Notes from a Small Island

ISBN: 0380727501
ISBN 13: 9780380727506
By: Bill Bryson

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About this book

"Suddenly, in the space of a moment, I realized what it was that I loved about Britain-which is to say, all of it." After nearly two decades spent on British soil, Bill Bryson-bestsellingauthor of The Mother Tongue and Made in America-decided to returnto the United States. ("I had recently read," Bryson writes, "that 3.7 million Americans believed that they had been abducted by aliens at one time or another,so it was clear that my people needed me.") But before departing, he set out ona grand farewell tour of the green and kindly island that had so long been his home.Veering from the ludicrous to the endearing and back again, Notes from a Small Island is a delightfully irreverent jaunt around the unparalleled floating nation that has produced zebra crossings, Shakespeare, Twiggie Winkie's Farm, and places with names like Farleigh Wallop and Titsey. The result is an uproarious social commentary that conveys the true glory of Britain, from the satiric pen of an unapologetic Anglophile.

Reader's Thoughts


My first exposure to Bill Bryson was "A Walk In The Woods" which is about his desire to leave modern America behind and go for a stroll along the Appalachian Trail. I love that book and found it to be hysterical and at other times very sensible in his commentary about the world around us."Notes From A Small Island" also reflects his desire to stroll through countrysides and insert some social commentary about the communities he encounters. But this time his location is Great Britain and it is a farewell tour of the country he called his home for over 20 years.Not being British and having never been to any part of Britain I must admit I was at a total loss for many of the references he makes about the culture (pop to political) and the language. I constantly felt like a bit of an outsider listening in to some great inside jokes that flew right over my head.But the sections where he described human nature in general, or the portions about Scotland where I did have some personal frame of reference thanks to a Scottish roommate in college, I found to be very funny and entertaining. It is obvious this book was written about Britain for a British audience and because of it I had a nice descriptive tour of the geography, the people and, of course, the wet weather.I was a little surprised by the sudden brash insertions of vulgarity and showy tell-offs of people who happened to annoy him. I don't really recall that style from my reading of "A Walk In The Woods" but maybe I just don't remember it because I was laughing too hard. I swear myself all the time so it wasn't offensive personally, but it felt like it was thrown in there purposefully to fit in or something.I also tired of his constant criticism of the architectural horrors - even though I agree with his frustration and anger about it. Just hammered that point a little too often for my tastes. I get it - stupid architects destroyed pieces of history left and right for shopping plazas which is blasphemy. More about the human interest please, which he writes very well.Overall the book was an easy read that could be picked up and put down without problem so it would be great to read on a commute or in between other books. It was entertaining enough but I would recommend more for people not completely clueless like me about Britain - the humor would be appreciated much more.


This is Bryson’s swan song to his adopted home of England, where he lived for over 10 years. Bryson decided, after he and his wife were leaving the UK to return to the States, to take one final trek around this “small island” and write about these farewell experiences. This was the first one of Bryson’s books that I read (I had heard of his bestselling books A Walk in the Woods and In A Sunburned Country about Appalachia and Australia respectively) and I chose this one to start with because of my love of England. I’m so glad I did. A combination of serious and critical views of modernism and how it has taken over the relics and sentiments of the past to very droll, yet side-splittingly funny little snippets of the everyday life of the British. I believe he was having fun with this, as if he was winking at his intended audience when something good was about to happen. I now have read his other books and they do possess the same sarcastic tone and are all well-written and hard to put down, but if you are an Anglophile, this one is the one to read!


Brilliant! Insightful and very funny, Bryson nails the oddities of British culture. At times, he seems a little too impressed by his own cleverness, but he also has a knack for making me feel very nostalgic for my favorite bits of Britain. A must for anybody who is intimately familiar with British geography and culture."To this day, I remain impressed by the ability of Britons of all ages and social backgrounds to get genuinely excited by the prospect of a hot beverage." ~ Bill Bryson

