Saturday, 22 August 2020

Notes from a Small Island

I've lived away from my native turf for rather some time. The first year I arrived in my adopted country, I was at a carol service at the British Ambassador's residence. I was fresh off the boat and surrounded by aged and weathered immigrants. I asked one of them whether he missed the UK. He simply said, 'I enjoy missing it.' 

That's stuck with me over the years. The UK for me is a wistful notion of cream teas, country gardens and meandering back lanes - with contradictory weather and abysmal politics. 

As someone who regularly comments on other people's countries, I really enjoy hearing what people from other countries think of the UK, both good and bad. When I was younger, I wished that I had a better grasp of French or Italian, so that I could read their guidebooks to the UK and see what they said about English culture. 

I do love Bill Bryson. He's one of those laugh-out-loud authors with a dry sense of humour and an eagle eye for the ironies of life. Notes From a Small Island was originally published in 1995, but it's weathered well.

In 1995, before leaving his much-loved home in North Yorkshire to move back to the States for a few years with his family, Bill Bryson insisted on taking one last trip around Britain, a sort of valedictory tour of the green and kindly island that had so long been his home. His aim was to take stock of the nation's public face and private parts (as it were), and to analyse what precisely it was he loved so much about a country that had produced Marmite; a military hero whose dying wish was to be kissed by a fellow named Hardy; place names like Farleigh Wallop, Titsey and Shellow Bowells; people who said 'Mustn't grumble', and ‘Ooh lovely’ at the sight of a cup of tea and a plate of biscuits; and Gardeners' Question Time. Notes from a Small Island was a huge number-one bestseller when it was first published, and has become the nation's most loved book about Britain, going on to sell over two million copies.

I just really enjoyed this book.

Suddenly, in the space of a moment, I realized what it was that I loved about Britain - which is to say, all of it. Every last bit of it, good and bad - Marmite, village fetes, country lanes, people saying 'mustn't grumble' and 'I'm terribly sorry but', people apologizing to me when I conk them with a nameless elbow, milk in bottles, beans on toast, haymaking in June, stinging nettles, seaside piers, Ordnance Survey maps, crumpets, hot-water bottles as a necessity, drizzly Sundays - every bit of it.

What a wondrous place this was - crazy as fuck, of course, but adorable to the tiniest degree. 

I smiled at the contradictions. It took me a long time to feel settled in a country where everything is table service, even in bars.

I sat for half an hour in a pub before I realised that you had to fetch your own order, then tried the same thing in a tearoom and was told to sit down.

I actually learned some interesting facts I didn't know about my country. Margaret Thatcher was only five years out of office when this was released. It speaks a bit about the tensions and the poverty divide between North and South. I found this figure interesting:

If you draw an angled line between Bristol and the Wash, you divide the country into two halves with roughly 27 million people on each side. Between 1980 and 1985, in the southern half they lost 103,600 jobs. In the northern half in the same period they lost 1,032,000 jobs, almost exactly ten times as many.

I also found his comparison of Blackpool and Morecambe good fun. My dad's side is from Carlisle, so Blackpool was a traditional holiday destination for them, though it wasn't exactly thrilling. They used to have an old waxworks there that was truly something to behold. Half of them had tapers sticking out the top, and I think it's long closed. But for my grandparents' golden wedding anniversary, we hired a horse and carriage to drive them down the Golden Mile to the tower. And I don't care what he says about the lights, as a small child they were pretty magical.

That I remember, but I had absolutely no idea Morcambe used to be the centre of all attention before Blackpool took over. Reading Bryson's description, it's hard to imagine that little seaside resort could have catered for so many people. A real history lesson.

I found this interesting, too:

One of the hardest things to adjust to, if you come from a large country, is that you are seldom really alone out of doors in England — that there is scarcely an open space where you could, say, safely stand and have a pee without fear of appearing in some birdwatcher’s binoculars or having some matronly rambler bound round the bend…

It surprised me. Living in Rwanda, I often lament that there is nowhere you can go to be truly alone. Set foot in any seemingly deserted space and within minutes you're surrounded. It's one of the most densely populated countries in Africa. So, whenever I visit the UK, one of the first things I do is walk out into a field near my village and just stand there - completely alone. There is always an empty field or a swathe of moorland to just stand in. But it's all about scale. Rwanda is tiny compared to the UK, and the UK is minuscule compared to Bryson's home, America. From a puddle to a pond to an ocean. 

I also smiled at this: 

It's a funny thing about English diners. They'll let you dazzle them with piddly duxelles of this and fussy little noisettes of that, but don't fuck with their puddings, which is my thinking exactly. 

I'm currently embroiled in an ongoing argument with my Danish friend, who insists that 'pudding' is a particular type of dessert. Sort of a yellow blancmange, from what I can gather. She is completely baffled that I refer to any form of dessert as 'pudding.' I'm going to send her this quote to rest my case. If pudding is only blancmange, how do you account for sticky toffee pudding, bread pudding, rice pudding and Christmas pudding? Huh? Well? Huh?

It was a pleasure to listen to Bryson's thoughts on old Blighty. He really loves the place, and in listening to his love of the place, it sparked a small residue of sympathy in my own heart. I don't have a particularly easy relationship with my native Britain. I often struggle to see a reason to like it, especially in these turbulent times. It often appears mean-spirited, too willing to squander the resources and potential it has, and criminally negligent towards the most vulnerable in society. Moving backwards far more swiftly than forwards. But, he reminded me that there are some endearing qualities. Its history of innovation and invention, our love of animals, our ability to queue, our neighbourly compassion (provided those neighbours aren't foreign), our support for the underdog and our ability to discuss weather and traffic routes until we expire from exhaustion. 

It's an okay place, and I am fortunate to have been born British with all of the educational and creative opportunities that afforeded, and the visa rights it gives me to travel. I might not have had the freedom to leave my home country and adopt another with such ease if that hadn't been my starting box.   

A final, very memorable part of the book was the story of Harry, the psychiatric patient who sounded like he stepped straight out of K-PAX. Honestly a haunting and bizarre tale.

All in all, a very enjoyable read.

Do you know the difference, by the way, between 'village' and 'hamlet'? Surprisingly few people do, but it's quite simple really: one is a place where people live and the other is a play by Shakespeare.

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