Twenty years ago, Bill Bryson pulled off an incredible trick. In Notes from a Small Island, the Iowa-born writer catalogued the annoyances and mediocrities of British life from a jaundiced, American perspective. While it's easy to imagine the offences a Yankee might cause when writing about another country's national character, Bryson was warmly, wholeheartedly embraced. He has become a beloved figure in his adopted country, one of the rare foreigners to be named to the Order of the British Empire. Today, he gets flashy university appointments and fawning media profiles. After skewering a British population known for its self-seriousness, Bryson has somehow become part of the national establishment.
Looking back, it's easy to see why Notes was such a hit. Bryson is bluntly critical about everything from cold toast in the countryside to the "world's ugliest building competition" that is an East London neighbourhood. But the cutting observations are always balanced with genuine respect and affection for the places he's visiting. The book is full of paeans to Marks & Spencer and the elegance of the English train system. Bryson writes about Britain with the incision of an outsider, but also the warmth of kin. His talent lies in making both the wicked and the sincere feel of-a-piece in his writing.
Since 1995, Bryson has taken a number of public detours into respectability, most notably through his work as a preservationist. But with the 20th anniversary of Notes, he has returned to the droll, acerbic tone that launched his career. In The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island, Bryson pretty much copies the formula from his original travelogue.
He visits the far corners of Britain, from Lyme Regis to Wales, on the hunt for two things: curious historical footnotes and droll observations about the idiosyncrasies of modern British life.
On the history front, Bryson has found some real gems this time around. His stories are ironic and full of pathos, fitting tributes to Britain's lovable loser towns.
There's the sad tale of Bognor, a seaside hamlet whose only accomplishment is that a king once stayed there during a terminal illness and hated every minute of it. Ghoulish town officials actually petitioned to have the royal honorific "Regis" appended to the town's name, in commemoration of his visit.
Then there's the story of Motopia, an unrealized experiment that would have banished cars from the town of Wraysbury and replaced them with a system of futuristic moving sidewalks. After a quick cost analysis, the plan was scrapped.
Bryson revels in these fun pieces of marginalia.
As for the wry observations about British life, those are more hit and miss. Though Little Dribbling is a book about the British character, Bryson doesn't seem terribly concerned with the big identity questions facing the country today, such as Euro-skepticism or the campaign for Scottish independence. Instead, his ire is saved for more personal inconveniences. There are tirades against unhelpful shop clerks and a few jeremiads about the decline of once-sacrosanct British institutions such as London black cabs and country hedgerows. Some of these crankiest passages feel amusingly small, but ultimately rooted in a place of goodness.
There are less charming moments too, ones that suggest Bryson is moving ungracefully into his codger years. The writer dedicates several bitter paragraphs to hoodie-clad South London teenagers. "If collected altogether in one room," he muses, "you still wouldn't have enough IQ points to make a halfwit." This feels lazy.
Then there's a rote section about the vapid nature of celebrity culture and repeated shots at smartphones. "People in Britain still whisper when sharing confidences," Bryson writes, "but give them a mobile phone, a railway carriage and a sexually transmitted disease, and they'll share the news with everyone."
Twenty years on, Bryson is more grumpy, disheartened, even wistful about his adopted homeland. Little Dribbling becomes almost mournful when he revisits some of the haunts that made his first Notes so memorable.
The first time Bryson wrote about Dover, it was lovingly. He saw it as a quaint but loony place, populated with real characters, such as a cranky vet known simply as The Colonel. The town felt weird and charming, in its way. Today, he writes, it's almost unrecognizable. The old Churchill Hotel is gone, but so is the sense of small-town hospitality. "Not long before my visit," Bryson writes, "the town council installed new benches on the seafront that were designed not to be too comfortable." This was meant to crack down on loitering, a policy Bryson regards as, "all you need to know to understand why Dover is dying."
Similar trips to Woodstock and the London Underground aren't much sunnier. Bryson is caught off guard by the pace of change, and these trips become more angry than funny. Nostalgia is a sticky trap, even for him.
While it's clear that Bill Bryson loves Britain, it's the Britain of idyllic seaside parks and grubby bars, not the one that exists today, with growing urbanism and corporate branding and a youth culture he does not care to understand. "The older you get," Bryson laments, "the more it seems like the world belongs to other people."
How you relate to that sentiment should predict how much you'll enjoy this book.
Chris Berube is a producer with CBC Radio. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The New York Times.