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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Notes from a Small Island. Bill Bryson. Black Swan (1996)

After living in Britain for nearly twenty years, Bill Bryson decided to return home to the US. Before he did so he set about travelling in a rather random fashion all over Britain to see what it was like and to understand the country he loved so much. The result is a very funny and heartfelt book that manages to capture a great deal about Bill Bryson and a great deal about Britain at the same time.
Any travel book is about the traveller as much, if not more, than the location and Bill Bryson is suitably opinionated and curious as well as sharply funny to make a very enjoyable travelling companion. His wanderings do not follow any particularly logical route, the vagaries of the public transport systems are significant factors in where he goes, happily so is whim and the lure of a interesting sounding town name. One of the significant pleasures of the book is the great joy that Bill Bryson gets from the litanies of place names that litter the book. They are lists of extraordinary possibilities and are tailor made for travellers tales. There is a very nice mix of history in the book, including to my huge delight the origin of the name John O'Groats.
A test for the credibility of any travel book is if a reader can recognise a place they have been from the description provided by the writer. Bill Bryson describes a visit to Milton Keynes that so accurately captured my own experiences of visiting the city that I felt as if I was walking alongside him. The balance between the writer and the geography is very well struck in the book, this is very specifically Bill Bryson's vision of Britain and both come through with a wonderful,occasionally cranky,charm. It is clear that Bill Bryson has enormous affection for Britain, what is really nice is that his able to describe why and allow the reader share it. Funny, snarky, sometimes outraged, this is brilliant travel writing.

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