It is 20 years since Bill Bryson wrote his wildly successful Notes from a Small Island, the go-to book over which people who don’t read many books effuse enjoyment. Bryson’s epistle, which I have enjoyed several times, in largely Stockholm syndrome conditions, as it can be found abandoned in every rain-battered holiday cottage from Largs to Leamington Spa, is the tale of a peaceable Yank encountering everyday British folks.
Bryson trundles into a parochial town, eats a cream tea, notices a pomander collection, peruses a pitch and putt, then sleeps fitfully in a budget B&B close to a leaky faucet and the landlady’s ceramic Victorian doll haul. Bryson’s shtick, two decades later, continues to delight people and finds itself being serialised by the Daily Mail, including the sections where he surveys our population, concluding that we are “the happiest people on earth”.
Interestingly, many of Bryson’s 1996 observations on the gleeful Britons come from his interactions with hospitality staff: waitresses, receptionists, hotel maids. Currently, this industry lives in grim fear of non-Brits being shoved off “home”, leaving us reliant on British workers only to provide its public-facing – smiling despite an AFD (all fucking day) shift – hospitable cheer.
Nevertheless, Bryson noted back then that the British were a relentlessly jolly crowd. “The British are so easy to please,” he said. “They actually like their pleasures small. That is why, I suppose, so many of their treats – teacakes, scones, crumpets, rock cakes, rich tea biscuits, fruit Shrewsburys – are so cautiously flavourful.” Bryson noted people in a land festooned with “tireless, dogged British optimism” who held great joy in cozy minutiae such as a fresh pair of socks and a nice seat next to a two-bar fire.
And at some level, I recognise this whimsical tweeness in our psyche. “Cheeky Nandos Syndrome”, one might call it after our intrinsic modern British certainty that most bad days could be assuaged with an impromptu Fino Platter and unlimited Fanta refills. But this joy in the small stuff has never been the full story. Not in 1996, not in 2016 and actually, not ever. If Bryson has noticed us rhapsodising over millionaire shortbread, crap moss-covered swimming lidos and the Eddie “the eagle” Edwards story (for the 700th time since Calgary 1988), well, he has merely caught us at our best.
We are not even remotely a glibly chipper bunch. Our glee at an extra Yorkshire pudding, the Next January sale, a raunchy Archers plot, a nice brew or a half-hour stew in a Radox bath is a thin veneer over our glorious puddle-coloured pessimisms. Our occasional notes of joy over heated car seats, regular bin collections and a Kit Kat with an inordinately chocolately finger is mere gratitude for a brief alleviation in our suffering. And oh, how we suffer, here on our small island, battered by rain, tormented by soggy leaves, or worse still scorched by summer sun which we’ve decided by mid May is making us too clammy.
Bryson’s conclusion that we’re cheerful is, in actually, an affront to our sterling talent for low-level moaning, champion standard chuntering and a heroic approach to being utterly hacked off. How dare he besmirch our good name for bad attitude? I moaned, my mother moaned and my ancestors moaned before that. Our moaning is proudly multi-cultural, attracting people from all over the globe to set up home here and follow a common goal of “being a bit furious about the council” and “writing a slightly terse letter to the local Gazette about double parking near the Londis”.
“Watch any two Britons,” Bryson says, “in conversation and see how long it is before they smile or laugh over some joke or pleasantry.” But he overlooks that the run up to this laughter will be a gallows-style tirade about tiredness, tax bills and bastard traffic wardens, followed by a wry laugh to denote “Oh well, what can you do!? We’ll be dead soon anyway! Cheerio!”
I put it to you, Bryson, that is the Americans who are blindly, daftly happy. Two weeks is the longest any sane British person can spend in California before hearing a sunset described as “so blessy” leading to random violence. I have laid, some years ago, on a sofa in the sunshine state of Florida aching for home and for its grey skies, a crap pub with sticky tables, piss-taking, pickled eggs and pessimism. This is my small island. I’m miserable and I love it.Reuse content