The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain (Notes from a Small Island #2)

According to Time Out magazine, at any given moment there are 600,000 people on the Underground, making it both a larger and more interesting place than Oslo.

Ah,” he said in a tone of genial wisdom, “a chancellor is rather like a bidet. Everyone is pleased to have one, but no one knows quite what they are for.” A chancellor is nominally the head of a university, but in practice has no role, no power, no purpose.

America has given us a pretty decent modern world and doesn’t always get enough thanks for that. But for reasons that genuinely escape me, it has also become spectacularly accommodating to stupidity. Where

Britain has 450,000 listed buildings, 20,000 scheduled ancient monuments, twenty-six World Heritage Sites, 1,624 registered parks and gardens (that is, gardens and parks of historic significance), 600,000 known archaeological sites (and more being found every day; more being lost, too), 3,500 historic cemeteries, 70,000 war memorials, 4,000 sites of special scientific interest, 18,500 medieval churches, and 2,500 museums containing 170 million objects.

Durham Cathedral, like all great buildings of antiquity, is essentially just a giant pile of rubble held in place by two thin layers of dressed stone. But—and here is the truly remarkable thing—because that gloopy mortar was contained between two impermeable outer layers, air couldn’t get to it, so it took a very long time—forty years to be precise—to dry out. As it dried, the whole structure gently settled, which meant that the cathedral masons had to build doorjambs, lintels, and the like at slightly acute angles so that they would ease over time into the correct alignments. And that’s exactly what happened. After forty years of slow-motion sagging, the building settled into a position of impeccable horizontality, which it has maintained ever since. To me, that is just amazing—the idea that people would have the foresight and dedication to ensure a perfection that they themselves might never live to see.

England?” she said with unreserved amazement. “Why do you live in England?” “Because it is nothing like Indianapolis

FOR SOME TIME, I have believed that everyone should be allowed to have, say, ten things that they dislike without having to justify or explain to anyone why they don’t like them. Reflex loathings, I call them. Mine are: Power walkers. Those vibrating things restaurants give you to let you know when a table is ready. Television programs in which people bid on the contents of locked garages. All pigeons everywhere, at all times. Lawyers, too. Douglas Brinkley, a minor academic and sometime book reviewer whose powers of observation and generosity of spirit would fit comfortably into a proton and still leave room for an echo. Color names like taupe and teal that don’t mean anything. Saying that you are going to “reach out” to someone when what you mean is that you are going to call or get in touch with them. People who give their telephone number so rapidly at the end of long phone messages that you have to listen over and over and eventually go and get someone else to come and listen with you, and even then you still can’t get it. Nebraska. Mispronouncing “buoy.” The thing that floats in a navigation channel is not a “boo-ee.” It’s a “boy.” Think about it. Would you call something that floats “boo-ee-ant”? Also, in a similar vein, pronouncing Brett Favre’s last name as if the “r” comes before the “v.” It doesn’t, so stop it. Hotel showers that don’t give any indication of which way is hot and which cold. All the sneaky taxes, like “visitor tax” and “hospitality tax” and “fuck you because you’re from out of town tax,” that are added to hotel bills. Baseball commentators who get bored with the game by about the third inning and start talking about their golf game or where they ate last night. Brett Favre. I know that is more than ten, but this is my concept, so I get some bonus ones.

I am so well prepared financially that I have money in a range of currencies that no longer exist. I

I had never really stopped to consider what an extraordinary thing the Royal National Lifeboat Institution is. Think about it. A troubled ship calls for help, and eight people – teachers, plumbers, the guy who runs the pub – drop everything and put to sea, whatever the weather, asking no questions, imperilling their own lives, to try to help strangers. Is there anything more brave and noble than that?

I HAD TO GO to America for a while to give some talks. Going to America always does me good. It’s where I’m from, after all. There’s baseball on the TV, people are friendly and upbeat, they don’t obsess about the weather except when there is weather worth obsessing about, you can have all the ice cubes you want. Above all, visiting America gives me perspective. Consider two small experiences I had upon arriving at a hotel in downtown Austin, Texas. When I checked in, the clerk needed to record my details, naturally enough, and asked for my home address. Our house doesn’t have a street number, just a name, and I have found in the past that that is more deviance than an American computer can sometimes cope with, so I gave our London address. The girl typed in the building number and street name, then said: “City?” I replied: “London.” “Can you spell that please?” I looked at her and saw that she wasn’t joking. “L-O-N-D-O-N,” I said. “Country?” “England.” “Can you spell that?” I spelled England. She typed for a moment and said: “The computer won’t accept England. Is that a real country?” I assured her it was. “Try Britain,” I suggested. I spelled that, too—twice (we got the wrong number of T’s the first time)—and the computer wouldn’t take that either. So I suggested Great Britain, United Kingdom, UK, and GB, but those were all rejected, too. I couldn’t think of anything else to suggest. “It’ll take France,” the girl said after a minute. “I beg your pardon?” “You can have ‘London, France.’?” “Seriously?” She nodded. “Well, why not?” So she typed “London, France,” and the system was happy. I finished the check-in process and went with my bag and plastic room key to a bank of elevators a few paces away. When the elevator arrived, a young woman was in it already, which I thought a little strange because the elevator had come from one of the upper floors and now we were going back up there again. About five seconds into the ascent, she said to me in a suddenly alert tone: “Excuse me, was that the lobby back there?” “That big room with a check-in desk and revolving doors to the street? Why, yes, it was.” “Shoot,” she said and looked chagrined. Now I am not for a moment suggesting that these incidents typify Austin, Texas, or America generally or anything like that. But it did get me to thinking that our problems are more serious than I had supposed. When functioning adults can’t identify London, England, or a hotel lobby, I think it is time to be concerned. This is clearly a global problem and it’s spreading. I am not at all sure how we should tackle such a crisis, but on the basis of what we know so far, I would suggest, as a start, quarantining Texas.

