A Sense of Humor About the British

June 2, 2012 § 5 Comments

Notes from a Small Island (Bryson, Bill)

I first set foot in Great Britain in October 1999 and promptly fell in love. The infatuation matured into a raging affair during the two years I lived there in the mid-2000’s, and although I’ve moved continents since (strictly for work reasons), I continue to make short hops across the pond almost every year, and each time I do so, the old flame gets re-kindled and burns as brightly as ever.

“You have got to be kidding!” gasp the people I work with in America, when I tell them this. “The rotten weather! The bureaucracy! The prices! The taxes! The congestion charge! The NHS! The Royal Family! The yobs! The ghastly plumbing! Tiny, overpriced hotel rooms! And did we mention the rotten weather?” But, no, I am perfectly serious – I love the bloody place.

Mind you, when I say Britain, I more or less mean London. I did drive around a tiny bit around South England, but I am convinced that once you’ve seen a pretty meadow dotted with cows, you’ve seen them all (a proposition whose truth can only be verified by seeing them all, which I have no intention of doing; and so it will remain unproven) And when I say London, I more or less mean the people of London (in addition to about a dozen or so museums, parks, cathedrals and second-hand bookshops). What I love most about the Englishman is his uniquely self-deprecating sense of humour, in which he is utterly unlike most other people on Earth, who can enjoy a hearty chuckle or two once in a while, especially when a fat man slips on a banana peel, but whose funny bone remains resolutely untickled when they think of themselves. Dry, understated self-mocking irony is a deeply English trait that I believe is symptomatic of a certain way of thinking about the world and one’s place in it, a way of thinking that I happen to share; hence my love.

The very limits of Britishness…John O’ Groats, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

It is refreshing and not a little unusual to find an American who agrees with me on this point, albeit an American who has lived and worked in the UK for much of his adult life, and has gone so far to demonstrate his Anglophilia as marry an English woman. This book, written in the 1990’s, is an account of Bill Bryson’s travel, mainly on foot and by public transport, from one end of the British Isles to the other, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his arrival in Britain as a back-packing college kid. (A public-transport-using, non-automobile obsessed, American is ipso facto a novelty). The book is part personal reminiscences from the seventies, part travel diary, part encyclopedia, and mostly humorous banter. Portions of it are very, very funny: Bryson induced loud, involuntary snorts of mirth from me, and this is more emotion than I have ever displayed publicly before. I am ashamed to report that my fellow-travellers on the New York subway regarded me with the kind of faint horror that is usually reserved for passengers who start talking loudly to themselves about the imminent demise of Western Civilization, in a squeaky falsetto, somewhere between Times Square and Penn Station (which happens about once every other week).

Bryson keeps up a steady drumbeat of fun facts, like:

Blackpool attracts more visitors every year than Greece and has more holiday beds than the whole of Portugal. It consumes more fish and chips per capita than anywhere else on the planet. (Of potatoes alone it gets through forty acres worth a day)

…while peppering his readers with riotous anecdotes about architectural deficiencies, train schedules, hotels, restaurants and the aristocracy. In fact, he is at his funniest when he mixes the humour and the factoid into a single…humoid:

The big event in Thurso, according to civic records, was in 1834, when Sir John Sinclair, a local worthy, coined the term statistics in the town, though things have calmed down pretty considerably since

Given how opinionated Bryson is, it is a wonder that I disagreed with him on only three occasions. One, I thought he misunderstand what George Orwell was trying to say in The Road to Wigan Pier (reviewed here). Two, where he launches into a tirade against Cambridge University for encouraging the study of subjects that he believes to be non-essential or not amenable to ready monetization. Surely this is a vestige of his American upbringing that his stint in England hasn’t managed to weed out entirely. I believe Bryson is now a chancellor in a British university, and pray that he has changed his mind since he wrote this book. The single-minded pursuit of the inessential is such an essential part of British character – think of  those silly hats worn by the Royal Guard, or Test Cricket. And the third point that we disagreed on was London.

 Unlike me, Bryson does not stick to London but goes walkabout all over the countryside. He spends far less time in London than I think he should have. I am disappointed– he could easily have filled a book with as many facts and jokes per page without ever moving out of Zones 1 & 2 of the London Underground – but then, the book was his idea, not mine, and I can be broadminded about this.

Leaving my personal geographical preferences aside, the truth is that the Dave Barry-meets-Lonely Planet act can drag a little, especially when he has to find new, funny, interesting things to say, in turn, about Dover, London, Windsor, Bournemouth, Salisbury, Lulworth, Weymouth, Lyme Regis, Exeter, Weston, Oxford, the Cotswolds, Milton Keynes, Cambridge, Bradford, Saltaire, Harrogate, Manchester, Wigan, Liverpool,  Llandudno, Ludlow, Blackpool, Morecambe, the Lake District, Durham, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Inverness, Thurso, John O’Groats,  and Glasgow. Towards the end, the strain begins to show on him and on his readers.

In fact, he comes very close to admitting this, when he reaches Aberdeen, and suddenly runs out of words to describe it:

And then I realized that the problem really wasn’t with Aberdeen so much as with the nature of modern Britain. British towns are like a deck of cards that have been shuffled and endlessly redealt – same cards, different order. If I had come to Aberdeen fresh from another country it would probably have seemed vibrant and exceptional. … It’s just that it was so much like everywhere else. It was a British city. How could it be otherwise?

Thus it is with Bryson’s book as well. The guffaw in every page at the beginning turned to a grin every two pages to a smile or two every ten pages, and finally, towards the end of the book, to the re-reading, with some satisfaction, of a pleasantly worded sentence; and this was not because the writing had deteriorated, but because it was so much like the writing it followed. It was a Bryson anecdote. How could it be otherwise?

Of course I am being a wee harsh. “Notes from a Small island” is overall a good read, especially if you are fond of the island in question, and I know exactly what Bryson means when he ends with the words, “And then I turned from the gate and got into the car and knew without doubt that I would be back.”

I know I will, too.


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