In summer it’s gridlock on the roads into and through Cornwall. To cope, most of the little seaside villages that charm – and even if we may never visit them they still do (‘Doc Martin’) – have giant holding areas on their outskirts. From them holiday makers/day trippers are then taken by bus into into these tiny, narrow-streeted places to witness their joys. It was at one such that Bill Bryson met Matthew Facey.
The latter was a parking attendant at the facility outside Mevagissey. Bill had endured an interminable drive into the duchy – Cornwall is not a county. He was heartily sick of constant hold-ups on the freeway so, on the spur of the moment, decided a quiet country lane into the Cornish resort would be preferable. Mistake. It was bumper to bumper chockers and it took him forever to get to its carpark. On arrival, not only was it packed to the gunnels, but there was a long queue waiting. Bill realised it was pointless to wait as to do so would mean he wouldn’t make his ultimate destination before nightfall – but, of course, he was trapped. So it was Matthew F to the rescue. He orchestrated the author’s about turn. In their manoeuvrings Bill discovered Facey did camera-pointing on the side. Bryson resolved to check out his rescuer’s on-line gallery and was impressed with what he saw. Turns out he is one of Cornwall’s most esteemed snappers and his work is quite lovely. I know. I checked it out too.
Needless to say, as with all of Bill Bryson’s publications, ‘The Road to Little Dribbling’ is a gem. It’s a belated sequel to the tome that set him on the way – ‘Notes From a Small Country’. And it’s also a celebration, being that it’s twenty years since that break-through publication descended on us, making his name. This latest offering was to give Bill an opportunity to note and riff on all the changes in those years to the places he visited first time around – or at least that was his agent’s notion of what he should do. Bill, after some musing, decided he would take a different approach. He resolved to travel from the south to the north of the UK – but taking as his guide a vague following of longest possible straight line that can be drawn between those two compass points that doesn’t cross any water of the salted kind. We should emphasise the ‘vaguely’ bit. In the end he sort of criss-crossed the Bryson Line, working his way up from south to north – with numerous side excursions en route. The result of all this is an engrossing, funny and at times, even worrying read. Worrying because of the stupidity of humankind – numerous examples of which Bill is only too happy to point out to his readers.
There’s a lovely review of the Anglo-American’s effort this time around, to be found on-line, by Richard Glover – himself having received some recent kudos as a writer of memoirs. RG claims there is a game of one-upmanship played by Bill B devotees revolving around which is the funniest passage to be found in all of author’s now numerous list of titles. These Brysonists are able to reel their anecdotes off word perfect. The reviewer cites some examples. It’s worth reading. I will never get out of my own mind the image of our man as a new arrival in the UK. He fronts up in Dover, landing on the doorstep of a prospective bed and breakfast and greeting its host with his underpants firmly attached to his noggin. The self-deprecating description of him reluctantly dipping his toe into the Pacific Ocean at Bondi, in his account of his travels in Oz, is pretty memorable too. He’d read of all the creatures in it that are out to kill unsuspecting bathers and doubted his prospects of survival – despite the thousands of fellow humans frolicking off the same stretch of strand. And, likewise, he doesn’t let us down in ‘…Little Dribbling’. He regales us with the account, early on, of how he bravely, without fear, walked up to the counter, during an infrequent visit to a McDonalds, intending to place a family order. Despite numerous attempts to get it right and having to deal with a clueless and incompetent pimpled dolt taking and entering said order, he is left enraged and had to be led away quivering by his ever-patient wife before blood was spilt. It was vintage Bryson and the choked chortles I was emitting reading it led my lovely lady to come post haste from another room as she feared I was suffering some form of apoplectic fit.
And also, with this wordsmith, there is always a background story to most of the sights he sees. One that particularly intrigues this time was the snippet of information he gave about a Taswegian. In the 1860s a railway company, the Midland, was searching for a new route into Scotland. Competitors had taken up the two seaboard options, so the controllers of the new player decided to construct right up the middle, receiving parliamentary approval to do so. Trouble was, right up the middle meant a section of the Pennines that was particularly inhospitable. The company had a go, but soon realised building a railway there was such a challenge it would more than likely bankrupt them. They asked the country’s lawmakers to give them permission to desist. As this was against the provisions of the contract they were refused and the company was forced to plough on. Fortunately they found someone willing to accept responsibility for the completion of the task. I’ll let Bill take up the story at this point:-
‘Almost nothing is known about Sharland other than that he came from Tasmania and was only in his early twenties. The immensity of the task confronting him was almost unimaginable and made all the harder by the privations of labouring in the wilderness. Sharland slept in a wagon and often worked for hours in drenching rain or driving snow. Even more remarkable, he did all this while suffering acutely from tuberculous. Inevitably, it caught up with him and, with his work almost finished, he retired to Torquay at the age of just twenty-five. He died soon after, having never seen a train run on the line he helped to create.’
That line, through the Yorkshire Dales, is now regarded as the most dramatic and scenic in the UK – but Bill’s right. I checked to see if the ether held any more on Charles Stanley Sharland and came up with zilch extra information, although there does seem to have been a UK book about him back in 2012.
Bryson has been chided by some critics for being so crabby in this latest release. He is very unhappy in many sections, dropping the f-bomb with unprecedented frequency in his ire. His piss-offedness knows no bounds as he vents his spleen at the state of humanity in the world around him. But in places he still finds the old-fashioned Englishness of the sort that first attracted him back in ‘Notes From a Small Country’ – a quality he feels, to his distress, is fast disappearing. But his delight in renewing acquaintanceship with it in some locations is palpable in his writing.
In ‘…Little Dribbling’ he indulges in a fair amount of railing about the pressure the money-makers are placing on government to do away with the famous green belts of British cities – they want to cover them with mass housing and already are having some success in shearing off the green bits to allow this to happen. The author is most vociferous, persistent and eloquent in placing his arguments down on paper as to why continuing to do so would be a travesty. He laments the increasingly ‘Black Booksian’ nature of the service to be found in the retail outlets of his adopted country, contrasting it with the intrusive inanity of customer service in his birth nation. Which is worse is the question. He produces an extended list of his pet hates at one stage – these include people who say ‘stonking’; salmon coloured trousers and the men who wear them; the parents of any child named Tarquin and Meryl Streep when she’s being ‘adorable’. He despises the new ‘loudness’ to be found around a country once noted for its quietude, again likening it to what’s always been in the brasher US of A. He blames the mobile phone into which moronic chavs have to shout on the public transport and streets of the once more restrained UK. And don’t get him stated on the Chinese made tat that passes for souvenirs found in tourist hot-spots all around the country.
But amongst much ranting he gives us some marvellous yarns as well. There’s the story of the invention of the public park by the redoubtable Joseph Paxton and how a visit to it in Birmingham inspired the creation of NYC’s Central Park as a result. And he gives us a close encounter with a Beatle. He was gobsmacked at one stage to discover his home bordered on Ringo Starr’s estate and that his wife was encountering the legendary drummer in their village all the time, conveying to a stunned husband that she found him ‘…quite a nice man’ in their chats. Bryson, to his disgust, never laid eyes on him when out and about. There’s the tale of how the tongue twister ‘She sells sea shells by the sea shore’ became part of the parlance – and just who the real Eliza Doolittle truly was.
Spending time with Bill Bryson and one of his books is like shooting the breeze with an old mate. There’s only been one of his oeuvre I haven’t taken to and that’s the one they made the recent movie about. There are a handful of writers these days I would term global, as opposed to national, living treasures. I think this bloke has just about reached that stage.
Bill B’s website = http://www.billbrysonbooks.com/