I am a huge fan of Bill Bryson, so his new tour of Britain, The Road to Little Dribbling was an essential for me. I absolutely loved the way he gave an outsider's view to both delight in and be infuriated by Britain in his original Notes from a Small Island, and I expected more of the same. And to a degree I got them.
As usual with a Bryson book there is a mix of anecdotes, fascinating factoids and shrewd observations. I must admit these days I'm a little more suspicious of his content after reading he does fabricate a tad, and certainly his factoids are occasionally a little adrift from reality, but on the whole he knows his stuff, and this is the kind of book it's very difficult to resist reading out little snippets to friends and relations as you go. (In fact, I didn't resist.) Bryson manages once more to entertain most of the way, with a mix of enthusiasm for Britain and the good aspects of British values, and pointed remarks when we get it wrong. He has a clear and genuine love of the British countryside and knows what makes an attractive town. And at least one anecdote is genuinely gripping.
However, there are some issues. At times it seems as if what he really wants is Britain in the 1950s. He moans, for instance, about menus with fancy food and pesto, wanting us to go back to prawn cocktails and black forest gateaux... but at the same time he eats a lot of Indian food, which you wouldn't have been able to get back then. In reality British food has never been better, and this is just faux nostalgia. It's a bit like the way in his US books he longs for the old moth-eaten motels (which his family detest). It works there, because he's only half-serious, and because he has his family to put him right. Here, traveling on his own and taking it all pretty seriously, he just sounds strangely misplaced.
Bryson also moans about the demise of small town shops - which is sad, if inevitable - but also seems to moan about all the cafes that have sprung up, despite seeming to spend a lot of time in them. And it's just silly to bemoan the passing of old gentlemen's outfitters, which he admits he would never shop in, simply because they are quaint. It's not that he's missing the target when he shows how a lack of funds has meant that, for instance, many seaside towns have declined, but to equate this with 'everything was better in the past' isn't a useful or realistic observation.
The other complaint I have is that he doesn't give us the same degree of visit as he has in other books. It all seems a little routine and summary, perhaps because he has done some of it before. So we don't really get much of a feel for many of the places he visits, nor the same kind of delight at recognising quirks of places we know. He does at least, however, upgrade Cambridge in his opinion, after slating it in his first book in comparison with the far less attractive Oxford. (I may be biassed in this statement, but I genuinely find Cambridge far more pleasant to stroll around.)
Don't get me wrong, there's a lot still to like about this book. But it is a little too mired in the past - he's not that old - and there's too much of a feel that Bryson is doing it by numbers. I'm still giving it a 4 star rating, but only because the systems don't generally allow a 3.5.
The Road to Little Dribbling is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.