Bill Bryson: Island life revisited

Bill Bryson.
Bill Bryson.
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Twenty years after Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson set out on another journey round Britain. He talks to Sarah Freeman about what he found.

Talk to Bill Bryson long enough and chances are the conversation will come round to litter.

It’s 20 years since the American writer became something of a national treasure following the publication of Notes from a Small Island and in that time he’s also grown into a very British grumpy old man.

“I am aware that I am always banging on about litter,” he says, right on cue. “But it is one of my bugbears. I can understand a little in the heart of a town or a city centre, but on the roadside in the middle of the countryside? It shouldn’t be there and we should have a national campaign to bring it to an end.”

Bryson isn’t exactly tub-thumping, his lilting Iowa accent is too gentle for that, but should he ever find himself in a position of power he does have a plan. First of all he would introduce VAT on all fast-food take outs.

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He’s done a few calculations and he reckons it would raise £2.4bn. So as well as building a few schools and the odd hospital, under the Bryson Act he would also pay for the streets to be swept and invest in a few litter bins.

“There is no country in the developed world – not one – that has fewer litter bins on its streets than Great Britain. And there is not one country in the developed world – again, not one – that has more litter on the ground than Great Britain.”

For the record, given half the chance Bryson would also introduce taxes on male jewellery, stupid pony tails, tattoos on knuckles and vending machines that don’t give change.

He probably wouldn’t deny that he is a little less mellow than he was when he first ambled around these green and pleasant lands, but his attitude isn’t the only thing which has changed in the last two decades.

“In many ways it seems like yesterday, but when I flick through Notes from a Small Island I realise that we are all living in a very different world, one which is unrecognisable to back then.

“That first book is littered with references to people and events which have been consigned to history. Princess Diana was still alive, Cecil Parkinson was still active in Parliament and really it was still Mrs Thatcher’s world.

“It might have been five years since she was ousted as Prime Minister, but her shadow loomed large over Britain.”

When Bryson first arrived in Britain in the 1970s he felt like an alien, but the rapid pace of globalisation, he says, means we have more in common with our cousins across the pond than ever before.

“Britain has certainly become a much noisier place. When I first landed here the whole country seemed to me like one big library. In the America I left behind waitresses shouted orders to their cooks, bus drivers shouted at passengers and in big stores disembodied voices ceaselessly hectored you to take up their special offers. Today Britain is noisy too, thanks mostly to mobile phones.”

As he puts it in the book: “It’s a strange thing, but people in Britain still whisper when sharing a confidence face to face, but give them a mobile phone, a seat in a railway carriage and a sexually transmitted disease and they’ll share the news with everyone.”

When his editor first mentioned the Notes from a Small Island anniversary, Bryson was reluctant to cash in by simply retracing his steps. Instead he decided to take a different route across the country. In The Road to Little Dribbling, he starts at Bognor Regis and having drawn what he called the Bryson Line across the country he wends his way through Oxford, Buxton and Kirby Lonsdale, before heading onwards up through Scotland before arriving at Cape Wrath.

It was a route which did not afford him much time in Yorkshire. Having lived in Malhamdale for seven years and having always had a bit of a soft spot for the Dales, he admits he was tempted to go off piste.

“One of the wonderful things about Britain is how compact it is. From where you are right now I bet you could drive 15 minutes and be out in the countryside. It is the perfect size for a country, there’s a real sense of cosiness about Britain. I could have easily whiled away a couple of days in Harrogate, I could have wandered down The Stray, had tea at Betty’s, but I wouldn’t have learned anything new. I wanted to see places that I had never been to.”

It was what bought him to Dentdale, one of the locations on the Settle to Carlisle railway line, which he describes as perhaps “the most picturesque and the most wonderfully unnecessary railway line ever built in England”. It was also what brought him to Skegness.

He’d been inspired to go to the East Coast resort by a 1908 tourism poster illustrated by John Hassall. It showed a portly fisherman skipping along the beach under the tagline ‘It’s so bracing’. Unfortunately for Bryson, Skegness wasn’t so much bracing as sodden.

“I am sure had the weather been better I might well have loved the place,” he says.

“I like old fashioned seaside resorts, which is what Skegness seemed to be through the deluge. There were lots of neon and noisily chiming arcades and a sickly smell of spun sugar which even the rain could not suppress. The seafront was dominated by a handsome clock tower with a good looking park called the Tower Gardens. And do you know what? It’s the ninth most visited place in Britain. Unfortunately all I saw were families trapped under awnings.”

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