Everybody loves Bill Bryson, don’t they? He’s clever, witty, entertaining, a great companion on a journey through the wilderness, across the states of America or through the complexities of language, Shakespeare or science, all of which he has written about.
Sure, he’s sometimes a little too convinced of his own cleverness, a little too satisfied with his own jokes, a little too prone to sneering at people behind counters who serve him badly, but we forgive him. Mostly because he is so funny, but also because he is American by birth and yet such a great enthusiast for Britain, its landscape, eccentricities and way of life.
Twenty years ago, Bryson wrote of arriving at Dover and heading north in the hilarious Notes From A Small Island, which was hugely entertaining proof that it takes an outsider to see the truth about where you live. Now an older Bryson (who has married a British woman and settled here) goes on the road across this long, thin island again, because he loves the place. And also because his agent asks him to.
Revealing that to us is one of several risks that he takes in writing about himself as a successful man, including a scene in which he is recognised in public, in his own book. Hmm.
It’s also risky to have a go at Michael Portillo for presenting a superficial television travel show when his own book skips through parts of the country such as the Seven Sisters so lightly that even Portillo would be embarrassed. Thankfully, most of Little Dribbling is far better than that.
There are still entertaining encounters with people in shops (like asking for the food court in H&M because you think it is M&S) and on the streets, as there were in Notes .... But Bryson has written a series of highly successful factual books since then and his research is on show here, producing insight, wisdom and startling nuggets of information. For example, there are 600,000 people on the London Underground at any one time, “making it both a larger and more interesting place than Oslo”. Who knew?
Bryson rails magnificently against the bad manners, mediocrities, rip-offs and talentless celebrities that have infested the place since he arrived, because this is a book about growing old in a country that maddens and baffles you but that has won your heart.
Best of all though is the passion he brings as the former President of the Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England. Behind many of the best little stories is a sustained, well-informed argument for the need to keep Britain from drowning under a tsunami of concrete.
“There isn’t a landscape in the world that is more artfully worked, more lovely to behold, more comfortable to be in than the countryside of Great Britain,” he says, urging us to look after it. The argument is won by stealth, with charm, learning and laughs.
At the end, he lists the reasons why he still lives here. One of them is a phrase he loves that we use as a term of affection. Let me steal it now and say this: Bill Bryson and his new book are the dog’s bollocks.
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