BOOKS: Travels with an attitude

NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND by Bill Bryson Doubleday pounds 15.99
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The Independent Culture
BILL BRYSON, Bill Bryson. American, bearded and over here, right? Right. But not the one who used to edit Granta; this is the one who writes those travel books, wry in that relentless American way, the travel book as extended stand-up comedy monologue, people and places as feeds for one-liners and the literary equivalent of those digressions and observations which used to begin "A funny thing happened on the way to the theatre tonight", but are now introduced with "Do you ever wonder why ... ?"

His first, The Lost Continent, was very big. Bill, having acquired an English eye by working in a Surrey mental hospital and sub-editing the Times, had the clever idea of applying it to where he came from, small- town America, and writing the results up in American. It was different, funny and appealed to that curious, fascinated nostalgia for a place they've never been to shared by all Britons of the American media age.

Next Bill did it to Europe in Neither Here Nor There, but this wasn't liked quite as much because Bill didn't speak the languages and wasn't deemed to have the requisite cultural erudition to be wry by. This seemed a bit tough on Bill, because erudition is not what Bill does. Bill moves around and makes jokes out of it.

Anyway, now Bill has been round Britain. And, as they always say, either immediately before or just after the bad news, I'm sure his fans will love it. About me, I'm not so sure. You see, Bill likes Britain. Bill likes our sense of humour, our manners, our countryside, London: Bill even likes red telephone boxes and the Princess of Wales, for chrissake, as Bill would say. He doesn't mention it, but I'd be fairly confident that Bill likes our policemen, too. And it's a sad thing that it's easier to be funny about something if you don't like it. I mean, how many funny nice book reviews have you read?

So Bill gives Britain an easy ride. And himself. He goes to a lot of places, stays in a lot of hotels and guest houses and eats a lot of curry. And, er, that's about it. Early on, he decides that all English towns are pretty much the same, and finds nothing to change his mind. Not that he looks very hard. He goes to bed early a lot of the time, and a lot of the rest of time he is just killing it. "What is one to do in Bradford with three hours to kill?", for example; in Bowness, he is not looking forward to "another long purposeless day"; in Thurso, he "wasn't at all sure how I was going to fill such an expanse of empty time". In Glasgow, "all I wanted to do was to go home, which was understandable, I think, because I missed my family and my own bed..." Understandable, Bill, but, hey, not very interesting.

Perhaps he could have killed some of the time by talking to people and getting answers to some of the questions he asks, like what exactly people do in the small towns he sees from his train. But there's a problem here, for although Bill travels by public transport whenever he can, he might as well be sealed off in a car, because, as he says, "I don't know how you strike up conversations with strangers in Britain". In Thurso, almost at the end of his journey, he falls upon a car-hire man because "it seemed like months since I had had a conversation". Then he returns the car early because he can't think of anywhere to go, and decides not to move on to Shetland because it "would still be just another piece of Britain".

Bill, it is clear, has an attitude problem with travel writing, in that he doesn't seem to like travelling. Bill is a funny writer, but the funny bits in this book have absolutely nothing to do with the travelling, and are well outscored by "memorable" and "surprisingly lovely" views and repetitious, elderly stuff about conservation and architecture.

You know a writer is in trouble when he has to mock-apologise for his "tedious bleating"; just as you know his or her best work in a form is past when the Observer serialises it. Bill has now gone back to America, where I hope he is staying in one place and writing the very funny novels he should be writing.