UK: THE SMALL ISLAND

 

I finally got around to reading Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island last weekend. It lived up to all of the reviews, and while I only spent two years there, his observations had me laughing out loud and missing the Old Blighty. Even the British like the book:

In an opinion poll organized for World Book Day in 2003, Notes from a Small Island was voted by BBC Radio 4 listeners as the book which best represented England.[1]

A few of his observations that I really enjoyed:

  • ‘It sometimes occurs to me that the British have more heritage than is good for them. In a country where there is so astonishingly much of everything, it is easy to look on it as a kind of inexhaustible resource. Consider the numbers: 445,000 listed buildings, 12,000 medieval churches, 1,500,000 acres of common land, 120,000 miles of footpaths and 600,000 known sites of archaeological interest (98 percent with no legal protection). Do you know that in my Yorkshire village alone there are more seventeenth century buildings than in the whole of North America? And that’s just one obscure hamlet with a population comfortably under 100.’
  • ‘There are certain things that you have to be British or at least older than me, or possibly both, to appreciate: …. Marmite (Note: The first time I tried it, I thought i was like jam – what a shock), really milky tea (MW: Or coffee with milk), allotments (MW: I remember a friend finally getting his allotment, when he explained what it was I was still only able to answer ‘You are going to do what?’), the belief that household wiring is an interesting topic of conversation … erecting windbreaks on a beach (why, pray, are you there if you need a windbreak!).’
  • ‘Call me a perennial Iowa farm boy, but I never fail to be impressed by how densely packed with worthies is this little island. How remarkable it is that in a single village churchyard you find the graves of two men of global stature (George Orwell, H.H. Asquith). We in Iowa would be proud of either of them – indeed we would be proud of Trigger the Wonder Horse of the guy who invented traffic cones.’
  • On titles … and the properties of the heirs of titles:  ‘More extraordinary still in my mind is the thought that nearly 300 years later the duke’s heirs can litter the grounds with miniature trains and bouncing castles, charge admission and enjoy unearned positions of rank and privilege simply because a distant grandsire happened to have a passing talent for winning battles.’ I wondered the same thing once.
  • ‘The Alhambra Theatre, built in 1914 in an excitingly effusive style with minarets and towers, has been sumptuously and skilfully renovated and remains the most wonderful place to see a pantomime. (Something I positively adore, by the way)’     MW: I cannot agree more. Pantomime is a Christmas habit that we have take with us from the UK. Our tickets are in hand for Beauty and the Beast in Toronto. I cannot wait, Scot Thompson is a great headliner.
  • On animals:  ‘There is nothing, apart perhaps from a touching faith in the reliability of weather forecasts and the universal fondness for jokes involving the word ‘bottom’, that makes me feel more like an outside in Britain than the nation’s attitude to animals. Did you know that the Royal Society for the Protection of Children was formed sixty years after the founding of the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals, and as an offshoot of it? Did you know that in 1994 Britain voted for a European Union directive requiring statutory rest periods for transported animals and against a statutory rest period for factory workers?’
    • MW: On this one I must comment. I think it is an area where North American’s can definitely learn from the UK. Animals are an integral part of society and it is one of those things that I love about the UK. You walk into the Wentworth and they will tackle you to the ground if you are wearing running shoes (trainers) or jeans. Honestly, without a blazer they will also look at you as if you should not be there. But on the fairway, people are openly golfing with their dogs. My neighbour went out with his mates every Sunday morning, and his lab came. In Canada – oh no, the insurance would be too high (plus, no one wants to actually walk!). I also remember sitting in the dining room of a very posh hotel in Normandy, surrounded by people with their dogs in their laps. I thought it was just wonderful.
  • On the weather:  ‘I have a small, tattered clipping that I sometimes carry with me and pull out for purposes of private amusement. It’s a weather forecast from the Western Daily Mail and it says in total: “Outlook: Dry and warm, but cooler with some rain.” There you have in a single pithy sentence the English weather captured perfectly.’
  • On the lakes district and being crowded:  ‘To say that Windermere (MW: The largest natural mere in England. – leave it to the British to complicate the definition of a lake) is popular with boaters is to flirt recklessly with understatement. Some 14,000 powerboats are registered to use the lake…. Windermere may have pride of place among English lakes but for each 12 inches of Windermere’s surface, Lake Superior offers over three-quarters of a square mile of water. There is in Iowa a body of water called Dan Green Slough, which most Iowans have never heard of, and it is bigger than Windermere.’
  • On contrast:  ‘How is is possible, in this wondrous land where the relics of genius and enterprise confront you at every step, where every realm of human possibility has been probed and challenged and generally extended, where many of the very greatest accomplishments of industry,commerce and the arts find their seat, how is possible in such a place that when at length I returned to my hotel and switched on the television it was Cagney and Lacey again?’

I just ordered his travel books on Europe and Australia. Fantastic writer and a fantastic book – it truly does describe what makes the UK one of the most amazing places in the world.

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