Ben Babcock

Since I moved to England this fall, I haven’t done too much travelling around the country. I’ve been to London a couple of times, neither of which I did much that could be described as a touristy; the same applies to my trips to Cambridge. I went up to Scotland during the half-term and had a good time there, but I’m looking forward to visiting a few other places around the UK. Until I do, travel writing like Notes from a Small Island will have to serve to whet my appetite.Bill Bryson is a brilliant writer. A Short History of Nearly Everything is one of my favourite books. Bryson has a deft touch to description that makes him an apt writer of non-fiction; he manages to make something that could be dull and make it come alive through anecdotes and humour. I knew he had done some travel writing, a genre that’s been on my mind while teaching AS Literature. So I picked this up during a trip to Waterstones and settled into what I hoped would be a very unique perspective on Great Britain. Bryson didn’t grow up here but has lived here for decades. Preparing to move back to the United States with his family, he tours the island one last time. The result is certainly unique, but not in the way I wanted.The prologue chapter is every bit as brilliant and entertaining as I had hoped it would be. Bryson relates his first days in England, in 1973. He describes butting heads with the formidable Mrs Smegma, the proprietor of a boarding house and perpetually disapproving of whatever Bryson does. He reminisces about his youthful awe over the differences between Britain and the United States, and it’s a delightful prelude to the beginning of his tour of the country twenty years later.I’d be exaggerating if I said that the book goes drastically downhill after that strong start, but it would not be wild hyperbole. Notes from a Small Island suffers from two chief defects. Firstly, as I noted above, Bryson is a brilliant writer—and, unfortunately, he knows this. Secondly, it turns out that his reactions to various places in Britain are very similar and often involve a lot of unfavourable comparisons to how things used to be.Bryson’s wit often seems to get the better of him here. Of course, there are plenty of moments when that humour works well and livens up what might otherwise be a mundane description of his travels through Brighton or Yorkshire. Unfortunately, it often seems like his humour is there to distract us from the fact that he isn’t actually talking about the particular place in question. There are segues into sexist ruminations on the differences between men and women (and he himself labels at least one such episode as sexist, as if that somehow excuses it). At least twice during visits to Chinese restaurants he makes comments that are, if not racist, then culturally insensitive. Such moments were enough to make me feel uncomfortable, particularly because I had so wanted to find this book funny. And throughout the book, he manages to portray himself as a short-tempered, intolerant, rude person who would probably make a terrible travelling companion. To be fair, he seems to be aware of these shortcomings and occasionally even apologizes for them. But he also seems to labour under the delusion that this makes him even more interesting rather than less.The second defect concerns how Bryson describes the way the places he visits have changed over the decades. In almost every case, he manages to point out how development and change has ruined a city. He laments the arrival of indoor shopping malls and the slow destruction of Britain’s hedges. He complains about the motorways, about the rail system, about the distribution and diversity of restaurants. It wouldn’t be so bad if each successive chapter weren’t just more of the same. It’s as if he set out not just to tour Britain but to find as much fault with it as possible in order to justify his relocation to the United States. For someone who claims to love the country—and he does make several keen observations in favour of Britain and its people—he spends a lot of time sounding like someone who doesn’t want kids on his lawn.It’s not all bad news. There is charm to be had in Notes from a Small Island. Bryson shares in common with certain humour writers that talent to transform what are assuredly mild incidents in their lives into wild, slightly absurd anecdotes that nevertheless have the ring of truth. These otherwise excellent moments are spoiled by how repetitive Bryson manages to make the book feel. After the first few chapters, the novelty has worn off. As I approached the end of the book, I was paying very little attention to what he was actually saying, because it felt like more of the same.Notes from a Small Island doesn’t replicate the sense of wonder and enjoyment I derived from A Short History of Nearly Everything. It doesn’t quite give me a sense of the country in which I’m living either. Instead, it’s more like a catalogue of Bill Bryson’s unfavourable experiences across Great Britain. It’s occasionally funny and occasionally charming but not the encomium of travelling through Britain that I want or need.

