The first Bill Bryson book I read was Neither Here Nor There. Actually, it was very good and I really enjoyed it.
Published in 1992, it was his second travel book, after he had dissected his native America in The Lost Continent.
In NHNT, he rediscovers Europe, replicating a journey he had made as a student 20 years earlier. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, cementing The Bryson Template: witty, episodic and opinionated, yet educational and perceptive, skewering a country’s weaknesses but lauding its quirkiness and achievements.
Notes from a Small Island, published in 1996, used The Template to tell the world why he loved Britain so much…before he decamped with his family back to the US for a few years.
Another 20 years on – safely repatriated and now more English than a chicken tikka masala – Mr Bryson has written The Road to Little Dribbling. Zig-zagging his way – on foot and by public transport, wherever possible – from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath, it’s a revealing sequel to Neither Here Nor There.
He still has that unerring ability to weave together keen observation, social history and humour as deftly as an artist mixes paint on a palette.
Salcombe is smart and prosperous and jaunty. Everyone was dressed like a Kennedy at Hyannisport. I had to get a jumper out of my bag and tie it around my neck to keep people from staring. They all had a robust, healthy sea-sprayed look about the. These people didn’t walk from place to place, they bounded.
The main street in Salcombe is Fore Street. The Daily Telegraph has deemed it the sixth coolest in Britain. I have no idea how they make such an assessment, though I suspect, this being the Telegraph, that it has little to do with science or much real thought. The shops were unquestionably upmarket. At the Casse-Croute deli, the special of the day was Brie and asparagus tart made with organic cider, which I was pleased and relieved to see. How often have I had to decline a Brie and asparagus tart because the cider wasn’t organic.
Call me an unreconstructed savage, but the sooner we get back to a national diet of chips with gravy and that sort of thing the better it will suit me. In my day every restaurant meal started with prawn cocktail and finished with Black Forest gateau and we were all a lot happier, believe me.
But Mr Bryson revels in portraying himself as a bit of a grumpy old git in this book, yearning for the England of old. I suppose his National Treasure status has earned him the right, but I did sometimes feel like he was jumping on his soap box a little too often. Rudeness, poor service, litterbugs, TV celebrities, planning regulations, incorrect punctuation and grammar, gastro pubs, boutique hotels. The list of soft targets wounded by his hard words is almost endless.
“…the boy was gone and the crisp packet was on the ground. There was a bin three feet away. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that if Britain is ever to sort itself out, it is going to require a lot of euthanasia.”
“But then, I suppose, that is the thing about the internet. It is just an accumulation of digital information, with no brains and no feelings – just like an IT person, in fact.”
He loves our countryside, our traditions, our history. He spends more time in pubs and coffee shops than I do. He’s an avid walker. And he has a mastery of the English language like few others. All things about him I greatly admire. I just hope he doesn’t lose his mojo, like a football legend staying on for one season too many.