Not long ago, Richard E. Grant interviewed Bill Bryson for the Penguin podcast. It was about Bryson’s new book The Road to Little Dribbling, which I am very keen to get my hands on (Hello Santa!), but in it Bryson also talked about what it was like to return to America to live after having spent his entire adult life in Britain. This was the experience which led to a series of columns in an American magazine, which in turn became…
I can’t quite believe I haven’t written about Bill Bryson yet. If I am anyone’s number one fan, I am his. He’s known primarily as a travel writer, but over the years he’s written about science, Shakespeare, the English language, history, and he even wrote a memoir. He’s also incredibly funny. I realise I have a predilection for comedy books, but that’s for an excellent and exceedingly high-minded reason: they cheer me up, and I defy anyone to read even just the first column in Notes from a Big Country and not crack at least a bit of a smile.
After arriving in the UK as a young man, Bryson met the woman who would become his wife, and fell in love with her and Britain simultaneously (his words – really, go listen to the Penguin podcast). And here he stayed, until the mid-90s when he, his wife, and four kids packed up and moved back to the US. Bryson found that since he’d been away, both he and America had changed somewhat. All the usual householder/adult-type activities he had only ever done in Britain, so even a trip to get Polyfilla, known to the Americans as ‘spackle’, is something of an adventure. He manages, just about, and is consistently both confused by and in adoration of aspects of his ‘home’ country that are at once familiar and alien. Is there such a thing as reverse culture shock?
Bryson could, and indeed, does get a healthy dose of humour out of anything. I just opened my copy of Notes from a Big Country at random, and came across this bit about a day at the beach: “I had a little nap and woke up to find that Jimmy was burying me up to my chest in sand, which was fine except that he had started at my head and I managed to get so sunburned that a dermatologist invited me to a convention in Cleveland the following week as an exhibit.”
Or how about this on his mother cooking for Thanksgiving? Which is, in fact, today – Happy Thanksgiving! “My mother was not a great cook, you see…My mother is a kindly, cheerful, saintly soul, and when she dies she will go straight to heaven, but believe me no one is going to say, ‘Oh thank goodness you’re here, Mrs. Bryson. Can you fix us something to eat?’”
Or, on getting stuck in a loft hatch: “Normally, your wife can hear things that no one else on earth can hear. She can hear a dab of jam fall onto a carpet two rooms away. She can hear spilled coffee being furtively mopped up with a good bathtowel. She can hear dirt being tracked across a clean floor. She can hear you just thinking about doing something you shouldn’t do. But get yourself stuck in a loft hatch and suddenly it is as if she has been placed in a soundproof chamber.”
And it’s a sweet sort of humour too, without that particular ‘isn’t life ghastly’ attitude that some comedy writers have. It’s just sort of cosily familiar. I mean, who hasn’t got stuck in a loft hatch. Right? Yes?
Notes from a Big Country is essentially what might reasonably be called ‘ramblings on a theme’. You should read it because it’s frequently hilarious, sometimes insightful, occasionally weird, and chock-full of the kind of stories that your kindly, if slightly accident-prone, uncle might tell after a few beers. Bryson’s rediscovery of his birth country is an enjoyable and easy read which you can dip in and out of, or binge read like a crazy person. Either way works.
P.S. Seriously, go listen to the Penguin podcast. It’s here, in case you didn’t get the hint already.