Marc Maitland

Curious that an American should be appointed Chairman for the Council for the Protection of Rural England, I read this with some trepidation! I have concluded that I empathise with much of what Mr. Bryson says (I too remember 1970s seaside "guest houses" with Ena Sharples-type landladies - but he forgot to mention the Izal toilet paper - younger readers are fortunate indeed not to have encountered either!) and the inedibility of British Rail ("Traveller's Fare" - what a misnomer!) food. However, part company from him on such issues as his incredulity at the British love affair with steam railways, and his apparently insatiable appetite for Chinese food! His comparison of 1990s Britain (when he wrote the book) with his first arrival in the 1970s is poignant. Whowver wrote "The past is another country" was indeed correct. However, reading abiut 1993 in 2008 is also reading about another country! Mr. Bryson still admired the British penchant for queueing (in 2008 I see little evidence of this, especially at Fulham bus stops!), and railway staff that were polite (despite the compulsory attendance at public relations courses, I find much of the public transport staff at best indifferent and at worst surly in 2008). He is however spot on regarding the de-characterisation of most British towns and cities, with acres of plastic shopfronts announcing the exact same shops in every high street, the criminally ugly town centre and other redevelopments that have blighted Blighty in a way that would have baffled even Goering's Luftwaffe, and his appreciation for countryside that continues to inspire despite, and not because of, Government policy. Overall, a thoroughly enjoyable read, albeit the bits of it that purport to be "current" are now themselves historic. I think a 21st Century update is called for, wherein Mr. Bryson can wax poetic about "hoodies", those institutions jokingly called "comprehensive schools", the disintegration of political honour, the lunacy of most local authorities (the very term "authority" is apposite; "local democracy" has all but disappeared) the complete disappearance of any manufacturing and now even most service industries, and a million other things that have eaten away at our once great country. It often takes an outsider to write objectively about a country: Mr. Bryson has done this with wit and understanding - please do some more!


My manager in DC gave me this book before I left for London - and it was freakin hysterical to read. The author was basically reiterating all the thoughts I had while I was there, living amongst the Brits, diciphering the weird accents, and travelling around the countrysides on the weekends. Bryson has a comical and sarcastic tone throughout (like a true American) and he mainly complained the whole time he was there. But in the end, he was grateful (greatful?) to have had that experience, and I completely agree. I just wish I had the talent to put those very thoughts into such a clever package. But alas, I kinda suck at writing.


Ambling know-it-all wanders around the UK, complaining about architecture, getting drunk, finding delight in little, and generally having a hard time deciding where to eat (always Indian or Chinese in the end). It paints a pretty depressing picture of the UK, when I think his intention was the opposite. Plus, I really liked his book about traveling through continental Europe, so I don’t know what happened here. Also thought the scene where he tells us how fat people eat was insulting, to, well, fat people. He also takes a few cracks at the elderly because he says they like to complain—but pot, kettle, black. He really comes across as a curmudgeon in this one, but I kept reading because at least I was learning a little bit about Britain. (A very little bit.) I wanted to smack him after he refuses to pay 14.50 for a hotel breakfast, then can’t find anywhere in town to eat, then starving, staggers into a McDonald’s and proceeds to go off on a poor minimum-wage employee when he asks if he’d like to add an apple turnover to his order. It's McDonald's, Bill. That's what they do.


Bill Bryson is on tour on Britain and funnier than ever. The way he describes the british people, towns and way of life as an outsider and insider(since he lived there at the time) is delightful, witty and very clever. great book !


Bryson is like a lazy armchair traveler that actually gets up and goes to all of those places that we think we should see and usually don't. Unlike brisk capable travel writers like Rick Steves or Paul Theroux, Bryson seems more like us. He's a Goldilocks whining about soup that is too hot or the bed is too hard. Since he has such a critical sometimes whiny eye, when he does find the right fit like Edinburgh or Salisbury, I know I would love it too. The railway details got a bit dense but, overall it was delicious honey in a big steaming cup of Anglophile tea.

Karen Hanson

This book started out well enough and I really had high hopes for it, but it pretty much tanked for me after that. Bryson claims that he loves Britain and thinks it’s amazing, but all I heard was a bunch of whining and complaining about it. Every building that wasn’t the original “Georgian” style he deemed as an ugly renovation done by idiotic architects. It seemed every town he traveled to was a dump. He doesn’t really do much but travel around by bus or train (of which he also complains), and then book a room in a crappy hotel for the night after which he “ambles” to some pub to drink a few beers and eat some “adequate” food. I swear if I heard him use the word “amble” one more time I was going to puke. He hates cars so he walks everywhere he goes and then complains when he gets rained on. HELLO. You’re in Britain. It rains there all the time! Bring a damn umbrella! Or how about some rain boots! GASP! Every so often he’d interrupt his soaked “ambling” to mention the Marks and Spencer jackets people were wearing or yell at some random person for a minor infraction. The thing is, the only time he says anything good about Britain is when mentioning how it was 20 years ago. I kid you not, the most excited he ever got about anything was when talking about an IMAX movie he went to… about AMERICA. I normally love Bill Bryson, but after this one, I think I’m going to take a break for a while.


