- - Sunday, April 10, 2016



By Bill Bryson

Doubleday, $28.95, 384 pages

He’s Alexis de Tocqueville in reverse. Almost two centuries after the Frenchman’s classic text “On Democracy in America” explained its political traditions and cultural oddities to a European audience, Bill Bryson has served up another affectionate study of British eccentricity to tickle the sides of American readers.

“The Road to Little Dribbling” isn’t just a companion piece to “Notes from a Small Island,” his first travel book about Britain penned 20 years ago. It’s a prolonged and hilarious love letter describing Mr. Bryson’s 40-year relationship with his adoptive country. It’s mostly a joyous tribute to British patience, stoicism, sense of fairness, landscape plus the generally slower pace and higher quality of life than back where he was raised in Iowa.

At his best Mr. Bryson is a poet of suburbia and the gentle man-made landscapes of Britain’s southern region. Craggy Celtic landscapes of mountain and moor leave him colder than the soft green vistas and gentle harmony of Windsor Great Park, or those outlying parts of London only glimpsed beside freeways or across airport runways. His description of the outer suburb of Runnymede, where a monument to the Magna Carta signed in 1215 jostles for space with another honoring John F. Kennedy, opens our eyes to the densely layered structure of the world’s richest and most abundant historical theme-park.

At first glimpse, there’s no logic to the selection of the places in Bryson’s 26 standalone chapters as he rambles northward from glimpses of France across the English Channel, to Cape Wrath at Scotland’s tip. He proffers some notional structure in the shape of an imaginary “Bryson Line” running from south to north on the map of Britain.

This helps conceal an artful recycling of the trusted literary format known as the picaresque. Inevitably, there’s a lot less swashbuckling swordplay and sexual romping in haybarns than in “Tom Jones,” the definitive picaresque yarn published by Henry Fielding in 1749, or even Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy.” But the meditative riff on the way one thing randomly follows another in the complex (and highly successful) plot line called Bill Bryson’s life, comes to much the same. Sex apart, it must be said that Mr. Bryson has embraced with true gusto two male British passions a latter-day Tom Jones would respect — eating curry while drinking many, many pints of beer.

“The Road to Little Dribbling” is built on dogged technique as well as humorous writing. Mr. Bryson fillets each and every seaside village and regional museum in Britain for its eccentric backstory. Why does the museum dedicated to 18th century rural writer Gilbert White also pay tribute to Antarctic explorers? In which Oxford museum did Lewis Carroll find the Dodo in “Alice in Wonderland”? Did novelist Jane Austen really die of lead poisoning? Why did the man who discovered the world’s greatest Viking treasure hoard at Sutton Hoo get no credit?

Behind the lightness is an omnivorous editor who devours every museum guide, memorizes every caption, scours every long-term report on roads, railways, urban planning — and finds plenty to complain about.

And here lies the key to this book. Mr. Bryson — a former journalist (he worked for the London Times) who founded his own literary cottage industry by skillfully adapting the techniques of a foreign correspondent to blend long-form cultural observation with dogged reporting of factual eccentricities — has finally “Gone Native” in Britain. Not just explicitly by taking British citizenship — he delivers a hilarious description of the nationality test he must first pass — but implicitly too.

Mr. Bryson betrays this new Britishness with one weakness — he’s a tea addict. In search of a cup of tea, he abandons regional museums, coastal walks and storm-tossed promontories. The acid test of every village or train station he visits is whether or not it has a tea shop where he can get a cup and a slice of cake that’s “small, dry and expensive, just the way the British like it.”

Fact is, Mr. Bryson’s core audience is no longer American. You can’t be an outsider explaining Britain to Americans if you’re now an insider. And if you’re writing for Brits, you need to complain. And complain he does.

Mr. Bryson detests the British attitude to trash; he hates trash cans, and he hates their absence too. He hates motor vehicles in the Lake District or on Dartmoor, bad street furniture, rude shop attendants, coffee shops, British Telecom, bad punctuation, food courts, post-industrial policy, needlessly-closed railway lines and overpriced cups of tea.

As in any long-term relationship, there’s abundant and lasting love to balance the complaints, making “The Road to Little Dribbling” a generous, funny, modest and admirable book, packed with great writing. Mr. Bryson is now too deeply dug in to write with detachment about us Brits for you Americans, yet we truly love what his sense of humor has done for our country.

Bill; here’s one piece of parting advice from one native Brit to a newly-minted Brit. Buy yourself a vacuum flask, and then you can drink your tea anywhere you please, without ever having to complain of being overcharged for it.

Richard House is a London-based editor and writer with the Financial Times.

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