Book Review: Notes from a Small Island

‘Suddenly, in the space of a moment, I realised what it was that I loved about Britain – which is to say, all of it…’

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For years, Bill Bryson was just a name on my Dad’s bookshelf. As with every record, CD and VHS in my childhood home growing up, I obsessively absorbed every book cover like prospectors sifting through the Californian rivers in old timey America – sometimes tossing useless rocks back into the river, but occasionally finding gold. Some of my most cherished bands, TV shows and books were lifted directly from the shelves of my parents. Catch 22 and Three Men in a Boat in literature, The Young Ones and Fawlty Towers in TV and too many bands to mention (I never picked up my Dad’s Bob Marley obsession though).

Notes from a Small Island always seemed exotic with it’s cartoon style front cover and even the name Bill Bryson evokes the alliterative comic book heroes of Marvel and DC, but for some reason I never did take that one down from the heaving book shelf in my parents living room. More recently, I did dip my toe into the warm pool of Bryson with his book about Shakespeare – a work that I enjoyed immensely.

Since my Dad passed away, I have found myself aching to return to some of the many recommendations that he encouraged on me over the years that I never got round to. While he never explicitly recommended Notes from a Small Island, it’s continued presence on his book shelf was endorsement enough for me to give it a whirl.

Bill Bryson is an American-English non-fiction author who uses his duel nationality to write about our British Isles with a unique mixture of distance and warmth. Unburdened by the British desire to accentuate the negatives of the United Kingdom to preposterous levels, Bryson is able to properly articulate all the things that make parts of this country beautiful, mysterious and unique. While some of the cultural references in Notes from a Small Island are dated now, Bryson’s often hilarious observations on the cultural, geographical and architectural features of Britain still very much ring true. Things don’t change much in this country, particularly up north, and Bryson captures this suspicion of change beautifully.

I was actually doing some travelling myself while reading Notes from a Small Island, taking in the many eclectic pubs of Newcastle and the long, sandy beach of Whitley Bay, the rolling hills of Pitlochry and the windy summit of Mam Tor in Castleton. This trip, coupled with Bryson’s gushing but grounded prose, placed in me a desire to do more travelling around this strange and divided country of ours and also to try and take some pride in Britain.

It is unusual for a book to have the ability to change ones outlook on something so completely but then this is why we read, in the hope of finding that special work that leaves some kind of mark. No wonder my Dad loved it so much…

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