Bryson's love for all things English is a constant presence throughout this book. He gushes about hedgerows, the quaint English villages that have remained the same forever, and the warmth and hospitality of the Brits. He doesn't refrain from harshly criticizing some places either:About Oxford, he says, "I have the greatest respect for the university and its 800 years of tireless intellectual toil, but I must confess that I'm not entirely clear what it's for, now that Britain no longer needs colonial administrators who can quip in Latin. I mean to say, you see all these dons and scholars striding past, absorbed in deep discussions about the Leibniz-Clarke controversy or post-Kantian aesthetics and you think: Most impressive, but perhaps a tad indulgent in a country where there are 3 million unemployed and the last great invention was cat's-eyes?":DI find strong Wodehousian influences in passages like these. They are insightful and funny. Bill Bryson takes us with him into Cirencester where he describes a hidden Roman mosaic that has been preserved under a polystyrene cover. This description is intense and vivid- "..for the first time it dawned on me in a kind of profound way that all those Roman antiquities I had gazed at over the years weren't created with a view to ending up one day in museums".The book sure does have its moments, but I can't decide if I love it. For people who have never been to the country, this elaborate travelogue of England *can* get a bit tedious. There is only so much of Birmingham, Bracknell, Bradford and Bingley one can handle. And that's just the 'B's.Read it if you want to experience late 20th century England without the hassle of travelling, for the passages that make you want to make some Earl Grey and go on a lunch date with Jude Law and for the unexpected poignancy at times.“The tearoom lady called me love. All the shop ladies called me love and most of the men called me mate. I hadn't been here twelve hours and already they loved me.”


Before returning to his native United States after a sojourn of some twenty years in England, Bryson decided to take a trip around that "small island." The hysterical comments in this book are the result. The British loved it so much it was a best-seller for months, and they turned it into a TV series. The book even includes a glossary of English terms. For example, do you know the difference between a village and a hamlet? One is a small town where people live, the other a play by Shakespeare!Bryson is certainly not your average travel writer - as anyone who has read my reviews of his other books knows - and despite his often scathing wit, it's never done with malice, even when very critical of a subject. What astounds me is Bryson's vigor and willingness to put up with all sorts of cold and wet weather. He made his trek during the off-season, i.e., late October, not an especially delightful time of year in Britain. He did not take a car, relying solely on buses and British Rail, a decision that often forced him to make long, out-of-the-way walks of as far as twenty miles, either because schedules didn'tcoincide, or the irregular bus did not run during the off-season.He delightfully intermingles political commentary with travelogue. He visits Blackpool, for example, where there are long beaches - that officially don't exist. "I am not making this up. In the late 1980s, when the European Community issued a directive about the standards of ocean-borne sewage, it turned out that nearly every British seaside town failed to come anywhere near even the minimum compliance levels. Most of the bigger resorts like Blackpool went right off the edge of the turdometer, or whatever they measure these things with. This presented an obvious problem to Mrs. Thatcher's government, which was loath to spend money on British beaches when there were perfectly good beaches in Mustique and Barbados, so it drew up an official decree -- this is so bizarre I can hardly stand it, but I swear it is true -- that Brighton, Blackpool, Scarborough, and many other leading resorts did not have, strictly speaking, beaches. Christ knows what it then termed these expanses of sand -- intermediate sewage buffers, I suppose -- but in any case it disposed of the problem without either solving it or costing the treasury a penny, which is of course the main thing, or in the case of the present government, the only thing."Then there's British Rail. On his way to Manchester, "we crept a mile or so out of the station, then sat for a long time for no evident reason. Eventually, a voice announced that because of faults further up the line this train would terminate in Stockport, which elicited a general groan. Finally, after about twenty minutes, the train falteringly started forward and limped across the green countryside. At each station the voice apologized for the delay and announced anew that the train would terminate in Stockport. When at last we reached Stockport, ninety minutes late, I expected everyone to get off, but no one moved, so neither did I. Only one passenger, a Japanese fellow, dutifully disembarked, then watched in dismay as the train proceeded on, without explanation and without him, to Manchester." No Bryson should be left unread.


