Bestselling travel writer Bill Bryson has been on many journeys around the world but his most recent journey has been in Britain on what he calls ‘the Bryson Line’, from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath in the Scottish Highlands, as he set out to rediscover the country that he thought he knew but doesn’t altogether recognise any more.
His experiences and observations of our “wondrously beautiful, magnificently eccentric” land are charted in The Road To Little Dribbling, a follow-up to Notes From A Small Island, published 20 years ago, which celebrated his adopted country and was voted the book which most represents Britain.
Little Dribbling does not exist, but it’s a name which conjures images of the quaint, quintessentially British villages or towns you might come across.
It’s a highly amusing read, which begins with Bryson having to take a knowledge test to become a British citizen last year. He now enjoys dual citizenship – American and British. “It used to be a hugely complicated process, but I kind of felt this is my home. It allows me to vote and I can go to the same queue at passport control as my wife now.”
While he details some changes to the UK in his latest book – the increase in litter, the decimation of village centres tarnished by modern, ugly housing, the traffic jams, the internet – he still loves it.
“The best part about Britain is that things haven’t really changed. It’s still a decent, pretty sane and reasonably compassionate and well-meaning place. It’s somewhere you can be quite pleased and proud of,” he reflects.
Several critics have said the book is grumpier in tone than his previous one. Reading the book, the sarcasm is perhaps a little heavy at times, but Bryson surely doesn’t deserve such a barrage of criticism in what is essentially a feel-good read. He argues that his writing is primarily done for laughs, and not because Britain has become a worse place or that he’s become grumpier with age.
“It’s quite natural for people to become more curmudgeonly as they get older. I did try hard for that not to overwhelm me. But a lot of it is jokes and not meant to be taken seriously.”
When Notes From A Small Island first received huge public acclaim, some travel writers accused him of not taking the genre as seriously as he ought to. The public evidently disagrees. He’s now sold nearly nine million books. It’s clear who’s having the last laugh.
Brought up in Des Moines, Iowa, Bryson arrived in England as a backpacker in 1973 after dropping out of college, fell in love with the country and with Cynthia Billen, a nurse he met when he landed a job at a psychiatric hospital in Surrey. They’ve been married 40 years and have four children and nine grandchildren. He worked for many years as a journalist, for the Bournemouth Evening Echo and later The Times, eventually settling in Yorkshire before returning to the US for a few years. Bryson now lives in Hampshire and is hoping to slow down a bit. “I want to go to new places and not necessarily have to write about them.”
• The Road To Little Dribbling: More Notes From A Small Island is published by Doubleday, priced £20.