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'The Road to Little Dribbling': yet another chance to walk with Bill Bryson

Bryson walks the length of his adopted country, lamenting as he goes.

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    The Road to Little Dribbling
    By Bill Bryson
    Doubleday
    400 pp.
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It’s time for Bill Bryson to once again putter around his adopted home country of Britain. Twenty years after he published “Notes From a Small Island,” a characteristic hybrid of humor, awe, befuddlement, and crankiness, Bryson decided to again start wandering around in mostly out-of-the-way spots to assess the state of Britain.

In The Road to Little Dribbling, Bryson meanders along the British coastline, traipses through the interior, and shares observations on everything from the end of civilization as we know it – his list includes shoddy grammar, dull museums, grumpy shopkeepers, and souvenir wooden planks featuring homey inscriptions – to the joys of walking through miles and miles of protected countryside.

The premise of this charming sequel centers on a self-invented “Bryson Line” extending from Bognor Regis in the southeast to Cape Wrath at the northwestern tip of Scotland, the path traveled and covered in the book. Of course, that doesn’t keep the author from wandering hither and yon when the mood strikes.

His curiosity leads to the sharing of all manner of arcana. To cite but one of many examples, how many of us knew England and Wales have 130,000 miles of public walking paths? Or that 40 percent of London is green space? Did you know 90 people from Cambridge have won the Nobel Prize, more than from any other place in the world? Thanks to Bryson, you do – or, at minimum, you’ve been reminded.

Reading Bryson, for the uninitiated, is all about digression. We don’t want him to get straight to the point; we want him to muse, to ruminate, to fulminate, and to stumble and bumble when he’s not dashing off acerbic observations.

When he happens upon a hamlet where whelks occupy a prominent perch among the locals, Bryson avoids any urge to romanticize the preferred cuisine.

“If you have never dined on this marine delicacy, you may get the same experience by finding an old golf ball, removing the cover, and eating what remains,” he writes.

Bryson grew up in Iowa but has lived in England for 40 years. Now in his mid-60s, Bryson married a Brit soon after he moved to England, but only just recently took the citizenship test there. (He is both an American and British citizen.) His mockery of the test and an abominable study guide helps set the tone for his misadventures. Bryson’s complaints include the fact that the study guide praises the actor Anthony Hopkins as an admirable Brit when he is, in fact, now an American citizen living in California.

As for firsthand misadventures, Bryson starts with a bang. Or, rather, with a conk to the head.

“One of the things that happens when you get older is that you discover lots of new ways to hurt yourself,” he begins. From there, he recounts a trip to Normandy, France, where, upon walking through a parking lot situated along a route to cliff-top vistas, Bryson paused under a raised parking gate arm to collect his thoughts.

Moments later, he finds himself “taken completely by surprise” as the arm slams onto his head from above “like a sledgehammer on a spike.” Our hero emerges intact – most important, without any diminished curmudgeonly capacities.

Bryson disdains recent budget reductions ushered in by the British government’s austerity programs. Public transportation, museums, libraries, and parks are essential but too often ignored priorities, he writes.

Best of all, Bryson juggles his travelogue, dipping in and out of ridiculousness, social commentary, history, trivia, and gleefully grumpy pronouncements. At an Everton soccer match, he makes note of seats for the spectators that are “vise-like numbered spaces” best used to numb one’s buttocks. Of a closed restaurant in Penzance, Bryson concludes, “It was so bad that it wasn’t even within hailing distance of being dreadful.”

Big-box stores depress Bryson, as do neglected downtowns in villages and small towns. An ideal place for Bryson includes plenty of pedestrian-friendly paths, a good independent bookstore, and a mix of shops, pubs, and restaurants that offer some hometown flavor. Traveling with Bryson is fun because he never sugarcoats the hassles, the overpriced crummy food that runs abundant in touristy places – and the absolute delight of finding unexpected sights or happenstance meetings.

Along the way, he riffs on the banality of incessant cellphone conversations as well as the sloppy writing permeating books and magazines, menus, and more, noting, “We have now reached a level in which many people are not merely unacquainted with the fundamentals of punctuation, but don’t evidently realize that there are fundamentals.”

Here’s hoping Bryson remains cranky and curious for many years to come.

Erik Spanberg regularly reviews books for The Christian Science Monitor.

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