Bill Bryson tours Britain in 'The Road To Little Dribbling'

LONDON -- Bill Bryson loves Britain. Really.

The Iowa-born writer, who takes an affectionate if sometimes exasperated look at his adopted country in "The Road to Little Dribbling," cherishes Britain's landscape, its history, its architectural heritage, its people.

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He's not so keen on its reality: TV shows, its litter and -- this is a shock -- its beer.

With a touch of embarrassment, Bryson admits that he is no fan of real ale, the cask-conditioned beer that for many is iconically English.

"I would rather have a cold, golden, fizzy glass of lager," he said.

Despite this cultural faux pas, Bryson is Britain's favourite American, a cuddly-curmudgeonly national uncle.

Bryson first wrote about Britain two decades ago in "Notes From a Small Island." At the time, he worried about how British readers would react to an outsider's gentle ribbing. He needn't have feared. In a 2003 poll for World Book Day, "Notes" was voted the book that best represents England.

"I've always argued that the British are very good at laughing at themselves," said Bryson, whose voice retains a Midwestern accent after 40 years in the U.K. "It's one of their cardinal virtues. ... You can tease them remorselessly as long as they know it's done with a certain amount of affection and understanding."

In the new book -- published in the U.S. Tuesday by Doubleday -- humour is tempered by exasperation at modern-day annoyances including rudeness, neglect, smartphone addicts and Z-list celebrities.

That has prompted allegations of grumpiness some in the British press. Daily Mail columnist Janet Street Porter accused Bryson of "simmering anger and patronizing disdain."

Bryson stresses that many of the things that infuriate him are not unique to Britain. Partly it's age. He's 64 now, and says some aspects of popular culture perplex him.

That gives "The Road to Little Dribbling" a slightly melancholy edge, as Bryson meanders from England's south coast to the far north of Scotland. He visits wealthy suburbs, depressed seaside towns, rolling countryside, wild coastlines, famous attractions, quirky museums and crumbling stately homes.

He still finds plenty to like, from quiet eccentrics and unsung heroes to railway viaducts and other triumphs of Victorian engineering. And his quips are still very funny. Bryson describes a gallery's "Keep Calm and Carry On giftware section" -- a reference to the wartime slogan plastered across posters, T-shirts, mugs and tea towels across the land -- and traditional pork pies made from "boiled cartilage and phlegm."

One of his biggest bugbears is the litter that blights Britain's cities and countryside. Bryson spent five years as head of the Campaign to Protect Rural England trying to clean up the trash -- without much success, he says.

It's notable that Britain's other famous anti-litter campaigner is also an American writer. Humorist David Sedaris picked up so much rubbish near his southern England home that the local council named a garbage truck after him.

Bryson, who recently became a British citizen, is grateful to a country that has "been extremely kind to me in ways that are just often kind of ridiculous."

He has been chancellor of Durham University, which now has a Bill Bryson Library, and was made an honorary fellow of the august Royal Society in recognition of his work promoting science in books such as "A Short History of Nearly Everything."

Bryson says Britain today is "a lot better in almost every way" than the country he first visited in the early 1970s: richer, more modern, more diverse.

"But it has lost certain things," he said.

"When I first came here Britain was a much, much poorer country. And yet there was affordable housing for anybody who needed it in council houses, there really were flowers in every roundabout, bandstands with brass bands on Sunday afternoons in the park."

He worries about the U.K.'s industrial decline, writing in the book that "Britain makes Rolls-Royce jet engines and all the little pots of marmalade in the world" -- and not much else.

He hopes Britons appreciate the beauty of their country's landscape, the ingenuity of its people and the richness of its history.

"You could be parachuted blindfolded into this country, and wherever you landed you'd be within three or four or five miles of a wonderful stately home, the birthplaces of three globally significant human beings and all kinds of other things," he said. "It's just so packed with stuff.

"I mean, I come from a state, Iowa, which is the same size as England ... but Iowa has produced almost nobody.

"The most famous Iowan is Herbert Hoover, the guy who gave us the Great Depression."


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