Forty-two-odd years ago, a young Iowan named Bill Bryson landed in England for the first time. He didn’t have much reason to be there—“I had a very high number in the Vietnam draft,” he recalls, “and wasn’t really making much of a statement by going.” But he liked what he saw, and he slowly settled in. First he found work as an orderly in a psychiatric hospital near London, “a job,” he says, “that I thought I’d have for maybe three or four months but that wound up keeping me fed for much longer.” He married, worked in his spare hours on his writing, traveled, worked as a journalist, and traveled and wrote some more. Eventually, having written travel books about Europe and America, he would amass enough day trips and oddball local knowledge to fuel a series of portraits of his adopted homeland, resulting in the book Notes from a Small Island (1996), his first major bestseller and a book that continues to draw readers today.
Twenty years later, Bryson has taken another circuitous journey across the isles and delivered another book, The Road to Little Dribbling. The road would have to be circuitous, for in so winding and ocean-carved and hilly a place, the familiar grids of America don’t play. As he writes, the longest straight line from Scotland to England can be traced only with difficulty by running from a “lonely Scottish promontory called Cape Wrath” all the way down to John Fowles country, the southern, royalty-endorsed beach called Bognor Regis.
Working from his home—“we’re now in Hampshire,” he says, “about 50 miles from London”—Bryson takes us to those wild, windswept places, which, being in the crowded British Isles, are never quite without people but are still question marks in many a Briton’s personal geography. Along the way, he stops in at some places that might well remain question marks for visitors as well, unless, that is, they’re in the market to spend time in one of the country’s most vexatious traffic jams: “On a typical summer’s day,” he cheerfully writes, “some fourteen thousand vehicles are funneled through a constricted T-junction on Lyndhurst’s high street, governed by a single set of traffic lights.”
Throw a toad crossing into the mix, and you have an entry in the New Yorker’s old “There’ll Always Be an England” roster of smile-inducing oddities. Throw in a mohawk haircut, a charming episode of miscommunication, and some strange history—the fact, say, that the London Post Office Tower, for a decade the tallest building in all Europe, was officially a secret until 1995, another strange artifact of the Cold War—and you have a typical Bryson travelogue, full of pet peeves (“hotel showers that don’t give any indication of which way is hot and which cold,” for one), idle musings on sociology, and lovely appreciations of what happens when humans get it right in spite of their tendency, as he ponders, not to be bright enough even to understand that they’re not very bright.
One of those bright spots, as we see at many points in the book, is the legendary politeness of British people, “their being almost painfully considerate of other people,” Bryson elaborates, “which keeps them from doing things like jumping the line—or queue, as we would say—and making strangers uncomfortable.” Some of the prevailing social attitudes and courtesies of yore have deteriorated, he notes, as the youth culture becomes a little more, dare we say it, Americanized, with all its pants-to-the-knees and turned-around-baseball-cap faux toughness. If there’s anything that marks the difference between Notes from a Small Island and the new book, it’s that twenty years later, closing in on his mid–60s, Bryson is less tolerant of the occasional uprearing of loutishness. “If you took all the young men in southern England with those caps and that slouch and collected them all together in one room,” he grumbles, “you still wouldn’t have enough IQ points to make a halfwit.”
Listen to Bryson, and you hear an accent that is not quite American and not quite English, but instead something that splits the difference. In just the way that he is bidialectal, he has also become bicultural—a job that often requires him to explain the gulf of difference between the two. “Often Americans wonder about that weird politeness of British people,” he says. And as for Brits? There’s the gun-nut culture of America to explain, though Bryson says, “I’ve found that sweeping generalizations often don’t work, especially there.” Instead, he looks to geography: “Even though many Britons have traveled in America, far more than just a couple of decades ago, people here still don’t realize the vastness of America and all that that means.”
It sounds, then, as if Bryson still has some explaining to do, which means we can look forward to more books to come.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.