The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain
Billed as “a loving and hilarious, if occasionally spiky, valentine” to the author’s adopted country, Bill Bryson’s follow-up, two decades on, to his bestselling Notes from a Small Island, is sometimes that—and sometimes not.
His famously droll way of highlighting the “small island’s” foibles still puts in an appearance but his “spikiness” is apt to descend into not much more than an old man’s grumbles over slipping standards, litter louts, and the like. Not that the grumbles aren’t sometimes justified, it’s just that the author’s clever edginess is often lost along the way.
Time, it would seem, has turned the American-born recently naturalized Brit’s quirky take on an entire nation into a series of somewhat cranky rants.
Ironically, while planning a route for this trip, Bryson decided to avoid, as far as possible, the places he went for the book’s predecessor. “Too much danger of standing on a corner and harrumphing at how things had deteriorated since I was last there,” he says.
He needn’t have worried.
A visit to the Seven Sisters, “one of the great walks of England,” triggers a pages-long moan about aging. Time was when he used to see only two small, dark caves when he tilted his head back in front of a mirror, he says.
“Now I am confronted with a kind of private rainforest.”
The last thing this reader hoped to discover in the book was a description of the fibrous material with which the author’s nostrils are packed. But there it is, in all its “glory.” Thicker than a coir doormat, apparently.
“Somebody needs to explain to me why it is that the one thing your body can suddenly do well when you get old is grow hair in your nose and ears,” he complains.
Bryson first went to England when he was 20, and he’s lived there on and off ever since.
“My time in Britain describes a kind of bell curve, starting at the bottom left-hand corner in the ‘Knows Almost Nothing at All’ zone, and rising in a gradual arc to ‘Pretty Thorough Acquaintanceship’ at the top,” he explains. “. . . recently I have begun to slide down the other side toward ignorance and bewilderment again as increasingly I find myself living in a country that I don’t altogether recognize. It is a place full of celebrities whose names I don’t know and talents I cannot discern, of acronyms (BFF, TMI, TOWIE) that have to be explained to me, of people who seem to be experiencing a different kind of reality from the one I know.
“I am constantly at a loss in this new world. Recently I closed my door on a caller because I couldn’t think what else to do with him. He was a meter reader . . .”
Bryson never did discover the Little Dribbling of the title, although in an island that’s known for nutty names (Scratchy Bottom in Dorset, for example; Pratts Bottom in Kent; and North Piddle in Worcestershire, to name a few), it’s entirely possible it does exist.
The main attraction of Britain for Bryson, one of the things he “really, really” likes about it, he says, is that it’s unknowable: “There is so much more to it—more than any person can ever see or figure out or begin to know,” he says, and he’s worked out that all the known archaeological sites “would require no less than 11,500 years of your time.”
Even after his extensive list of what’s good about the place (including saying “you’re the dog’s bollocks” as an expression of endearment or admiration—a phrase I’d put firmly in the category of the slipping standards Bryson so abhors), one is left feeling this is less a humorous travel book than it is an excuse for a ramble around an old man’s pet peeves.