Oh, how I have waited for this, a return to the travel writing that first made me fall in love with Bill Bryson’s particular brand of wit and humor. And finally, it is here in the form of a sequel to Notes from a Small Island, his first venture around his adopted country of Great Britain.
The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain traces Bryson’s travels generally around what Bryson cheekily calls the Bryson line, a straight line connecting the most southerly point of mainland Britain in Bognor Regis to the most northerly point on the mainland in Cape Wrath. He revisits some old favorite places from Notes, along with some other places tied to memories of his first years in Britain, and discovers new places he’s never been, all with his characteristic charm, wonder, and increasingly curmudgeonly irritation.
Bryson is one of those people who just loves learning, and so his book is peppered with not just his impressions of people and places but of bit of quirky, little known, yet surprisingly important bits of British history in his typical conversational style. He ties these pieces of history into their modern relevance, such as when talking about how the potential expansion of Heathrow could have a devastating effect on the last piece of true wilderness in London, a place to which he has a personal connection. He also takes time to notice the beauty in the often small and unnoticeable, giving otherwise unremarkable sites a stage to share their value. He clearly takes such delight in exploring and sharing that it’s hard not to be delighted with him.
However, this is not the same Bryson from Notes. 20 years later, he is now in his 60’s and a grandfather, and he revels in his “increasing dotage”, blaming all manner of unintended (and intended) missteps on his aging. With his age and status as a respected author, though, has come a strong sense of not caring what others think, and so he gleefully recounts encounters with people whose stupidity baffles and nearly sends him over the edge multiple times. He has particular concern for the youth of Britain, and his inner monologues are peppered with the most charming exasperation and expletives you’ve ever read. Yet he is not afraid to laugh at himself. In one of my favorite passages, he nearly reads a young store clerk the riot act for telling him the store has no grocery section until he realizes that he is not in Marks & Spencer as planned but in the clothing store H&M next door. Bryson manages to tell all of these anecdotes with humor but never mean-spiritedness, and though we can sense his frustration, we appreciate his overarching goodwill. For all of his interests, he is most interested in people and the good they do in the world, and that will always be his guiding focus.
I love Bryson’s travel writing because it is often insightful, beautiful, thoughtful, and even passionate, and he is willing to look at everything he sees both affectionately and critically. Mainly, though, it makes me laugh. He is hilarious, and reading any of his books on the way to work always leaves me desperately trying not to be that crazy person laughing loudly on the train and usually failing. Reading his books is like having a wonderfully meandering and informative conversation, and The Road to Little Dribbling is no exception. Do yourself a favor and spend a couple of days with Mr. Bryson as he travels the length of Great Britain. You’ll be glad you did.