Firstly, I should note that I'm extremely glad I didn't wait any longer to read this book. Over fifteen years have passed since it was first published which, coupled with the fact that Bryson reminisces often about his first trip to England (another twenty years previously) lends a lot of the prose a somewhat nostalgic air. Many of the observations he makes are no longer relevant as town centres become increasingly homogenised and many sites of cultural and historical significance are largely either bastardised or done away with entirely. I’m inclined to both agree and empathise with the sad ‘things ain’t what they used to be’ passages.A large portion of the book focuses on the seaside town of Bournemouth (where, coincidentally, I spent most holidays as a child in the mid nineties). As a result I remember fondly the piers and pleasure gardens he describes; in particular the wooden frames erected in the latter, to which are attached coloured glass jars containing candles which, when lit, form charming motifs of flowers and boats and so on. They really are quite wonderful. While Bill Bryson has lived for some time in England he seems to remain an observer on the fringe of participation, rather than a participant who happens also to observe. The quirks of ‘the English’ and their semantic peculiarities are not treated as entirely confounding, merely somewhat curious. Dialectal incongruities are often a mystery to regional outsiders in any case. Bryson also remarks upon how remarkably gifted the British are at naming things, particularly places. Nether Wallop, Wigtwizzle and Yonder Bognie are just a few examples picked at random. This is one of his many digressions into linguistic miscellanea, all of which I enjoyed thoroughly.Written in a time before a mobile phone and internet connection became human rights in all but name (and one gets the feeling Bryson would have ignored both anyway) there is an exploratory, rather happy-go-lucky approach to his travels. On more than one occasion he finds himself poring over bus and train timetables, planning his time meticulously in order to best use the hours between the arrival and departure of various irregular and unreliable public transport services. I can attest that this is all fact. Public transport is a law unto itself and a royal pain in the butt.Although he can often come over as somewhat curmudgeonly, I’m quite fond of Bryson’s penchant for scathing sarcasm. I believe that everybody is judgemental occasionally, whether they choose to be vocal about it or otherwise; I appreciate the combination of honesty and wit with which he shares his opinions. This book paints a picture of Britain, particularly England, which I imagine can be truly appreciated only by the (mostly) British. It also serves as a reminder to not take oneself too seriously; of course certain characteristics are exaggerated for comic effect and to take offence at generalisations in this context would be foolish.Admittedly, were it not for my childhood recollections and at least passing familiarity with many of the places mentioned I would have enjoyed this book rather less. Overall I absolutely loved most of it and really liked almost all the rest. But now I can’t stop wondering: just how do they make sticks of rock?!


this was the first Bill Bryson I read and it made me cause attention to myself as I was literally laughing out loud on the Tube in London! The bit that stays with me the most is the difference between how men and women queue... men are all prepared with the exact amount of change counted out, proffering it to the person... women look all surprised and fumble for their purse, then rummage around for the right amount of Money...I think Bill Bryson is a sharp and witty observor of human beings.


Alas! After listening to this book on my commute, I got to the end of the last disc to find I'd been listening to an abridgement all along. /sighIn any case, I've read enough of Bryson to still enjoy every bit of it, though this was my first foray into his work via the audiobook. As an Anglophile who has yet to actually visit the United Kingdom, Notes from a Small Island was a pleasure to listen to. Bryson's slightly-snarky delivery amused me, and he could really be the only narrator for this type of travelogue. Having someone else narrate this personal narrative would have just felt like cheating.There were a couple of quirky things while I was listening (for instance, some exit-type music started playing near the end of the last disc -- but not at the actual end of the book), and some of Bryson's favorite phrases were all-too-apparent when read aloud ("I liked it a lot" is a phrase he often employs). However, I'd like to maybe read the book somewhere down the line -- perhaps after I've visited Britain myself.

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