Review: Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

Notes from a Small Island - Bill Bryson

This has been sitting on a shelf since I'd read it ages ago, but it was time for a reread when I found somewhere (probably wikipedia) that this book contained a reference to one of my favorite English eccentrics - the 5th Duke of Portland, which I didn't remember reading at all.

What is absolutely brilliant for a reread is that now we have Google Maps, which means I can actually take a virtual tour of many of the places Bryson mentions. (Though stopping to do this does not speed up my reading progress.) This is the next best thing to spending tons of money and time to get to and walk around these cities. I'm an architecture nut, so I can just click and look at buildings indefinitely.

It's also nice reading this book - which is Bryson's 1995 goodbye to England as he's about to go live in the US - knowing that in around 2005ish he moved back and lives there currently. He's really wonderful at summing up everything you love about the country and the people, while pointing out the things that make you slightly crazy. And tossing out the odd historical story here and there.

Bryson can get a tad preachy at times, mainly about protecting historical architecture, which for Americans seems like a no-brainer. But then America doesn't have a vast amount of very old buildings compared to the amount of land we have, whereas in the smaller amount of space in the UK you can't toss a stone without hitting something historic. So while I'm in complete agreement about protecting historic architecture, I can see why it's a completely different problem in the UK.

Bryson can also complain/whine quite a bit, but usually this is amusing, especially when he's cold and wet and uncomfortable, and in a situation most people would never get themselves into - in other words, it's mostly his own fault. Unless you're the type of person who never calls ahead to book a place to stay when traveling somewhere out of season, for example - in which case you might relate to his adventures too well. (Also the internet makes all research and booking vastly easier now than in the late 90s.)

This isn't a book for historians to cite - just so you know that. Chapters aren't named or in any way set apart by name of the area where he's traveling, and there's no index or bibliography. This means that if there's a particular place or story you're looking through you have to skim the whole thing. Or use the internet.

Now that I've reread the book - I'm dying to visit Edinburgh (Ch. 26-27) again. And any UK town with multiple bookstores, because I never did get enough of that.

Some quotes and ponderings:

p. 77: "Selfridge was an interesting fellow who provides a salutary moral lesson for us all. An American who spent his early career at Marshall Field in Chicago, he moved to England in 1906 with the intention of building in London the greatest shopping emporium in Europe. The British thought he was mad, particularly when they learned he was to build his store on Oxford Street, far away from the main shopping areas of Knightsbridge and Kensington, but by dint of hard work and total dedication he succeeded. For years, Selfridge was a model of decorum. He led a life of stern rectitude, early bedtimes, and tireless endeavor. He drank lots of milk and never fooled around. But in 1918 his wife died and the sudden release from marital bounds rather went to his head. He took up with a pair of Hungarian-American cuties known in music hall circles as the Dolly Sisters, and fell into rakish ways. With a Dolly on each arm, he took to roaming the casinos of Europe, gambling and losing lavishly. He dined out every night, invested foolish sums in racehorses and motorcars, bought Highcliff Castle, and laid plans to build a 250-room estate at Hengistbury Head nearby. In ten swift years he raced through $8 million; lost control of Selfridge's; lost his castle and London home, his racehorses, and his Rolls-Royces; and eventually ended up living alone in a small flat in Putney and traveling by bus. He died penniless and virtually forgotten on May 8, 1947. But of course he had had the inestimable pleasure of bonking twin sisters, which is the main thing."

p. 100-101: "A couple of miles beyond Kimmeridge, at the ar side of a monumentally steep hill, stands the little village of Tyneham, or what's left of it. In 1943, the British Army ordered Tyneham's inhabitants to evacuate the community as it wanted to practice lobbing shells into the surrounding hillsides. The villagers were solemnly assured that once Hitler was licked they could all come back. Fifty-one years later they were still waiting. Forgive my disrespectful tone, but this seems to me disgraceful, not simply because it's a terrible inconvenience to the inhabitants (especially those who might have forgotten to cancel their milk), but also for the poor sods like me who have to hope that the footpath through the firing range is open, which it is but occasionally.

...When I was last there in the late 1970s, Tyneham was forlorn, overgrown, and practically unknown - a proper little ghost town. Now the Dorset County Council has made it into something of a tourist attraction. It put up a big parking lot and restored the school and church as small museums, which rather suggests that Tyneham's abandonment is considered permanent."

[Flickr group photo pool for Tyneham, Dorset, England]

p. 107, on Weymouth: "...In 1348 it was the place where the Black Death was introduced into England, and in 1789 it became the world's first seaside resort when that tedious lunatic George III started a fashion for sea bathing there."

p. 136, Oxford: "...Above all, I like to drink in the pubs, where you can sit with a book and not be looked on as a social miscreant..."

Oddly Bryson doesn't mention Oxford's Headington Shark, which is definitely on my Must See List if I ever get to Oxford. I note that (currently anyway) our local loved/hated statue, The Cardiff Kook is under the See Also portion of the page."

p. 145, mention of Broadway Tower in the Cotswolds - I've only seen it in photographs, but dearly love the architecture. (And thanks to a nice photo on that wikipedia page, it's now my desktop)

p. 145-146: "The view from the top over the broad Vale of Evesham, was, as always from such points, sensational - gently undulating trapezoids of farmland rolling off to a haze of distant wooded hills. Britain still has more landscape that looks like an illustration from a children's storybook than any other country I know - a remarkable achievement in such a densely crowded and industrially minded little island. And yet I couldn't help feel that the view may have been more bucolic and rewarding ten or perhaps twenty years ago."

