Bill Bryson takes on Little England from his own unique perspective in this extract from Notes from a Small Island.
There are certain idiosyncratic notions that you quietly come to accept when you live for a long time in Britain. One is that British summers used to be longer and sunnier. Another is that the England football team shouldn’t have any trouble with Norway. A third is the idea that Britain is a big place. This last is easily the most intractable.
If you mention in the pub that you intend to drive from, say, Surrey to Cornwall, a distance that most Americans would happily go to get a taco, your companions will puff their cheeks, look knowingly at each other, and blow out air as if to say, ‘Well, now that’s a bit of a tall order,’ and then they’ll launch into a lively and protracted discussion of whether it’s better to take the A30 to Stockbridge and then the A303 to Ilchester or the A361 to Glastonbury via Shepton Mallet. Within minutes the conversation will plunge off into a level of detail that leaves you, as a foreigner, swivelling your head in quiet wonderment.
‘You know that layby outside Warminster, the one with the grit box with the broken handle?’ one of them will say. ‘You know, just past the turnoff for Little Puking but before the B6029 mini-roundabout. By the dead sycamore.’
At this point, you find you are the only person in the group not nodding vigorously.
‘Well, about a quarter of a mile past there, not the first left turning, but the second one, there’s a lane between two hedgerows – they’re mostly hawthorn but with a little hazel mixed in. Well, if you follow that road past the reservoir and under the railway bridge, and take a sharp right at the Buggered Ploughman –’
‘Nice little pub,’ somebody will interject – usually, for some reason, a guy in a bulky cardigan. ‘They do a decent pint of Old Toejam.’
‘– and follow the dirt track through the army firing range and round the back of the cement works, it drops down on to the B3689 Ram’s Dropping bypass. It saves a good three or four minutes and cuts out the rail crossing at Great Shagging.’
‘Unless, of course, you’re coming from Crewkerne,’ someone else will add eagerly. ‘Now, if you’re coming from Crewkerne …’
Give two or more men in a pub the names of any two places in Britain and they can happily fill hours. Wherever it is you want to go, the consensus is generally that it’s just about possible as long as you scrupulously avoid Okehampton, the Hanger Lane gyratory system, central Oxford and the Severn Bridge westbound between the hours of 3 p.m. on Friday and 10 a.m. on Mondays, except bank holidays when you shouldn’t go anywhere at all. ‘Me, I don’t even walk to the corner shop on bank holidays,’ some little guy on the margins will chirp up proudly, as if by staying at home in Staines he has for years cannily avoided a notorious bottleneck at Scotch Corner.
Eventually, when the intricacies of B-roads, contraflow blackspots and good places to get a bacon sandwich have been discussed so thoroughly that your ears have begun to seep blood, one member of the party will turn to you and idly ask over a sip of beer when you were thinking of setting off. When this happens, you must never answer truthfully and say, in that kind of dopey way of yours, ‘Oh, I don’t know, about ten, I suppose,’ because they’ll all be off again.
‘Ten o’clock?’ one of them will say and try to back his head off his shoulders. ‘As in ten o’clock a.m.?’ He’ll make a face like someone who’s taken a cricket ball in the scrotum but doesn’t want to appear wimpy because his girlfriend is watching. ‘Well, it’s entirely up to you, of course, but personally if I was planning to be in Cornwall by three o’clock tomorrow, I’d have left yesterday.’
‘Yesterday?’ someone else will say, chortling softly at this misplaced optimism. ‘I think you’re forgetting, Colin, that it’s half-term in North Wiltshire and West Somerset this week. It’ll be murder between Swindon and Warminster. No, you want to have left a week last Tuesday.’
‘And there’s the Great West Steam Rally at Little Dribbling this weekend,’ somebody from across the room will add, strolling over to join you because it’s always pleasant to bring bad motoring news. ‘There’ll be 375,000 cars all converging on the Little Chef roundabout at Upton Dupton. We once spent eleven days in a tailback there, and that was just to get out of the car park. No, you want to have left when you were still in your mother’s womb, or preferably while you were spermatozoa, and even then you won’t find a parking space beyond Bodmin.’
Once, when I was younger, I took all these alarming warnings to heart. I went home, reset the alarm clock, roused the family at four, to protests and general consternation, and had everyone bundled into the car and on the road by five. As a result, we were in Newquay in time for breakfast and had to wait around for seven hours before the holiday park would let us have one of their wretched chalets. And the worst of it was that I’d only agreed to go there because I thought the town was called Nookie and I wanted to stock up on postcards.
The fact is that the British have a totally private sense of distance. This is most visibly seen in the shared pretence that Britain is a lonely island in the middle of an empty green sea. Oh, yes, I know you are all aware, in an abstract sort of way, that there is a substantial landmass called Europe near by and that from time to time it is necessary to go over there to give old Jerry a drubbing or have a holiday on the Med, but it’s not near by in any meaningful sense in the way that, say, Disney World is. If your concept of world geography was shaped entirely by what you read in the papers and saw on television, you would have no choice but to conclude that America must be about where Ireland is, that France and Germany lie roughly alongside the Azores, that Australia occupies a hot zone somewhere in the region of the Middle East, and that pretty much all the other sovereign states are either mythical (viz., Burundi, El Salvador, Mongolia and Bhutan) or can only be reached by spaceship. Consider how much news space in Britain is devoted to marginal American figures like Oliver North, Lorena Bobbitt, and O.J. Simpson – a man who played a sport that most Britons don’t understand and then made commercials for rental cars and that was it – and compare that with all the news reported in any year from Scandinavia, Austria, Switzerland, Greece, Portugal and Spain. It’s crazy really. If there’s a political crisis in Italy or a nuclear spill in Karlsruhe, it gets maybe eight inches on an inside page. But if some woman in Shitkicker, West Virginia, cuts off her husband’s dick and flings it out the window in a fit of pique, it’s second lead on the 9 O’clock News and The Sunday Times is mobilizing the ‘Insight’ team. You figure it.
Extract taken from Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson (Black Swan). The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island will be released on 8th October 2015 and is available to pre order now.
This piece was first featured on summerofpenguin.com, a month-long celebration of stories and ideas on the London Underground’s WIFI network in partnership with TFL and Virgin Media. So if you happen to be travelling by Tube this summer, be sure to read a story on us.