Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

An odd mix of spot-on observations and disturbing cruelty. Bryson nails the incomprehensibility of the Glasgow accent to American ears in one place, then in another compares an overweight family eating dinner to a group of slow-witted bovines.

It’s refreshing to hear a travel writer be frank about the parts of the country they don’t like, and after living in the UK for two decades Bryson seems to have plenty to complain about. He also doesn’t flinch from talking about his own rudeness, relaying scenes where he browbeat a hotel owner, or insulted a woman’s intelligence because her dog got too close to him. Perhaps to a different audience, in a different time (the book was published in 1995) it comes across as bracing honesty, or even funny, but to me it just made him seem like a bit of a jerk.

Still, his writing voice is strong and pleasant, even when he’s not, and I went through the book quickly. I did manage to learn a few things:

  • Blackpool’s beach isn’t a beach. In a stroke of ketchup-is-a-vegetable genius, Thatcher got around EU beach cleanliness regulations by decreeing that Britain’s resort beaches weren’t beaches at all!
  • As recently as the 70s Liverpool was the second busiest port in the UK, and it used to be the 3rd wealthiest town in Britain.
  • Glasgow won European City of Culture in 1990