If Britain needed to take a good long look at itself in a non-distorting mirror, there is no time like the present, as the colossally boneheaded Brexit behemoth lumbers forward, the government is sundered by divisions, represented by a Foreign Secretary who is an international laughing-stock and mired in pathetic contemporary and historical sex scandals and other mind-numbingly dreary shenanigans. In the words of W. B. Yeats, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” In my view, one of the sharpest mirrors of what it is to be English today can be found in two hugely – and rightly – popular books, Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island (1996) and its sequel, The Road to Little Dribbling (2015).
Bryson is of course a well-known and wide-ranging American writer who after many years in England – and with an English wife and family – has recently taken British nationality and is a lover of (nearly) all things English. In the 1940s, it took a Hungarian – George Mikes – to capture the essence of English eccentricity in his witty little book, How to be an Alien, but Bryson goes deeper, taking insight into national character in his own droll and quietly diagnostic direction.
In both books, his observations emerge naturally from travels, encounters and experiences – though the latter were, of course, undertaken precisely to generate such observations – and they add up to a panoptic snapshot of British society, from north to south and west to east, that it’s hard to quibble with. One reads him with a constant smile, recognising the veracity of his impressions. In many ways, though he denies it, he has mutated into an ex officio Englishman, with a wry and at times cranky sense of humour that few Americans could lay claim to.
At one point in The Road to Little Dribbling, he describes himself as both an expatriate and a patriot of an adoptive country that no longer exists, and I found myself nodding vigorously. One should read both books in order of composition and publication, because the 20-year gap between the two is undoubtedly a watershed period, and his observations constitute a wonderful bellwether of societal change. His approach is microcosmic. He is a devotee of minutiae, a connoisseur of the banal.
Just over a year ago, he said in an Independent article, that the British have become “more greedy and selfish”, like the US – less orderly, less well-behaved – and described the Brexit referendum as “a completely emotional event, not an intellectual one” that reflected the kind of Euroscepticism that plagued the construction of the Channel Tunnel and emanates from “an irrational feeling of losing a sense of being an island and separate.” He considers that the world is making it harder to be an immigrant, and in the background one senses his own nervousness at being an immigrant in the UK, however well-accepted he is. Indeed, the closing pages of The Road to Little Dribbling are a passionate defence of “good” immigration policies.
Bryson is also a great lover and defender of the British countryside, and the unique cultural wealth of England. The English, who love to reflect narcissistically on their national identity, are naturally drawn to him, and he is more reliable – because essentially an outsider – than, say, Jeremy Paxman in The English: A Portrait of a People (1998). He is certainly funnier and more self-deprecating than preachy, pompous Paxman…
I would also encourage the French and other Europeans who are somewhat nonplussed by the odd goings on in that right little, tight little island next door, to spend some time in Bryson’s inimitable and good-humoured company – the earlier book is translated into French as the bizarrely titled Des Cornflakes dans le porridge – or, one step beyond, set out to explore and experience the people and place, as he did.
He is no less perceptive about his own country of origin in books like The Lost Continent:Travels in Small-Town America and Made in America, and in Little Dribbling one constantly senses the relief he feels at escaping the mind-numbing monoculture of redneck America for the whimsical oddness and variety of English life, and the fragile hope that the English will continue to cherish the marvels that they have inherited and all too often take for granted. When he sees those singular achievements cavalierly bulldozed through sheer insensitivity and brainlessness, the pain of irretrievable loss is tangible.