Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Bill Bryson, "Notes from a Small Island"

 – e-book



Read from December 13th 2016 to April 3rd 2017

My rating



Wikipedia  informs us that, according to the opinion of listeners expressed in a poll initiated by BBC in 2003, Notes from a Small Island is the book that represented Britain best. Indeed, even though I can’t remember who recommended this book to me, I understand why I put it on my to read list: learning that its author was an American, I was curious to see how he perceived the British way, expecting a light and humorous reading, with many a linguistic and behavioural clash.

Well, the book answered and not my horizon of expectations. There are funny scenes, mentality contrasts, vocabulary misunderstandings and so on, but they do not always rate high in quality, sometimes the intended humorous observations are flat, or even vulgar or simply doubtful, like in this quote about names (although I found further ahead some very interesting study about the same subject):

I don't remember his name now, but it was one of those names that only English people have Colin Crapspray or Bertram Pantyshield or something similarly improbable.


By the way, he same opinion was expressed by Mordecai Richler in his New York Times moderately enthusiastic review: 

“Mr. Bryson's book is astute and funny, but sometimes relentlessly so, his appetite for stand-up comic one-liners a tad exhausting. Some of them just manage a pass mark. Of Blackpool, for instance: ''It has more public toilets than anywhere else in the world; elsewhere they call them doorways.'' Others land with a dull thud, as in ''And do you know the difference, by the way, between village and hamlet? It's quite simple, really: one is a place where people live and the other is a play by Shakespeare.'' “

Nevertheless, here are some reasons that may convince you to read this travel book.

First, despite the unfortunate quote above, the Prologue, describing his arrival in Britain is a fresh and vivacious introduction to the subject, recalling the words he didn’t know the pronunciation (like 'scone' or 'Towcester'), or words he completely misunderstood (like “counterpane”, which he thought it was some part of a window, and which is in fact another British word for quilt), customs or events he never heard of (like railway cuttings, Christmas crackers, bank holidays, floats, trunk calls, Scotch eggs) or inappropriate  behaviour in public places (“I sat for half an hour in a pub before I realized that you had to fetch your own order, then tried the same thing in a tearoom and was told to sit down”).

To his first years in Britain belongs also the memory of his job in the lunatic asylum near a village named Virginia Water, village where healthy people and crazy ones happily mixed and where locals did not find strange at all that “a man with wild hair wearing a pyjama jacket was standing in a corner of the baker's declaiming to a spot on the wall or sitting at a corner table of the Tudor Rose with swivelling eyes and the makings of a smile, dropping sugar cubes into his minestrone.” A memorable figure he encounters here is Harry, an idiot savant who, although in any other way he had the mind of a small child, he could tell the day of the week of any date in past or future. He proved also that he could see the future because after annoyingly asking everyone for near a decade if the hospital was going to close in 1980, a storm that provoked a fire that very year made the place inhabitable and the authorities were forced to shut it down.

Other peculiar characters that are brought to the attention of the narrator during this farewell trip before relocating to United States after twenty years of living in England, are inter alia, Gordon Selfridge and the fifth Duke of Portland

Gordon Selfridge, “the department store magnate”, whose former home, Highcliffe Castle, the narrator visits, was a fellow American who led an exemplary life until his wife died, in 1918, to fall “into rakish ways” after that, spending all his money with the Hungarian-American twins and music-hall celebrities known as the Dolly Sisters:

In ten years he raced through $8 million, lost control of Selfridges, lost his castle and London home, his racehorses and his Rolls Royces, and eventually ended up living alone in a small flat in Putney and travelling by bus. He died penniless and virtually forgotten on 8 May 1947. But of course he had had the inestimable pleasure of bonking twin sisters, which is the main thing.

On the other hand, the fifth Duke of Portland, one W.J.C. Scott Bentinck, who lived in the 19th century, gave new and deeper meanings to the word “recluse”.  Although he had a big home, he occupied only a small corner in it, he never spoke to his servants but send them notes and if someone encountered him was instructed to ignore him completely or be punished by skating on his private skating rink until exhausted. He was suspected to have had a premonition regarding the nuclear war, for he built a second house underground, full of tunnels and secret passageways, not dissimilar to a bunker.

When the duke died, his heirs found all of the aboveground rooms devoid of furnishings except for one chamber in the middle of which sat the duke's commode. The main hall was mysteriously floorless. Most of the rooms were painted pink. The one upstairs room in which the duke resided was packed to the ceiling with hundreds of green boxes, each of which contained a single dark brown wig.

