by Bill Bryson (Random House/Anchor Books, 2015)
My friend Pam, who lived in England for years, told me she didn’t finish The Road to Little Dribbling because she found it too negative; Bryson is always complaining about everything and wishing things would go back to being as they were when he first went to live in the UK, when he was twenty. That’s true of a lot of this book; but it’s also true of almost all the places Bryson has written about, with the possible exception of Australia in In a Sunburned Country; he seemed so enamored of Australia that he couldn’t find anything bad to say about it. And while he does have plenty of gripes about how Britain is changing in the 21st century, he also has heaps of praise for his adopted country, chiefly for its landscapes, but also for some of its cities, towns, and villages–or at least parts of them. A few examples:
. . . The makers of Britain created the most superlatively park-like landscapes, the most orderly cities, the handsomest provincial towns, the jauntiest seaside resorts, the stateliest homes, the most dreamily-spired, cathedral-rich, castle-strewn, abbey-bedecked, folly-scattered, green-wooded, winding-laned, sheep-dotted, plumply hedgerowed, well-tended, sublimely decorated 88,386 square miles the world has ever known. (pg. 34)
I had heard that [Tenby] is a charming place, but in fact it is exquisite–full of pastel-colored houses, sweet-looking hotels and guesthouses, characterful pubs and cafes, glorious beaches and gorgeous views. It is everything you could want in a coastal retreat. (pg. 284)
I have ridden the [Settle-to-Carlisle railway] line several times and the views across this very austere end of the dales are sensational, but you can’t really appreciate the engineering from the train. For that, you must stand alongside it. I stopped at Dent Head Viaduct now and got out to have a look. The viaduct is 199 yards long with ten arches, and rises a hundred feet above the valley floor. That doesn’t sound spectacularly lofty when you just say it, but when you see it in three dimensions, it is stunning. (pg.342)
Descriptions like these made me ache to visit those places. There were plenty of descriptions of dying urban centers, deteriorating towns and villages, and rude clerks, but these were somewhat balanced by the odes to beauty and history. Of course, it is the negative parts that made me laugh out loud, and Bryson does not spare himself. I was already laughing on the first page, when he describes an accident he once had: There are really only two ways to get hit on the head by a parking barrier. One is to stand underneath a raised barrier and purposely allow it to fall on you. That is the easy way, obviously. The other method–and this is where a little diminished mental capacity can go a long way–is to forget the barrier you have just seen rise, step into the space it has vacated and stand with lips pursed while considering your next move, and then be taken completely by surprise as it slams down on your head like a sledgehammer on a spike. That is the method I went for. (pg. 1) Typing it has just made me laugh again.
In between the praise and the diatribes are loads of fascinating facts about British history and geography.
My only complaint is that he never goes to Little Dribbling (which brings to mind J. K. Rowling’s Little Whinging). It’s obviously supposed to be a place, and so many English villages have weird names, but it doesn’t figure in the book, so I am left wondering. (Googling it did not bring satisfaction.) There is a map in the front of the book which lists many of the places he visits, including Sutton Hoo, Virginia Water, and Mousehole (pronounced [mauzəl]. But no Little Dribbling. <sigh>