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

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot