Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson

I've been reading Bill Bryson's books for years now, even though I seem to be slowly souring on them. (I originally picked up his books about language, which I later learned might be more popular than authoritative, which is reasonable and not all that surprising. And I liked his travel books from the '90s and early aughts, though I've never gone back to any of them to see if modern-me would like them as much.) The last few, I've expressed a desire to see him go back to travel books, to get out into the real world and interact with people rather than writing a book out of his own head up in his study.

Well, The Road to Little Dribbling is a travel book, but Bryson doesn't actually interact with people all that much. I suspect he may be a lot like me -- not all that fond of people at the best of times -- and seems to prefer to get on with things himself rather than chatting with the locals. But that does tend to make a travel book less interesting.

Anyway, this is a "sequel" to Notes from a Small Island, Bryson's farewell love-letter to the UK (mostly England) from the mid-90s. At that point, he'd been living in England for over twenty years -- married a local girl, had a couple of kids, the whole lot -- but was taking them all back to the US, where he expected he'd spend the rest of his life. So Small Island was a tour of all of the things Bryson loved about the UK, and consequently became a big bestseller there, because people love being told how wonderful they are, and was only slightly less successful in the more Anglophile book-buying bits of America. But Bryson moved back to the UK maybe a decade later, and has been there ever since. And Little Dribbling is thus the "all the stuff I used to like is gone, you rotten younger generations you" book that inevitably must follow the "all of this stuff is wonderful" book.

I may be exaggerating slightly. But Little Dribbling is a grumpy book, in which an isolated Bryson wanders around the country and looks for things that aren't there anymore and is thus made unhappy again. (He also, I should admit, finds many things -- mostly very old ones made out of various kinds of stone -- that are still there. But he does not show any great fondness for the actual British people he meets, as contrasted with his retrospective view of the kinds of upstanding yeomanlike Britishers that used to populate this blessed isle.) So it's not as much fun as Small Island was, and Bryson is not as entertaining in his bile as someone like Paul Theroux is -- and also aims his ire at much smaller, almost stereotypically "rotten younger generations" targets, which makes this book seem like Bryson is auditioning for a new role as Colonel Blimp.

Little Dribbling is amusing and funny in fits and spurts, but the mean-spiritedness and more-in-sadness-than-in-anger tone tend to run it down and make it less entertaining than it could be. But if you think that the UK is going to the dogs, this could be exactly the book you want.

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