Saturday, May 26, 2012

Finally, Bill Bryson (Again)

A few months ago--scratch that--almost a year ago, I started reading Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island at the suggestion of my sister who, in another lifetime, bopped around England with me for a bit. My junior year in college, I spent one semester doing study abroad outside Manchester in a town called Preston. During the week, I studied English literature (this is where I dabbled in Shakesepeare and experimented in Gothic Lit and read the entire way through James Joyce's Ulysses--I'm still proud) and on the weekends, I hopped on trains and explored the country (and a bit of Europe). And on the whole, I had a really wonderful five months. I loved the almost daily rainy grey chill accompanied by yellow daffodils, the hum of the radiator in my flat, and occasional stops for tea and scones with jam and real clotted cream. I loved the dusty old bookstores, the rail system, and the wonderful Anglican church I got to be a part of. I loved having curry for lunch whenever I wanted, not having a car (and that not being weird), and the wonderful Chinese restaurant a friend and I found that had just incredible pineapple fried rice. Mostly I really loved the people I met, although I found it funny that they thought I had an American accent.

All that said, I finally finished Notes from a Small Island (these things take time, evidently) and thoroughly enjoyed Bryson's book, because even though he occasionally got a little too snarky for my taste, and I wanted to rise to the defense of my much loved England, I knew that, at the end of the day, he loved England just as much as I do, and there are some things you just have to make fun of.  But my favourite part about Notes from a Small Island was a section right at the beginning of chapter 27 that helped me understand myself (and why I should probably move back to Britain immediately). He writes:
...[If] there is one golden quality that characterizes the British it in an innate sense of good manners, and you defy it at your peril. Deference and a quiet consideration for others are such a fundamental part of British life that few conversations could even start without them. Almost any encounter with a stranger begins with the words "I'm terribly sorry but," followed by a request of some sort--"could you tell me the way to Brighton?" "help me find a shirt my size," "get your steamer trunk off my foot?" And when you've fulfilled their request, they invariably offer a hesitant, apologetic smile and say sorry again, begging forgiveness for taking up your time or carelessly leaving their foot where your steamer trunk clearly needed to go.
I'm saying nothing about my manners or noise level here, because while my mother did her best, I am just not there, but the constant apologizing is a problem for me--especially in America. In fact, my husband has already noticed Little Man picking up on it. The other day, he found LM apologizing to the coffee table on which he had stubbed his toe. I've tried to stop saying sorry for things that are not my fault, but maybe I should just talk the Air Force into moving us to a British base next... With that said, my British flat mate was one of the loudest people I've ever known, so decorum and quiet speech might just be fading out of modern British life.

Anyway, now I want scones. And pineapple fried rice. Not together. And at the very least, a cup of P.G. Tips. But thanks, Bill Bryson: even if hopping on a plane and flying myself, the Man, and the two boys to England isn't a possibility right now, it's nice to read about it.


  1. Someone from my husband's work gave this book to him. Maybe I will have to give it a read. I completely agree about the manners. But then again, I'm always apologizing too so it could just be that i feel less weird about it here.

  2. I'm an apologizer, too. In fact, people here are constantly telling me to stop saying "I'm sorry" and "thank you"... and there isn't really a word for "please". So instead of trying to fit into that aspect of their culture, perhaps I'll just move to a culture where I fit in better. Like Britain. :)

    I love that excerpt! Makes me want to read this!

  3. I especially appreciate this post. Hurray for pineapple fried rice!!!

  4. Better to apologize than not, I say! Love you!