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

James Murphy

Bill Bryson knows that absurdity is present in everybody and can be found in almost every situation if you try to find it. He also knows absurdity is mostly lovable. And so Notes from a Small Island chronicles Bryson's tour of Britain from Dover to Glasgow, traveling generally north and almost always by public transport, not in search of the absurd but certainly quick to point it out. There's plenty to draw the reader's attention to, though what he sees as absurd he likes and is more than willing to accept. Bryson also knows a nation is its people. He writes about the English people with great warmth and affection while at the same time being aware of their eccentricities. He loves what he sees, too. He takes time to visit the sites individual towns and regions are noted for, whether it's Stonehenge or the Ashmolean in Oxford or Princes Street in Edinburgh. All along the way he has interesting things to say about almost everything Britain is famous or notorious for, including British weather, British food, the congeniality of British pubs, British Rail. In the end he's full of praise for a country responsible for cricket, pork pies, Christopher Wren, and the chocolate digestive biscuit. All those things and more Britain has given us, he writes, but they also had the farsightedness to create a comprehensive welfare state and to efficiently dismantle an empire. Nearing the end of his journey, alone again on a train gliding through the Midlands, he closes the book with a paean to a characteristic of Britain he feels is undervalued, the bucolic nature and astonishing beauty of the countryside. Bryson is absurdly in love with Britain.


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.

Lora Grigorova

Notes from a Small Island: two months I will say goodbye to the UK after having spent nearly 3 years here. To say that I am sad will be an exaggeration. However, to say that I will not miss it is just plainly unfair. After all, the UK has taught me several important life lessons, which I will never forget soon:1. How to pass an exam, when you haven’t attended a single lecture and you have two days to learn everything2. Yes, it is possible to be rainy and windy 364 days of the year.3. Never be surprised when a total stranger calls you “love” or “mate”.4. “Cheers” is the ultimate word. It can substitute absolutely anything you want to say.5. Cider is cheep and fairly disgusting6. Burger&Chips CAN be a national dish.7. You can always start smoking after you have successfully passed the “wanna be” phase of your life (in my case you can start smoking not at 13 but at 20).If you feel a sense of bitterness, irony, and sarcasm…well you are absolutely right. To be honest, I don’t only have bad memories from my time here. Of course, I am now expected to share that my life abroad has made me more responsible, more organized, and more self-sufficient. Well, it did. It is quite obvious. Leaving the comfort of your home behind, where your mum and dad take care of every disgusting chore and moving on to live by yourself, having to learn how to cook, wash your clothes, manage your finances, etc will ultimately transform you from a careless teen into a mature individual. It is not the UK that did this. It is merely the living abroad, which could have happened in exactly every other country.However, I have two things to be thankful to the UK. Firstly, I started this blog here. I realized how much I love books and how much pleasure dedicating time to reading and writing gives me. Secondly, I realized I want to write a book about my life (I wouldn’t have anything to write about if it wasn’t for the UK but that is another issue). So, England, this is my big thank you for releasing my literary talent and for giving it a subject to write about.Maybe sensing my feelings towards his home country, my flatmate provided me with a book to change my opinion (or at least attempt to do so). After spending nearly 20 years on the island, Bill Bryson (a born American) is about to leave it for good and move to live with his family in the US. Feeling nostalgia, the author decides to take a journey around the fields of England starting from the south and finishing in the north. Bryson enters the UK through Dover, the same way he did in the distant 1970s and starts a trip, visiting not only every major UK city, but also going to relatively unknown places and villages. The book is funny, entertaining, and clever. It is not merely a trip through the fields of UK, it is a trip through a whole life time. There is as much about England and its miracles as about Bryson and his life. The author is sarcastic and funny; his elaboration on the Britons and on their island is straight to the point. The author not only describes the absolutely astonishing parts of England; he also attempts to draw a rather comprehensive picture of its public face. What are the key characteristics of the Britons? What made them so? What transformed some prosperous industrial towns into deserted and isolated places? What makes the green green grass of the UK so lovable? Bryson answers all of these answers from his own perspective, as an immigrant for almost 20 years. His imagination, sense of humour, and wittiness make Notes from a Small Island more than a road trip book. They actually make it a guide to understanding England. When I read it, I kept thinking “This is absolutely the way it is”.Read more:


This book is so funny! I giggled all the way through. Being a Brit I just loved his experience of our guest houses, especially as the welcome at many of them hasn't changed one jot! He wrote the book C1995 so it is considerably out of date, but if you take that into consideration and want a really good laugh at the expense of the Brits and Americans then you'll love this one. I particularly enjoyed his struggle with the difference in our one who has experienced the difference during 10 years of living in Canada I know just how frustrating and amusing it can be!!


