After 20 years in England, Bill Bryson decided to tour Britain in 1995 by public transport over ~6 weeks and write a book about it.
There are snippets of great humour and insight (“a young man with more on his mind than in it”; “carpet with the sort of pattern you get when you rub your eyes too hard”; in Liverpool, “They were having a festival of litter... citizens had taken time off from their busy schedules to add crisp packets, empty cigarette boxes and carrier bags to the otherwise bland and neglected landscape”, and an amusing anecdote of him asking for directions having forgotten he was wearing pants on his head). But as the book progresses, they become fewer as the amount of repetitious moaning increases. For a self-confessed Anglophile, he often seems to dislike the place, though the weather gets off surprisingly lightly, especially given that he made the trip in late autumn.
The lack of trains in remote areas is a particular bugbear, but what I don't understand is his outraged surprise - he'd lived in and travelled around the country for 20 years! He argues that they shouldn’t have to be profitable because traffic lights, drains and parks don’t. And at a practical level, he often changes his mind about where he's going once he's on the station platform or even on the train itself (i.e. after he should have bought a ticket), yet he never mentions encountering any problems with ticket collectors etc.
Modern architecture and urban planning are his other pet hates. He bemoans the homogeneity of high streets full of chains (rather than family shops), yet is annoyed at the lack of 24 hour opening and gives Marks and Spencer so many favourable mentions, I wondered if they sponsored him in some way.
Readers are treated to endless descriptions of hotels and stations, but without enough comment about actual people (with a few notable exceptions: Mrs Smegma, a lunatic in Weston, and an ancient train buff), which makes it increasingly dull. Mind you, the way he chose his wife is described in very detached terms, so maybe he’s just not really a people person. On the other hand, he occasionally throws in gratuitous expletives, which don’t fit the general style of the book.
However, the worst offence is the lack of index or map – both of which should be essential in any travel book (an index for any non fiction book). Overseas readers might also appreciate a glossary, as it's clearly written for an audience who, if not English, are at least familiar with the country.
THE GOOD BITS
But there are plus sides, and Bryson is at his best when he goes off at a tangent and riffs on some unexpected topic. He explains why the British would have coped well under Communism (good at queuing, tolerant of dictatorships (cf Mrs Thatcher) and boring food). He throws in potted history about the founder of Sainsbury and his mansion (but doesn’t bother to find out why it was left to rot) and the fact that the bicycle pedal was invented in Scotland. He points out that Manchester has no motif (that’s why I find it so forgettable!), the US has no equivalent of “taking the piss” and that while US soaps are about glamorous people who can’t act, British ones are the opposite. Rather than extolling the innovation of the tube map, he suggest tricks to play on tourists e.g. by getting the tube from Bank to Mansion House (1 change, 6 stops) to end up 200 yards from where they started. Best of all, he delights in words: the odd and romantic place names, the differences in usage between the US and Britain and the florid language of menus. He ponders replying in kind and requesting “a lustre of water freshly drawn from the house tap and presented au nature in a cylinder of glass”!
Overall, it’s like the famous curate’s egg: “parts of it are excellent”. I think there's a good book struggling to get out, but it needed a decent editor to make that happen.