The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson

Billy Bryson’s latest book ‘The Road to Little Dribbling – Adventures of an American in Britain’ takes up an old-new challenge. The witty sexagenarian travels the Great Britain again, but with a new twist. This time he challenges himself to travel the longest distance you can travel in the country in a straight line. He presents a theory where the belief that the longest line across England is not from Land’s End to John o’Groats (870 miles) but till Dunnet Head, which is a few miles further. He wants this new discovery to be christened as the ‘Bryson Line’. Bryson had travelled England with a friend as a young chap. Two decades ago in 1995, he traced the same route alone, the outcome of which was ‘Neither Here Nor There’.

The Road to little Dribbling

The Road to little Dribbling – An American’s adventure in Britain

The Road to Little Dribbling begins with Bill appearing for a test to obtain British citizenship, intending to retain the American citizenship (He is an American, with a love-hate-mock relationship with Britain).

This post was originally published in The Times of India

THE GOOD:

Bryson’s strength lies in word play and humour — self-deprecating, witty and acerbic. He calls a dick a dick, come what may.

While reading a magazine picked up from the neighbouring seat on a bus, he wonders why exactly these celebrities are famous.

“Anatomically many of them don’t even seem quite human. Many have names that suggest they have reached us from a distant galaxy: Ri-Ri, Tulisa, Naya, Jai, K-Pez, Chlamydia, Mo-Ron.”

What will keep a reader gripped to the 300 page travelogue is trivia. Bryson is hands down the undisputed ‘Master of irrelevant but interesting’ trivia. He inundates the reader with well-researched information on geographical boundaries, history of the origin of names of places and brow-raising facts. For instance, the highest and most famous mountain in the world is named for a man who had no connection to it and whose name we don’t even pronounce correctly. While referring to Mary Anning, he observes that

“…she is a curiously unlucky person to be close to. In addition to her father tumbling over a cliff, one of her sisters dies in a house fire and three of her siblings were killed by a lightning strike. Mary, sitting right beside them, was miraculously spared.”

His skill as a travel writer rests in the fact that he challenges usual notions and folklore, facts and statistics that have for long been taken as truisms. He digs a little deeper and further than any other travel writer. He is a travel-investigative writer which generates a lot of trust while reading. And that is why he happens to be my favourite author too.

Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson

He personally interests me as one of the last few travel writers who are linguistically and literally not just sound but at the top of their game. His use of vocabulary is music to the ears. Seriously, who uses slapdash, tosh and pootle around (it is not even a word) anymore?

His occasional mention to his family, grandchildren, parents and wife makes the reader know him and his family, sketching a backdrop to how he manages his travels and writing. He also makes his politics clear – he is against immigration laws and for Scotland being a part of the union.

THE BAD:

Bryson’s glorification for the country is extreme, so much so that it starts feeling like a commissioned tourism brochure by the end of it. He seems incapable of laying his hand off toilet humour.

His generic grudge against everyone not treating him nicely, everything that is not comfortable, all things new and everything that he doesn’t comprehend ceases to be funny beyond a point.

“But then, I suppose, that is the thing about the internet. It is just an accumulation of digital information, with no brains and no feelings – just like an IT person, in fact.”

Just when you are about to write him off as a pessimist, you can’t help but agree with him on a few things, so, he can be forgiven.

 “…this is the things that drives me mad about the internet, which is that the commercial parts of it operate on the assumption that there is no particular necessity for any part of it to be accurate, truthful, or reliable. When did that become all right?”

His nostalgia of the people that used to be, places that are lost and streets that have changed is emphatic. The criticism for what is, is in plenty.

“Am I wrong or is this becoming a feature of British life – and I mean by behaving in quietly disgraceful ways when you think no one is watching. … Slyness wasn’t part of the culture. … It didn’t occur to be a dick. Now lots of people are governed by not so much whether something is right or wrong as by whether they think anyone’s watching. Conscience operates when there are witnesses. Where did that come from?”

However, he tends to overdo trivia on trivial places – longest, farthest, deepest, oldest, nicest, friendliest, and youngest. So much so that beyond a point you stop making sense of the superlatives he keeps dropping and just enjoy Bryson’s literature, humor and vitriolic, silent monologues about the pricks he encounters while travelling.

His philosophical yet funny delights make you nod in agreement more than once. Some quotes below:
While travelling from one city to another he ruminates,

“Instead we rolled through an endless clutter of suburbia on bypasses and divided highways, passing nothing but box of stores, gas stations, car dealerships, and all the other vital ugliness of our age.”

Referring to a single high rise apartment on a cliff-edge at a beautiful countryside he states,

“The word is full of shitty things that should never have happened.”

While paying a visit to the first house he and his wife lived in, he mentions,

‘It really doesn’t pay to go back and look again at the things that once delighted you, because it is unlikely they will delight you now.”

THE VERDICT:

If you have read Billy Bryson’s earlier works, this book will not be a surprise read. It is more of the same in every sense of the word – the travel route, the jokes, the punches and the thoughts get somewhat predictable. Read it not for so much insight on the destination but for a well written book that makes you chuckle once in a while. The Road to Little Dribbling will not make you jump and book next tickets to Great Britain but may want you to look forward to the next travelogue he writes.

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