BOOK REVIEW – Notes from a Small Island

I’ve been meaning to read Bill Bryson’s “Notes from a Small Island” [1995] for a while now, as many people have recommended it and Jerome Lynch, QC, kindly donated it to the library a couple of years back.

Bryson was born in 1951 in De Moines, Iowa, but first visited the UK in 1973 and must have quite liked it as he married a British nurse and ended up living there for nearly twenty years and indeed by now most of his adult life. He has written quite a few travel books, and “Notes from a Small Island” is his good-natured account of a later tour of quite a lot of mainland Britain.

It’s written in a light hearted style and some of it is quite funny but I’m afraid that I wasn’t as entertained as I’d hoped I might be and by the end, (Llandudno, Blackpool and Inverness, etc), I was beginning to lose interest a bit.

That said, there are some good one-liners, eg “Nobody wants to live in Bradford, and who can blame them”; “I didn’t hate Milton Keynes immediately which I suppose is as much as could hope for the place”; and, of the “famous, (well famous in Britain)” Blackpool illuminations, “I suppose if you had never seen electricity in action, it would be pretty breathtaking, but I’m not even sure of that. It all just seemed tacky and inadequate on rather a grand scale, like Blackpool itself ”.

Bryson is not a great fan of the monarchy or indeed the aristocracy. So he describes Corfe Castle as “everyone’s favorite ruin after Princess Margaret”; and mentions, “Fort Belvedere, the country home where Edward VIII made his famous abdication broadcast so that he could be free to go fishing with Goebbels and marry that sour-faced Simpson woman”.

I can see why Jerome would have liked it, as Bryson is plainly a confirmed dog hater!

For his non-Brit readers there is a good Glossary of British terms, eg “doner kebab” – “Sandwich-type snack, concocted from a sort of pita bread and a processed meat distantly related to lamb, which becomes mysteriously appealing after seven or eight pints of beer ”and“ pork pie ”-“ Small pie consisting of processed meat in a pastry casing; very tasty so long as it is not looked at ”.

As I say, Bryson is very well thought of and the Wall Street Journal said of this volume, “Bryson is unparalleled in his ability to cut a culture off at the knees in a way that is so humorous and so affectionate that those being ridiculed are laughing too hard to take offense ”. The New York Times review was, “Astute and funny… an amusing guide to the UK’s foibles, as well as a tribute to its enchantment”.

Bryson’s “Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe” [1992] is still in the queue but this one might be suitable if anyone is packing one of their kids off to Blighty for Uni or whatever, or indeed trying to select which city not to go to.


* Richard Bendall is an English barrister who was called to the Bar in the Turks and Caicos Islands in 1984 and is currently engaged for one of the accused in the SIPT trial. For the last few years he has reviewed each of the books donated to the informal library at the Supreme Court Annex.


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