I want to be Bill Bryson when I grow up

September 12, 2018

When I first moved to England, it was recommended to me by multiple British friends that I read Bill Bryson's "Notes from a Small Island."How curious that everyone was so obsessed with an American writer. After spending more time here, I'm really not surprised with any American obsessions. I struggle to find clothing for my children that does not have New York, the Bronx (really UK?), or an American flag emblazoned across the chest. I once found a shirt with the words, Toronto, Ontario (so specific) in amongst the American paraphernalia at Primark. You've made it Toronto. You are practically American. To be fair, when Brits speak of "America," they often mean North America, which would include us lowly Canadians. A Canadian will never say that they are from America, or even call our neighbours to the South "America." It's the United States, or the States, or Cross Border Shopping at Target. The most accurate thing that I have ever heard President Trump say, is that Canadians are smuggling shoes over the border. It's true. I've done it and all my friends have done it. “They buy shoes and then they wear them. They scuff them up. They make them sound old or look old,” the president said. This is not fake news. Although I'm not sure how to make shoes sound old. 

 

I read "Notes from a Small Island," within my first few months of life in Britain. I was thoroughly amused and enchanted throughout most of the book. Because I am a millennial snowflake, at times I found Bryson's humour a bit dark, even for me. Why must everyone who annoys him succumb to an untimely death or misfortune (in the author's mind- this is not a violent book). I did eventually get used to it and it became much like a Simon Pegg film in my imagination. Fun fact, Simon Pegg grew up a twenty minute drive away from where I now sit typing and mourning the fact that I've finished my flat white. Cheltenham finally has a Starbucks drive-thru (this would probably depress Bill Bryson as it was most likely built over the site of an historical building which was ignored and then demolished). I am happily awaiting the day when Starbucks will deliver to me directly. No doubt, people like me are what is wrong with the world, coffee/convenience obsessed and overly concerned with not offending anyone. Making our shoes sound old. 

 

By the time I read Bill Bryson's second book about his travels around the UK, "The Road to Little Dribbling, More Notes from a Small Island," I had more perspective. I had lived in the UK for two years. I knew stuff. I knew what brown sauce was and that a country lane can accommodate two vehicles if you have the driving skills (I'm still convinced a bit of magic is involved). I knew that if you didn't ask for your bill at a restaurant you would literally sit there all night. I knew how to buy rounds. I knew that people working in a shop will never bother you, even if you actually want their help (which I never do- so this is glorious). With all this knowledge, I found Bryson's second book delightful. He still murdered people with his mind, but now I knew that is just the American/English way. 

 

Bryson is living my dream life. He has relocated from the United States to the UK permanently, and just recently, become a dual citizen. He dropped out of University and backpacked in Europe. I dropped out of University and backpacked in Australia. He wrote a book about it. I did not, but perhaps I should, it would be a scandalous page turner (any of my backpacking friends reading this are likely mortified at the thought- don't worry, I will use pseudonyms that may or may not rhyme with your actual names- Shandace and Zaimee)! Bryson has four children. He writes and travels. The books about his English travels are particularly poignant, humorous, and relatable for me as I continue MY adventures on this small island. I have three children, I write and travel, perhaps more locally, as my circumstances will allow. Bryson has something wonderful, that I do not have... a wife. I have a feeling that she is quite understanding and "holds down the fort," as he alludes to her taking the kids on vacation without him and calling him to come home when needed. She is also portrayed beautifully by Emma Thompson in the 2005 film, "A Walk in the Woods," so that is exactly how I picture her. I find myself (mostly happily) stuck in the wife role, being primarily responsible for all things children and trying to squeeze in time for writing. I'm obsessed with my children and wouldn't want anyone else to raise them but me- and their father of course. This does explain my not having written a book about my backpacking adventures... yet. 

 

That being said, I am sure that Bryson is an excellent father, although his Wikipedia page does not let us know either way. He is a brilliant writer, full of adventure and humour, who wouldn't want a father like that? I'm sure he is also generous and a mentor to all and if I continue with the compliments, perhaps someone with connections could pass them along so that Bill Bryson and I can finally fulfil our destiny and be friends. I could encourage him to write a book about Canada. We could cross border shop in "America" together. Imagine all the shoes!

 

Bill Bryson and I are both in love with Great Britain, that much is clear. There is so much to love. The beautiful countryside, the insanely adorable villages, friendly pubs, savoury pastries, a cup of tea that actually tastes good, fish and chips, historical sites everywhere you turn, families out walking their dogs, people who know how to enjoy a park, dogs in pubs, elaborate walking trails, even more elaborate gardens, CASTLES, rain, constant discussion of rain, the appearance of organized systems (whether they actually are organized or useful is yet to be determined), the stress of train travel, having to go to high street for nearly everything, have I mentioned dogs, punchy drunk men in the streets anytime after 5 pm (earlier if there is a football game), school uniforms, seasonal depressive disorder from not seeing the sun for six months, carrying an umbrella with you and then inevitably leaving it in the M&S Food Hall, paying TV tax even if you never want to watch BBC, and pretending that you enjoy (or watch) Bake Off. 

 

I do find myself overwhelmed with all that I want to do and see whilst I am living on this small island. Things that hold me back are finances, the fact that my children are in school and if they miss a day for anything other than illness I will be fined, having autism in our family- the wild card of not knowing how things will go (more than you would with neurotypical children- I know because I have two of those as well), time, and an often grumpy travel companion who is luckily very cute and funny to make up for his mood swings. When I am driving along the M5 or some other motorway, even if I have an exciting destination planned, I am ALWAYS tempted by the brown signs. There are 93 different types of brown signs in Great Britain, they are placed along the road to alert you of an attraction. I literally want to pull over and visit every single castle, cathedral, museum, English Heritage Site, Zoo, Roman Remains, Woodland Walk in a Coniferous Forest or Woodland Walk in a Deciduous Forest (yes these two have different signs- it's important to be specific). I had an epiphany as I read "The Road to Little Dribbling," for Bryson writes, "this is one of the things that I really, really like about Britain: it is unknowable. There is so much stuff that no one can definitively say how much there actually is. Isn't that splendid? If you tried to visit all the medieval churches in England- just England- at the rate of one a week, it would take you three hundred and eight years. All the known archaeological sites in Britain would require no less than 11,500 years of your time." Thanks Bill. I will just see what I can with the time that I have and be grateful. If I'm really lucky, maybe I will finally write a book and then Robert Redford will play me in a movie so I can be just like you. 

 

 

 

Cited,

Bryson, Bill. The Road to Little Dribbling More Notes From a Small Island. Transworld Publishers (Penguin Random House UK), 2015. Print.

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