Notes from a Small Island


Bill Bryson




Date Reviewed:

June 20, 2020

otes from a Small Island seems to me the sister book to Bryson's Lost Continent, which I just read prior to this book. In The Lost Continent, Bryson wandered around the United States, looking for (what he imagined to be) the ideal village - the most idyllic, pleasant town in America. Notes from a Small Island is the same format - only this time, Bryson ambles about England, Wales and Scotland. This book came out in 1995, while The Lost Continent was first published in 1989, but this shows Bryson hasn't changed - still the same humor, the same observations, and the sudden in depth research into off beat historical facts. Bryson is a master of this style, yet somehow this book didn't strike me as funny as The Lost Continent


This is an example of Bryson humor: "I have a small, tattered clipping that I sometimes carry with me and pull out for purposes of private amusement. It is a weather forecast from the Western Daily Mail and it says, in toto, `Outlook: dry and warm, but cooler with some rain.' There you have a in single pithy sentence the English weather captured to perfection: dry but rainy, with some warm / cool spells.. The Western Daily Mail could run that forecast every day - for all I know, it may - and scarcely ever be wrong."

Another humorous excerpt: "I took a train to Liverpool. They were having a festival of litter when I arrived. Citizens had taken time off from their busy activities to add crisp packages, empty cigarette boxes, and carrier bags to the otherwise bland and neglected landscape. They fluttered gaily in the bushes and brought colour and texture to the pavements and gutters. And to think that elsewhere we stick this objects in rubbish bags."

Bryson is certainly an opiniated chap. He pretty much condemns any of the modern architecture or services such as British Rail. He goes on extended rants about how carelessly the British are treating their wonderful heritage. (Despite the fact that this book was written while Princess Diana mania was at its peak, neither she nor the other members of the English royalty get mentioned in this book.) But Bryson also gives enthusiastic descriptions to the people and places that he enjoys, whether it is a genuine Roman mosaic buried under plastic bags in a corner of the woods, or a beautiful but forgotten cathedral in a town of Durham. Sometimes Bryson has three different opinions about the same place, which is more a reflection of his mood and the weather, rather than the place's actual merits. When Bryson arrives in Edinburgh on the evening train, he calls it a most beguiling and beautiful city. Next morning, with drippy rain falling, Edinburgh is much less enchanting and dull. The next day, with the sun shining, Bryson finds Edinburgh positively ravishing, alive with parks and greenery. So you can't really trust his opinion of a site, but you can be amused by his narrative.

There is a map in the front of the book, but it is missing many of the places Bryson describes, and it includes cities that he skips. It only vaguely follows the actual route of Bryson in the book. As a travelogue, this isn't a great choice. Bryson didn't inspire me to travel to the British Isles with this book, but I was amused by some of his critiques. He must be a great researcher, because he can dig up some obscure facts, such as his telling of the story of a wealthy man named Selfridge, who eccentricly spent his fortune. Unlike Lost Continent, Bryson does get onto some of the hiking trails in England and describes some picturesque scenery. He isn't too clear on where these paths are located, and since the book is now 25 years old, things have probably changed anyway.

Bryson is famous for writing A Walk in the Woods, and I have found his more recent books to be excellent: One Summer, At Home, and A Short History of Nearly Everything - those four are highly recommended. I also liked In a Sunburnt Country. Notes from a Small Island isn't as great as those other works, but it is still worth a read. You can pick it up and read a chapter or two, and then put it down for a few days before resuming the book. If you are a Bryson fan, check it out.