A town called Nookie

The travel writer Bill Bryson roots out quixotic detail like a heat-seeking missile. By Sara Wheeler; Notes From A Small Island Bill Bryson Doubleday, pounds 15.99
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As everyone now knows, someone had to be born in Des Moines, and at least Bill Bryson put his antecedents to profitable use in The Lost Continent, the book in which he trundles through the cultural desert of middle America having his car filled with petrol by old men with fags dangling from their lower lips. It was the best-selling travel book of the decade, and it made Bryson a star. His second foray into the genre, Neither Here Nor There, in which he frolics around Europe, was very funny but less brilliant, largely because he had no relationship with the landscape.

In Notes From A Small Island, Bryson turns his gaze upon Blighty. He first staggered off the ship when people were still mentally converting the price of a wedge of pensionable Black Forest gateau into shillings, and he wrote this book as he prepared to move back to the US 20 years later. It constitutes a kind of valedictory tour. He travels by public transport most of the time, and as often as not serendipity dictates his itinerary (he once went to Newquay because he thought it was called Nookie), though he does revisit old stamping grounds. These include the site of the mental hospital in Virginia Water where he landed his first job (and a nurse from the next ward, whom he married) and the subs desk at The Times, where he was employed in riot year, 1986.

He roots out quixotic detail like a heat-seeking missile, pausing in Bournemouth to contemplate the home of Gordon Selfridge (founder of) who frittered away his glory days bonking American-Hungarian twins. Resisting the urge to enter "family butchers" and ask "How much to do mine?" Bryson meanders between hotel and curry house, re-arranging his own books in bookshops and unfolding jumpers in deserted gift shops so the assistants will have something to do after he's left.

What he does best is seize an apparently insignificant detail and let his imagination unravel. He is the King of Extrapolation: among the twee house-names in Mudeford he sneaks in Sick-over-the-Side, while a chance encounter with the Potato Marketing Board leaves him imagining the anguish of a rival being appointed No.2 in Crisps and Reconstituteds. When Bryson goes for the kill he is unstoppable. A pub pulsates "with the Kylie Minogue Shout Loud and Wiggle Your Little Tits school of musical entertainment," and Corfe Castle is designated everyone's favourite ruin after Princess Margaret. When he alights in Liverpool (his favourite city), he expresses polite surprise that the burghers are celebrating a festival of litter.

No target is too sacred: at Tintern he comments that the Abbey "was made famous by the well-known Wordsworth poem, 'I Can Be Boring Outside the Lake District Too' ". Throughout these tirades of mass-destruction, however, he keeps us on his side by lobbing on lashings of self-deprecation. Among young revellers in a pub, he forlornly confides that these days he looks on sex as "a welcome chance for a lie-down".

Much of Notes From A Small Island concerns the British journey from 1973 to the Nineties, and it is a bleak road. Back in the Seventies, boarding- house landladies dominated the tourist landscape of Dover, not the White Cliffs Experience. The seaside resorts in this book exude the whiff of terminal decline, and Bryson's wanderings through the north reveal a desert of industrial collapse. Under no illusion about where the road leads, he postulates Oxford University (Sony UK) Ltd, and is particularly sensitive to the homogenisation of the British high street: he boycotts Boots because of its sacrilegious despoliation of its store frontages. Of course, Bryson isn't really a travel writer at all. He is a satirist and social commentator. In the Brysonian universe the still, small moments - a view from a gate, a pint in a comfy old pub, a child's face lit by a smile - redeem an otherwise resignedly fatalistic vision of the world in which whatever life deals him will almost certainly be a damn nuisance.

Both of his last travel books were smash hits, but they were about Abroad: it will be interesting to see if we can take it about ourselves. What gives Notes From A Small Island its warmth, and adds a dimension lacking in Neither Here nor There, is that Bryson likes Britain so much. The narrative flows like a mournful last walk through a much-loved home. "The fact is," he says on his rhapsodic last page, "this is still the best place in the world for most things." Whether you agree with him or not hardly matters. I have no criticisms of this enchanting book, except that you wouldn't have been given a toothpick in a transport caff in 1973.