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?!

Lisa Vegan

It took me forever to read this because I was constantly picking it up and putting it down, not because I wasn’t enjoying it, but because it’s one of those books where it works to read it in this way, and I read so many other books during the times I took breaks from reading this book.Sometimes I just don’t like Bill Bryson as a man. There’s a smattering of things he writes that are cruel, crass, and otherwise makes him unappealing to me, and he sure drinks a lot of beer, but the nasty material is a tiny minority of the book’s content. He’s basically a likeable and interesting guy who is an explorer, much of it done via walking, and he has a refreshing sense of what constitutes adventure.He’s a skilled writer. He’s very, very funny; I laughed out loud and chuckled many times.I’ve always wanted to go to Britain so for me this was a bit of armchair traveling. Unfortunately, much of this book made me wish I’d visited the place (and most other places) at least a few decades ago. Bryson makes clear the homogenization that’s taken place at various British locales, and this book was written 15 years ago so who knows what he’d say now. I’d still love to go but I’d skip some of his destinations. He also writes much about the history of his destinations and I found most of the information fascinating.One thing that tickled my funny bone is that when he was in one small English town, he saw the old “This is Cinerama” movie, a movie I remember from my childhood, and brought me right back to the United States of America. I hadn’t realized the movie was already old the first time that I saw it, but I do remember loving that film and other Cinerama movies.There’s a glossary of English (vs. American English) words in the back of the book. Given that I’m a bit of an Anglophile, I already knew the definition of most of the words, but having it in the book was a fun touch.

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.


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!

Rena Jane

Bill Bryson's books always make me feel as though I've been introduced to the most interesting and enjoyable parts of wherever he takes me. This one was no different.Bryson drinks his fill, and occasionally to excess in pubs all over England and Scotland as he takes a farewell walking tour of his adopted Great Britian. His humor and compelling descriptions put you almost into the book with him. He tours famous museums, as well as little, off-road, seldom visited sites that we should all give a chance. He also rates the establishments he sleeps in, usually good, but he's afraid to be honest when he chances about a dive.The nostalgia he feels at leaving his adopted home comes through, also as he muses on how seldom he's visited some of these sites, and how worthy some are of repeated visits. Others, that have been touted for years as "must-see's" he gives short shrift, since in his opinion, they do not stand up to their glorified reputations.I enjoyed this book, and will probably reread it one day, especially if I ever have the good fortune to visit the Emerald Isles.


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.

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 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.


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.

Sarah Wingo

I needed something easy and fun to read during my breaks at work and just in general and this seemed perfect. The added touch of personal nostalgia was also a plus even if its publication predates my first experience in England by ten years. Pardon the vulgarity, but this is just too funny: "I'm the Eldest son or the Eldest son of the Eldest son of the Eldest son of the Guy Who Fucked Nell Gwyn." (even though it isn't technically correct since the English crown can and has been passed down to daughters when a son was unavailable)This book made me very happy. Part of me wonders how it took me so long to get around to reading it, but I'm glad it did because I really needed something light and fun to read, but that would also draw me in and make me want to keep reading. What a lovely man Bryson is. What I really loved about the book is the way in which he fully understands the "ways" of the English, has acquired himself a delightfully English sense of humor, and loves them deeply for all of their eccentricities. While at the same time as an American he can take a look at his adopted country with the eyes of well an American who has fallen in love with England. I found myself nodding along as I read thinking "YES!" at every turn. This book was delightful and I look forward to reading his others, it is light and perfect for travel reading or just when you need something easy to lose yourself in. I know that having lived in England it carried a certain nostalgia for me, but I'm certain people who have never even set foot in England will still enjoy it.

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.

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