[Google images result for the Vale of Evesham]

p 148: "...I bought an entrance ticket to Snowshill Manor, now in the hands of the National Trust but from 1919 to 1956 the home of an eccentric character named Charles Wade, who devoted his life to accumulating a vast and unfocused assortment of stuff, some of it very good, some of it little more than junk - clavichords, microscopes, Flemish tapestries, snuff and tobacco boxes, maps and sextants, samurai armor, penny-farthing bicycles, you name it - until he had filled his house so full that there was no room left for him. He spent his last years living happily in an outbuilding, which, like the house, has been preserved as it was on the day he died."

Here's the section I reread the book to find, in its entirety. Frustratingly Bryson seems to be citing a source ("in the words of one biographer"), but then makes no mention of it.

p. 166-7: "My target was Welbeck Abbey, former home of the Portlands and reputedly one of the finest stately homes in England. The Portlands haven't lived there since 1954 on account of a similar unfortunate lack of prescience with regard to adventure playgrounds and petting zoos. The fifth Duke of Portland, one W. J. C. Scott-Bentinck (1800-1879), has long been something of a hero of mine. Old W.J.C., as I like to think of him, was one of history's great recluses and went to the most extraordinary lengths to avoid all forms of human contact. He lived in just one small corner of his stately home and communicated with his servants through notes passed to him through a special message box cut into the door to his rooms. Food was conveyed to him in the dining room by means of a miniature railway running from the kitchen. In the event of chance encounters, he would stand stock still and the servants were instructed to pass as they would a piece of furniture. Those who transgressed this instruction were compelled to skate on the Duke's private skating rink until exhausted. Sightseers were allowed to tour the house and grounds - "so long," as the Duke put it, "as you would be good enough not to see me."

For reasons that can only be guessed at, the Duke used his considerable inheritance to build a second mansion underground. At its peak, he had fifteen thousand men employed on its construction, and when completed it included, among much else, a library nearly 250 feet long and the largest ballroom in England, with space for up to two thousand guests - rather an odd thing to build if you never have guests. A network of tunnels and secret passages connected the various rooms and ran for considerable distances out into the surrounding countryside. It was as if, in the words of one biographer, "he anticipated nuclear warfare." When it was necessary for the Duke to travel to London, he would have himself sealed in his horse-drawn carriage, which would be driven through a tunnel one and a half miles long to a place near Worksop Station and loaded onto a special flatcar for the trip to the capital. There, still sealed, it would be driven to his London residence, Harcourt House.

When the Duke died, his heirs found all of the above ground rooms devoid of furnishings except for one chamber in the middle of which sat the Duke's commode. The main hall was mysteriously floorless. Most of the rooms were painted pink. The one upstairs room in which the Duke had resided was packed to the ceiling with hundreds of green boxes, each of which contained a single dark brown wig. This was, in short, a man worth getting to know."

Bryson wanders into the grounds, past a No Entry sign, and is met by a man:

p 169-170: "...As he neared me, I could see his jacket said MOD Security. MOD is Ministry of Defense. Oh-oh.
"Hello," I said with a big foolish smile.
"Are you aware , sir, that you are trespassing on government property?"

...In a small, respectful voice, I told him about my long fascination with the fifth Duke of Portland and how I had ached to see this place for years and couldn't resist just having a peep at it after coming all this way, which was exactly the right thing to do because he evidently had an affection for old W.J.C. himself. He escorted me smartishly to the edge of the property and kept up something of a bluff manner, but he seemed quietly pleased to have someone who shared his interests. He confirmed that the paved area was the skating rink and pointed out where the tunnels ran, which was pretty much everywhere. They were still sound, he told me, though they weren't used any longer except for storage. The ballroom and other underground chambers, however, were still regularly employed for functions and as a gymnasium. The MOD had just spent a million pounds refurbishing the ballroom.

"What is this place anyway?" I asked.
"Training center, sir" was all he would say, and in any case we had reached the end of the drive.

...I was pleased to know that the Ministry of Defense had maintained the tunnels and underground rooms, but it seemed an awful shame that the place was so formidably shut to the public. It isn't every day after all that the British aristocracy produce someone of W.J.C. Scott-Bentinck's rare and extraordinary mental loopiness, though in fairness it must be said that they give it their best shot."

File the following under "you don't read this expressed in quite this way any more;" after going on about bad architecture:

p. 288: "Of the buildings that I would deeply love to blow up in Britain - the Maples building in Harrowgate, the Hilton Hotel in London, the post office building in Leeds, a random selection among almost any of the structures owned by British Telecom - I have no hesitation in saying that my first choice would be either of these two."

By which he meant the buildings then housing The Highland Enterprise Board and the Inverness and Nairn Enterprise Board, in Inverness, Scotland. Once upon a time I would have just smiled at the joking sentence - now I stop and check the publication year again, and ponder.