Of course, England would not be England without ghosts or at least haunted houses. The narrator visits the site of Milner Field, where in 1870 stood a mansion built by the head of a very wealthy family, Titus Salt Junior. Twenty years after, the Salts bankrupted and had to sell the property that became cursed for the subsequent owners: one died of septicaemia after hurting his foot with a golf club, other shot his cheating wife and was hanged, and so on, until the house could not be sold anymore because of its bad name and in 1950 was demolished:

Less memorable is the visit in Manchester both for the narrator and reader (I however learnt how are named its inhabitants: Mancunians – I bet you didn’t know this either), because for him it represents only an airport (“with a city attached”), without a central motif, like other places:

Newcastle has its bridge, Liverpool has the Liver Buildings and docks, Edinburgh its castle, Glasgow the great sprawl of Kelvingrove Park and the buildings of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, even Birmingham has the Bull Ring (and very welcome it is to it, too).

A bittersweet evocation is the rise and fall of Ashington, once the biggest mining village in the world, also famous because of its pitmen painters: an enthusiastic artist founded in 1934 the Ashington Group, consisting of miners who had never held a brush in their hand, but nevertheless made some very gifted paintings that were mentioned in magazines and exhibited in London and other cities. Ashington became very prosperous before the second world war, having “a thriving theatre, a ballroom, five cinemas, and a concert chamber called the Harmonic Hall.” Unfortunately, all these cultural institutions disappeared one by one, the last one being the Ashington Group which in 1982 had only two members who renounced membership when they were informed that rent was to be raised from 50 pence a year to 14 pounds. Nowadays the hut that sheltered the club is only a memory, for it was demolished soon after the group dismantling.

There are, of course (what narrator could have resisted it?), some parallels between English and American, mainly concerning the differences in education and behaviour. Thus, the narrator remembers having once watched a challenge between British and American scholars which the British won by far (“The final score was something like 12,000 to 2”) and stereotypically presumes that every member of then humiliated American team is now probably winning many thousand dollars a year, “while the British are studying the tonal qualities of sixteenth-century choral music in Lower Silesia and wearing jumpers with holes in them.”

As for the national approach, many a British encountered shared the same prejudice about the lack of culture and or manners of the Americans, complaining about their shortcomings in front of the narrator:

I never understand what people are thinking when they do this. Do they think I'll appreciate their candour? Are they winding me up? Or have they simply forgotten that I am one of the species myself? The same thing often happens when people talk about immigration in front of me.


These are only some of the best passages in the book. Moreover, the final page is written with such feeling, with such tenderness that you cannot doubt neither the love of the narrator for its adopted country nor his enthusiasm in accepting its best and its worst. And this is why the last paragraph is merely a farewell, not a goodbye:

Suddenly, in the space of a moment, I realized what it was that I loved about Britain which is to say, all of it. Every last bit of it, good and bad Marmite, village fetes, country lanes, people saying 'mustn't grumble' and 'I'm terribly sorry but', people apologizing to me when I conk them with a careless elbow, milk in bottles, beans on toast, haymaking in June, stinging nettles, seaside piers, Ordnance Survey maps, crumpets, hot water bottles as a necessity, drizzly Sundays every bit of it.
 What a wondrous place this was – crazy as fuck, of course, but adorable to the tiniest degree. What other country, after all, could possibly have come up with place names like Tooting Bee and Farleigh Wallop, or a game like cricket that goes on for three days and never seems to start? Who else would think it not the least odd to make their judges wear little mops on their heads, compel the Lord Chancellor to sit on something called the Woolsack, or take pride in a naval hero whose dying wish was to be kissed by a fellow named Hardy? ('Please, Hardy, full on the lips, with just a bit of tongue.') What other nation in the world could possibly have given us William Shakespeare, pork pies, Christopher Wren, Windsor Great Park, the Open University, Gardeners' Question Time and the chocolate digestive biscuit? None, of course.
How easily we lose sight of all this. What an enigma Britain will seem to historians when they look back on the second half of the twentieth century. Here is a country that fought and won a noble war, dismantled a mighty empire in a generally benign and enlightened way, created a far-seeing welfare state in short, did nearly everything right and then spent the rest of the century looking on itself as a chronic failure. The fact is that this is still the best place in the world for most things to post a letter, go for a walk, watch television, buy a book, venture out for a drink, go to a museum, use the bank, get lost, seek help, or stand on a hillside and take in a view.
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 doubt that I would be back.

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