If you've noticed that I've been a bit quiet on here lately, it's because a) I've been travelling and b) all my recent reading has been of books that will soon be reviewed in the Extra Shiny, due out on 3 December. However, though this book is one such, I couldn't wait to tell you about it. I've always been a huge fan of Bill Bryson -- he's so intelligent and well-informed but, as they say, he wears his learning lightly, and is capable of making me laugh out loud, a quality I prize highly though have to watch out for on buses and trains.
As I'm sure you know, Bryson wrote Notes from a Small Island in 1995, and now, twenty years later, has is taking another look at the country he has adopted as his home. He's recently become a UK citizen, which involved taking a knowledge test -- one which no true born British person I know could possibly hope to pass:
You can be denied citizenship if you don't know the number of states in the Commonwealth, who Britain's enemies in the Crimean war were, the percentage of people who describe themselves as Sikh, Muslim, Hindu or Christian, and the actual name of the Big Ben tower. (It's the Elizabeth Tower). You even have to know a few things that aren't in fact true.
So, partly as a result of passing this test, the idea of this book came about. In fact it was owing in part to Bryson's discovery that, though the test asserts that the two farthest apart points in the British Isles are Lands End and John O'Groats, this is not in fact the case. From this was born the concept of the Bryson Line, which runs directly between the actual farthest points, which happen to be Bognor Regis in the south and Cape Wrath in the north. Both of these places are visited, and a great many more in between, with often hilarious results.
But The Road to Little Dribbling is not just a comic ramble through the UK. Bryson is seriously concerned about the many changes he finds as he visits the beautiful villages and countryside of Britain -- not surprising when you know that he has acted as President of the Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England. 'There isn’t a landscape in the world that is more artfully worked, more lovely to behold, more comfortable to be in than the countryside of Great Britain', he writes -- 'Let's keep it that way'. And even the British themselves seem to him to be deteriorating -- he tells a story of seeing an obviously wealthy woman slipping a 10p coin into a container intended for tips, and remarks that
The Britain I came to was predicated on the idea of doing the right thing most of the time whether anyone knew you were doing it or not… You might not leave a tip... but you wouldn’t pretend to leave a decent tip and then stick in a small coin… It wouldn’t occur to you to be a dick.
Being Bill Bryson, he surprises us endlessly with a wonderful range of facts: for example, that there are 600,000 people on the London Underground at any one time, 'making it both a larger and more interesting place than Oslo', that 'cows kill a lot more people than bulls', that there are about 50% fewer people in London than in either New York or Paris, and much much more.
Bill Bryson obviously doesn't need my recommendation -- this will head the best seller lists for a long time to come. But I'm absolutely delighted to have had a chance to read it, which I did courtesy of Sainsbury's e-books, so many thanks to them. I've actually written another (different) review which will appear in Shiny in a couple of weeks, so I'll link to that in case you're interested.