Bill Bryson Makes Me Nostalgic For Britain

Bill Bryson's new book The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain has dislodged some memories from my own brain . . . sometime after Catherine and I lived in Syria (which is well documented in a series of rambling email updates) and before I started writing this blog, in the sleep-deprived haze of having a new child, I went to England with some English teachers (in lieu of the teacher workshop days that were being held at school, this was back when those sorts of things were permissible) and stayed in the "charming old wool merchant's town" of Chipping Campden, which is located in the heart of the Cotswolds-- an especially scenic part of Britain that has thatched houses, honey colored limestone buildings, and wonderful walking paths; my memory is shit, which is why I now write this blog, but I do vaguely recall a few things from the trip, besides the endless pints of beer at The Volunteer Inn;

1) on the ride from the airport, everyone was tired from the flight except me-- I had taken dramamine,  and used a neck pillow, earplugs, and a blindfold to block out all stimuli, and I slept like a baby, and so I bravely volunteered to drive the rental car from Heathrow to our cottage-- I assured the crew that I had some experience driving on the left, which was technically true, but I did not tell them that my experience consisted of driving a motor-scooter in Thailand, and I did a poor job at that (and I have enough trouble driving a car on the right in America) and so when we were driving through a roundabout under construction in Oxford, and I got distracted by some licorice, I ripped the passenger side mirror off the car . . . I can't remember how this was resolved in the end, it might have cost Allie a few bucks at the rental car place;

2) on one of our hikes-- Broadway Tower, Stow-on-the-World . . . I can't remember-- I got us very lost and off-the-map, and I nearly killed Linda, one of the teachers accompanying us, as she's a diabetic-- it was getting dark and we couldn't find out way out of the woods, but the funny thing-- in retrospect-- is that I thought she was in desperate need of insulin, and that I would be brought up on manslaughter charges, because I deprived a diabetic of her insulin due to my poor orienteering skills, but she actually needed food, to increase her blood-sugar . . . and as she was about to lapse into a coma, just as we were finally approaching the end of the hike, I comprehended this and told said: "Food? I've got plenty of food, right here in my bag . . . I always carry lots of snacks and bars and chips when I'm on a hike" and if she wasn't so weak from diabetic shock, then she would have punched me;

3) we confidently participated in Trivia Night at the local pub, assuming five English teachers would crush all comers . . . but we were completely unprepared for the depth of English trivia, and couldn't answer any of the questions-- except one about Iron Maiden . . . I think we also may have resorted to cheating, and getting some answers from one of our local pub friends;

4) we visited Oxford, Bath, Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare's house, and . . . Cropredy . . . the oldest teacher in the group, John, insisted we go to the Cropredy because it hosts the Fairport Convention, a folk festival that he loves . . . and the town was lovely;

5) we ate lunch at pubs and dinner in our stone cottage-- this was long before Brexit and the pound was very strong-- everything cost twice as much as in the States;

6) we made many local pub friends-- the town plumber and the town carpenter and lots of other blue collar types, and they were fun and informative and out at the bar every night-- we learned that only honors students read Shakespeare in England, and we also learned that the pub owner's daughter-- a barmaid-- had married an American man, moved to North Carolina, and then returned to England once she learned that his business trips weren't for business at all, they were to meet a male lover . . . he was gay; Sean and I learned this from the pub owner one night, but his accent was very thick, so it took us a while to comprehend what he was telling us;

7) despite the accents, I found it astounding that we were in a foreign country and people spoke English-- remember, Catherine and I had just gotten back from three years in Syria and so met with daily struggles trying to speak a very difficult language-- and so I talked to everyone about anything, on one of our hikes I asked a pretty British lass directions, occasionally gawking at her and the horse next to her, but mainly looking at my laminated fold-out map of the region, and I thought she was blowing me off a bit and the rest of the group was awkwardly laughing . . . apparently I had interrupted her while she was shoeing this large beast and she was trying to concentrate on affixing the shoe to the horse without being kicked and not on how to give directions to the stupid inconsiderate American;

anyway, enough about me-- the new Bryson book is nearly four hundred pages of rambling anecdotes like this, as Bryson traverses Britain from the southern tip to Cape Wrath, the northernmost point in Scotland, and there is history and description, accounts of beauty and anger at modern development, plenty of getting lost and of difficult travel-- I never knew there were so many places in England, especially so many seaside resorts (in varying states of grandeur and decay) and there is plenty of grouchiness and fairly frequent use of the f-word, much drinking of pints and eating of spicy food (with the usual consequences) and a general appreciation of the small things that make life wonderful and the big things trying to destroy this . . . he mainly basks in the wonder of Britain, it's astounding mass of history and historical sites, all situated in on a small island : "there isn't a landscape in the world that is more artfully worked, more lovely to behold, more comfortable to be in than the countryside of Great Britain . . . it is the world's largest park, its most perfect accidental garden" but-- and he is a man of my own mind, as I like nothing more than getting up early, taking a hike, having a beer, and then going to bed and doing it again the next day-- and so he describes his vision, which is so appropriate after yesterday's election results, as I concur so completely with this, that I am reproducing here-- with periods!-- while conceding that if any American politician said this, they'd be labeled a radical communist:

May I tell you what I'd like to see? I would like to see a government that said "We're going to stop this preposterous obsession with economic growth at the cost of all else. Great economic success doesn't produce national happiness, it produces Republicans and Switzerland. So we're going to concentrate on just being lovely and pleasant and civilized. We're going to have the best schools and hospitals, the most comfortable public transportation, the liveliest arts, the most useful and well-stocked libraries, the grandest parks, the cleanest streets, the most enlightened social policies. In short, we're going to be like Sweden, but with less herring and better jokes."

and Bryson admits that this will never happen, and he's mainly happy with the parts of Britain that are like this . . . I will do the same in America, and enjoy the pleasant parks, good schools, and enlightened people of my town (and enact my vacation dollar ban on all the states that voted for environmental devastation and Trump . . . that leaves plenty of coast, New Mexico and Colorado as western outposts, and Vermont for snowboarding . . . plenty of wonderful places, I just hope they don't get destroyed in the oncoming storm of deregulation).


zman said...

I take issue with the characterization of your Syria updates as "a series of rambling email updates"--Catherine's were always pithy, often breezy, and a pleasure to read.

Dave said...

true, they alternated between that and my epic digressive rambles . . . i just loaded them into google docs, so now they are easily searchable, and they are huge.

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