07 June 2007

Book Review: Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson

Non-Fiction 5 Challenge #1

Notes From a Small Island After some two decades in England, Bill Bryson decided to take his family on an extended sojourn in his native America. Before departing, he sets off on a farewell tour, starting with a re-creation of his original arrival off the Dover ferry and zigzagging across England, Wales, and Scotland - almost all by public transport or his own two feet. The result is a delightful picture of England past and present: the good, the bad, the maddening, and the adorable. From the cheap glitz of Blackpool to sleepy Scottish hamlets, from talkative train nuts to an example of why one should never get drunk in an establishment halfway up a steep hill, this book is consistently entertaining and great fun to read.

I took it with me to read on the train, which was possibly not the brightest idea I’ve ever had. I frequently found myself trying to smother my laughter lest my fellow commuters start staring. It’s the funniest book I’ve read in ages and if you like to read in public, consider yourself warned. From local quirks to the less appealing aspects of the towns on his route to Bryson himself, there’s much to laugh at and even more to like. What makes it so charming is that shining through even the snarkiest criticism is a genuine love of the country and its people ... even their madder traits, like thinking that struggling up a hill in pea-soup fog on a cold autumn day is fun. I have long been enamoured of British history and would love to see the place; and even more so now. And when I do I’ll be packing this along with the guidebook.

I may not, however, follow the book’s example of travelling along the south coast by foot. That part of the book amazed me; not just that anyone would attempt such a thing, but that the villages are sufficiently small and close together for it to be possible. I sat there calculating: ‘Four miles to the next town? But that’s only the length of a few suburbs!’ (Guess who’s spent all her life in the big city?) But what really floored me was the descriptions of the treatment of historical buildings - or rather, the litany of architectural travesty. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century buildings with their ground floors ripped out and replaced with modern shopfronts. Victorian factories vandalised and abandoned. Georgian terraces dwarfed by twentieth-century concrete monoliths. Mediaeval buildings demolished to make way for shopping malls. It’s enough to make you want to chain yourself to an endangered flying buttress. I guess if you grow up in a country with a plethora of ancient structures, it could seem like there’s plenty to spare. But to outsiders from much newer countries, even a single mediaeval church is an exotic treasure; and it baffles and saddens me that, short of it posing some kind of hazard, any reason could be sufficient to destroy anything so old.

The other day after finishing this book I walked from my uni through the CBD to Central Station, and I paid particular attention to the architecture, arriving at the following conclusions:

1. The Queen Street Mall is actually quite attractive if you keep your gaze above the ground floor.
2. The Brisbane Arcade is one of the jewels of the city.
3. The persons responsible for Brisbane Square, Casino Towers, Macfarlane House, Capital Hill, and the ‘artwork’ in front of Queens Plaza - just to name a few - ought never to have been allowed within 100m of a drawing board.
And then on the train home I realised that most of the stations they’re revamping are being revamped in exactly the same way. Seats, buildings, overhead walkways - all identical. Britain isn’t the only place committing crimes against architecture.

The one problem I had with this book was the number of references to Brits I’ve never heard of. But I’d learnt from my experience with Bridget Jones, and used a slip of paper for a bookmark on which to jot down names to be Googled later. Ingenuity at work.

Rating: A


Camille said...

I love Bill Bryson. He's so funny and fun to read. Your review makes me want to re-read this book. Found you via the Blogroll Game. ;)

Anonymous said...

oh goody. I've been waiting for this one.

Funny? Absolutely. The opening sequences with Mrs Smegma are enough to keep you hooked on Bryson forever.

Accurate? Yes, I'd say his portrayal of British life and people is accurate.

Architecture? I think, like yourself, his reaction to changes in British architecture is both a product of his original culture (the US where a 200 year old house is an ancient monument) and history (he arrived at a horrendous time for architecture around the world and then revisited during another period of shame). What many people who don't live in countries with centuries old buildings everywhere forget is that Britain is not a museum for tourists to plod round. We live in the 21st century too. as a result, we are forced into choosing what to save and what to gut/demolish and start again with. On the whole, I think we've done fairly well. Britain is still cram full of great historic high street buildings in many many places.

What's nice to see these days though is a lot of better modern architecture going in there too. Since the 1990s there's been a wealth of decent modern buildings put up and, quite rightly, this has drawn worldwide acclaim. I'm sure Bryson would agree if he were to retrace his steps once more.

Now all you need to do is read Notes from a Big Country to balance this out ;-)

Literary Feline said...

This does sound like a pleasurable read! I have never heard of it before. Another one to add to my wishlist. Great review!

Anonymous said...

Well, you'll never guess what I found not hours after writing that previous comment. A quote from Paul Auster's The Music of Chance:
"We Americans are always tearing down what we build, destroying the past in order to start over again, rushing headlong into the future. But our cousins on the other side of the pond are more attached to their history..."

So, not everyone the other side of the pond seems to agree with Bryson it seems ;-)

Anonymous said...

That books on my reading list. Sounds like I might have to bump it up so that it's my next read. He's absolutely hilarious and wonderful to follow in his books. =)

Anonymous said...

I'm with Camille - Bryson is great and makes me laugh while I learn things. I wish he'd come out with another travel book!

Mei said...

I'm reading this right now. Having had a fairly disastrous day in Dover myself, I was right there with Bryson's misery. I like how he talks about the changes that had taken place between his visits to the UK; I compare them with how things were when I visited more recently.

Newer Posts Older Posts Home
Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776