. Did I know that if you were to visit all the medieval churches in England – England alone – at the rate of one a week, “it would take you three hundred and eight years”? I did not. According to his calculations, it would take 11,500 years to visit all the known archaeological sites in Britain. Bill, I’ll take your word for it.
He knows that Britain’s wonders are often not dramatic: “agreeable” is one of his favourite words. Like Bryson, I am an America expatriate; I, too, know that the coast of Northumberland, say, falls lower on the scale of jaw-dropping astonishment than the Grand Canyon. But that is precisely the point.
He notes that in the United States national parks are vast tracts of land where no one but a few rangers live; in beautiful little Britain, farms and houses and villages thrive in our national parks. Wonder is all around us. Sometimes his dyspepsia can go just a step too far; and it’s probably lucky that I’m not an economist, as I have a feeling that some of Bryson’s financial arguments and rationalisations (“Great economic success doesn’t produce national happiness. It produces Republicans and Switzerland”) might not stand up to close examination. But never mind.
Bill Bryson (OBE, FRS, former president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England) is a modest fellow. He does not mention in his new book that perhaps one of the things that makes his adopted country so remarkable is the willingness of its people to accord the status of Living National Treasure to a fellow from Iowa. (“I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.”) But somehow that willingness is of a piece with the items and elements Bryson lists, towards the end of The Road to Little Dribbling, as critical to his love of this place. Shall the Brits allow Bryson to settle in somewhere between “jam roly-poly with custard” and “the 20p piece”? I believe they will.
The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson is published by Doubleday (£20, 385pp)
This article appears in the 21 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The 18th-century Prime Minister