It’s been twenty years since Bill Bryson made his celebrated first tour of the UK in Notes From A Small Island, combining keen insight of the best of British society, some of the funniest self-deprecating humour we’ve ever read and a fair amount of good natured commentary on great places to visit in the UK. Having lived in the country every since, he’s had even more time to get to grips with the peccadilloes of the island nation and in his follow up book, The Road To Little Dribbling, he’s back with a refreshed view on it all, bringing us yet more notes, anecdotes and hilarity from a small country.
The good news in terms of our review is that it’s another joy to read from the author of A Walk In The Woods, A Brief History Of Nearly Everything and The Lost Continent, but just as the country has changed over the years, so has Bill, just a little. He’s still as funny as ever, but he’s also added a fraction more Grinch to his grumpy man equation and there are times when you can’t help but roll your eyes at his vague curmudgeon antics. He’s also not always on the mark when it comes to his assessment of things and while he’s mostly spot on there were the occasional glaring holes in his rationale.
That’s not to say that either of the minor faux pas are defining factor of the book by any stretch of the imagination, because it’s a brilliantly written whirlwind tour of the UK, but they do detract just a little. This is added to by the rather speedy and abrupt end to the final leg of the journey into Scotland, which for us remains unfinished and Bill has got until the paperback release to turn his Scottish capitulation into something approaching an odyssey.
That’s probably enough of the negatives for now, but we’ll come back to them with a bit more illumination later, not necessarily to add fuel to them though, more to explain what we mean, and there’s plenty of positives to talk about. The biggest of these for us is the comedy factor as there are a lot of funny anecdotes, self deprecating wit and scathing sarcasm to match the sheer genius of Notes From A Small Island. Some of the characters that he meets along the way are funny enough in themselves, but when you throw in Bill Bryson’s well crafted delivery you get a fair few big laughs as you make your way through The Road To Little Dribbling.
He’s also got a very affectionate way of describing the things that he loves, which is all the more easy to read when you happen to like them too. There are not many writers that can describe a walk in the Yorkshire Dales, a stroll around Bournmouth or a potter around in the TV section of John Lewis and keep you wholly and happily entertained throughout, but with Bill Bryson at the helm of the fun bus it’s always a pleasure. His description of his first daring swim in British seaside waters is worth reading the book for all by itself and we could say the same for a douzen or more other anecdotes of well meaning misadventure or unfortunate conversation with a haughty native.
Not only is the book funny, but it’s also packed with a whole lot of knowledge from the depths of history, science and locations in the UK. You’ll probably forget most of them almost instantly, but they’re interesting to read about at the time and there will undoubtedly be a few nuggets that stick, whether it’s King George V’s final words, the lesser known joys of Tenby, the location of Dylan Thomas’ writing hut, the genetic offshoot of the Neanderthals or the origin of the blue stones that top Stonehenge’s pillars.
All of that more than overshadows the slight negatives we mentioned, but they are still slightly telling that Bill has started to cackle ever so slightly. The fact that he can’t find something to watch on BBC in the modern era of iPlayer would indicate that he’s probably missing something along the way. He’s also guilty of stereotyping all Brits or subsets of the nation in a way that isn’t quite as well placed as it’s intended to be and when you factor in the grumpiness you get scatter-gun shots that sometime strike true, but miss a bit too often. Being a bit out of touch can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and when you honestly consider Little & Large as the pinnacle of an evening’s entertainment then you know you probably need to step back from the brink.
Our review score would also be a bit higher if it weren’t for the fact that Scotland gets completely skipped as Bill is forced to cut it short due to a legal dispute in the US, or something along those lines. When he does return northwards of Hadrian’s Wall he only manages to fit in the final stop in Cape Wrath and nothing else and while it’s sort of explained by his point about never being able to see it all, which is definitely true, it would have been nice to have had a little more of a Highland fling in the very least.
The nub, though, when you really boil it all down, is that reading The Road To Little Dribbling will leave you happier, more enlightened and altogether more fulfilled in general and that, to quote Bill Bryson, can only be a good thing. Aging foibles aside, he’s still one of our favourite writers and the book will be going into a very select list of literature that could see a second or maybe even third read later on in life.
Bill Bryson, The Road To Little Dribbling review: 4/5