Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Book Review: Notes from a Small Island

I picked up this book at a used bookstore (that's becoming quite a refrain of mine lately), not sure whether I'd like it or not, but determined to spread my bookish horizons a bit and stop reading so much fiction. Plus, "visit the British Isles" is on my list of things to do, so it seemed a logical choice.
I could. Not. Stop. Laughing when I read this book, and I couldn't decide which bits to share with you, so I picked a few of my favorite excerpts and typed them out here. As I was typing and thinking of you reading, I found that perhaps--taken out of context--these excerpts may not be as funny to you as they were to me. That is why you must borrow the book from me and read it for yourself.
The author is American, but he lived in England for almost twenty years. Now, he is planning to move back to the States with his family, but first, he needs to say goodbye to his home by traveling the length and breadth of the island. On his journey, most of which is taken either on foot or by public transportation, Bill Bryson visits some of his favorite towns and some he has never visited. These are some of his observations.

On London, Queen of Cities:
It has more history, finer parks, a livelier and more varied press, better theaters, more numerous orchestras and museums, leafier squares, safer streets, and more courteous inhabitants than any other large city in the world.
And it has more congenial small things--incidental civilities, you might call them--than any other city I know: cheery red mailboxes, drivers who actually stop for you at pedestrian crossings, lovely forgotten churches with names like St. Andrew by the Wardrobe and St. Giles Cripplegate, sudden pockets of quiet like Lincoln's Inn and Red Lion Square, interesting statues of obscure Victorians in togas, pubs, black cabs, double-decker buses, helpful policement, polite notices, people who will stop to help you when you fall down or drop your shopping, benches everywhere. What other great city would trouble to put blue plaques on houses to let you know what famous person once lived there, or warn you to look left or right before stepping off the curb? I'll tell you. None.
Take away Heathrow Airport, the weather, any building that the architect Richard Seifert ever laid a bony finger to, and it would be nearly perfect. Oh, and while we're at it, we might also stop British Museum employees from cluttering the forecourt with their cars and instead make it into a kind of garden, and also get rid of theose horrible crush barriers outside Buckingham Palace because they look so straggly and cheap--not at all in keeping with the dignity of her poor besieged Majesty within. And, of course, put the Natural History Museum back to the way it was before they started dicking around with it (in particular, they must restore the display cases showing insects infesting household products from the 1950s); and remove the entrance charges at all museums at once; and bring back Lyons Corner Houses but this time with food you'd like to eat; and finally, but most crucially, make the board of directors of British Telecom go out and personally track down every last red phone box that they sold off to be used as shower stalls and garden sheds in far-flung corners of the globe, make them put them all back, and then sack them--no, kill them. Then truly will London be glorious again.

On Chopsticks, Which Are Evil and Awkward
Am I alone in thinking it odd that a people ingenious enough to invent paper, gunpowder, kites, and any number of other useful objects, and who have a noble history extending back three thousand years, haven't yet worked out that a pair of knitting needles is no way to capture food?

On Women's Shortcomings when It Comes Time to Pay for Things
Men, for all their many shortcomings, like washing large pieces of oily machinery in the kitchen sink or forgetting that a painted door stays wet for more than thirty seconds, are generally pretty good when it comes to paying. They spend their time in line doing a wallet inventory and sorting through their coins. When the till person announces the bill, they immediately hand over an approximately correct amound of money, keep their hands extended for the change however long it takes or however foolish they may begin to look if there is, say, a problem with the till roll, and then--mark this--they pocket their change as they walk away, instead of deciding that now is the time to search for the car keys and reorganize six months' worth of receipts?

On Things You Only Enjoy If You're Old and British
There are certain things that you have to be British, or at least older than me, or possibly both, to appreciate: skiffle music, salt-cellars with a single hole, Marmite (an edible yeast extract with the visual properties of an industrial lubricant), Gracie Fields singing "Sally," George Formby doing anything, jumble sales, making sandwiches from bread you've sliced yourself, really milky tea, boiled cabbage, the belief that household wiring is an interesting topic for conversation, steam trains, toast made under a gas grill, thinking that going to choose wallpaper with your mate constitutes a reasonably fun day out, wine made out of anything other than grapes, unheated bedrooms and bathrooms, erecting windbreaks on a beach (why, pray, are you there if you need a windbreak?), an dcricket. There may be one or two others that don't occur to me at the moment.
I'm not saying that these things are bad or boring or misguided, merely that their full value and appeal yet elude me. Into this category I would also tentatively insert Oxford.

At the End:
...and in the center of it all, obscured by trees, our wonderful old stone house, which itself is far older than my native land.
It looked so peaceful and wonderful that I could almost have cried, and yet it was only a tiny part of this small, enchanted island. Suddenly, in the space of a moment, I realized what it was that I loved about Britain--which is to say, all of it. Every last bit of it, good and bad--old churches, country lanes, people saying "Musn't grumble" and "I'm terribly sorry but," people apologizing to me when I conk them with a careless elbow, milk in bottles, beans on toast, haymaking in June, seaside piers, Ordnance Survey maps, tea and crumpets, summer showers and foggy winter evenings--every bit of it.
What a wondrous place this was--crazy as all get-out, of course, but adorable to the tiniest degree. What other country, after all, could possibly have come up with place names like Tooting Bec and Farlegh Wallop, or a game like cricket? Who else would have a constitutional form of government but no written constitution, call private schools public schools, think it not the least bit odd to make their judges wear little mops on their heads, seat the chief officer of the House of Lords on something called the Woolsack, or take pride in a military hero whose dying wish was to be kissed by a fellow named Hardy? ("Please, Hardy, full on the lips, with just a bit of tongue.") Who else could possibly have given us William Shakespeare, pork pies, Christopher Wren, Windsor Great Park, Salisbury Cathedral, double-decker buses, and the chocolate digestive biscuit? Wherever else would I find a view like this? Nowhere, of course.

Exactly, right? I have nothing more to add. You may borrow this book, certainly, but make sure I have it back before I make my journey. I'll need to read it again.

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