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Bill Bryson’s “Notes from a Small Island”

Bill Bryson’s “Notes from a Small Island”

“My first sight of England was on a foggy March night in 1973 when I arrived on the midnight ferry from Calais.”

I read Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island for the first time when I was 12 or 13, having never been in England before. And I loved it! Bryson has the inherent ability to take you with him on his adventures and to make you feel like you are there with him, standing in the rain in Blaenau, tripping over a step in Dover, visiting the set of Coronation Street, or standing in the splendor of Durham Cathedral.

Bryson is an American author from Iowa because, as he says, “somebody had to”. After an initial visit to Great Britain in 1973, he lived there for two decades with his English wife. Now he wants to move back to America with his wife and children but not before traversing the isle a last time.

In Notes from a Small Island, he retraces his steps, visiting some of the places he visited in 1973, as well as going to new places and seeing towns that he wants lived in or has some sort of connection with. The result is an engaging story that takes the reader back to the England under Thatcher, right in the middle of the printer strikes in London, and to far flung places that a reader, unfamiliar with towns smaller than Manchester, has never heard of.

From Dover in the south all the way up to John O’Groats in the north, Bryson takes his readers on a tour through Britain and its towns, never shying away from bad weather, or a certain fatigue about the similarities between all English towns.

“The trouble with English towns is that they are so indistinguishable from another. They all have a Boots and W.H. Smith and Marks & Spencer. You could be anywhere really.”

His greatest skill, however, does not lie in describing places and experiences, but in describing the soul and the character of the British people.

“To this day, I remain impressed by the ability of Britons of all ages and social backgrounds to get genuinely excited by the prospect of a hot beverage.”

“And the Britons are so easy to please. It is the most extraordinary thing. They actually like this pleasures small. That is why, I suppose, so many of their treats – teacakes, scones, crumpets, rock cakes, rich tea biscuits, fruit Shrewsburys – are so cautiously flavourful. They are the only people in the world who think of jam and currants as thrilling constituents of a pudding or cake.”

I read Notes from a Small Island for the first time before I ever went to England and many times more since living in Canterbury for a year. And the appeal of the book does grow, the more familiar you are with the island yourself.

“All of this came to me in the space of a lingering moment. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I like it here. I like it more than I can tell you. And then I turned from the gate and got in the car and knew without a doubt that I would be back.”

And this is exactly how I felt leaving England for the first time. This time, I was standing on a ferry on a foggy March night, and I knew that I had fallen in love with England. With the 99p Chocolate Chip biscuits from Marks & Spencer, the daffodils by the side of the motorway and especially with the people that apologise to you(!) when you bump into them.

Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island is the perfect read whether you’ve been to Britain before or whether you’re just planning a trip there now. Depending on when you read it, it will make you remember certain moments of the book will walking through East London, or your real life will suddenly add features to the book.

But be forewarned, reading the book might make you laugh out loud or cry with suppressed laughter if you’re sitting on public transport. So grab yourself a cup of tea and a cautiously flavourful biscuit and start reading!