I hate to sound like an old man, but why are these people famous? What qualities do they possess that endear them to the wider world? We may at once eliminate talent, intelligence, attractiveness, and charm from the equation, so what does that leave? Dainty feet? Fresh, minty breath? I am at a loss to say. 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. (I may be imagining some of these.) As I read the magazine, I kept hearing a voice in my head, like the voice from a 1950s B-movie trailer, saying: “They came from Planet Imbecile!

I like being in a country where when cows attack, word of it gets around. That’s what I mean when I say Britain is cozy.

It was known as the Sick Man of Europe. It was in every way poorer than now. Yet there were flowerbeds on roundabouts, libraries and post offices in every village, cottage hospitals in abundance, council housing for all who needed it. It was a country so comfortable and enlightened that hospitals maintained cricket pitches for their staff and mental patients lived in Victorian palaces. If we could afford it then, why not now? Someone needs to explain to me how it is that the richer Britain gets the poorer it thinks itself.

I was particularly taken with an article about a pub called the White Post on Rimpton Hill on the Dorset–Somerset border. The county boundary runs right through the middle of the bar. In former times when Dorset and Somerset had different licensing laws, people had to move from one side of the room to the other at 10 pm in order to continue drinking legally until 10.30. I don’t know why but this made me feel a pang of nostalgia for the way things used to be.

I wondered idly what the builders of Stonehenge would have created if they’d had bulldozers and big trucks for moving materials and computers to help them design. What would they have created if they had had all the tools we have? Then I crested the brow of the hill with a view down to the visitor center, with its café and gift shop, its land trains and giant parking lot, and realized I was almost certainly looking at it.

London isn't a place at all. It's a million little places.

Out of all the incursions, the only permanent one so far is the present one, and that dates from just twelve thousand years ago, which means that Britain is actually one of the more recent places in the world to become inhabited by modern people. In this sense it is much younger than the Americas or Australia. The

Someone needs to explain to me how it is that the richer Britain gets, the poorer it thinks itself. All

The older you get the more it seems the world belongs to other people.

The pleasant fact is that the British are not much good at violent crime except in fiction, which is of course as it should be.

There are loads of people like us. We are all here because we like it here or are married to Britons or both. If I may say so, you are a little more cosmopolitan, possibly even a little more dynamic and productive, sometimes even more adorable and gorgeous, because we are here with you. If you think the only people you should have in your country are the people you produce yourselves, you are an idiot. And,

There is no question that a Neanderthal could easily beat us up. So, too, presumably could their women, which may be why we are only 2 percent Neanderthal instead of 50 percent. Those bitches were too scary for us.

The rooms were small and airless and cramped. To make matters worse, somebody in our group was making the most dreadful silent farts. Fortunately, it was me, so I wasn’t nearly as bothered as the others.

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. Many people—people who make posters for leading publishers, write captions for the BBC, compose letters and advertisements for important institutions—seem to think that capitalization and marks of punctuation are condiments that you sprinkle through any collection of words as if from a salt shaker. Here is a headline, exactly as presented, from a magazine ad for a private school in York: “Ranked by the daily Telegraph the top Northern Co-Educational day and Boarding School for Academic results.” All those capital letters are just random. Does anyone really think that the correct rendering of the newspaper is “the daily Telegraph”? Is it really possible to be that unobservant? Well, yes, as a matter of fact. Not long ago, I received an e-mail from someone at the Department for Children, Schools and Families asking me to take part in a campaign to help raise appreciation for the quality of teaching in Great Britain. Here is the opening line of the message exactly as it was sent to me: “Hi Bill. Hope alls well. Here at the Department of Children Schools and Families…” In the space of one line, fourteen words, the author has made three elemental punctuation errors (two missing commas, one missing apostrophe; I am not telling you more than that) and gotten the name of her own department wrong—this from a person whose job is to promote education. In a similar spirit, I received a letter not long ago from a pediatric surgeon inviting me to speak at a conference. The writer used the word “children’s” twice in her invitation, spelling it two different ways and getting it wrong both times. This was a children’s specialist working in a children’s hospital. How long do you have to be exposed to a word, how central must it be to your working life, to notice how it is spelled?

We live in a world that has practically no appreciation for quality, tradition, or classiness, and in which people who can’t spell even common words get to decide what survives. That

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.

We were idiots really, but awfully happy, too.

What a joy walking is. All the cares of life, all the hopeless, inept fuckwits that God has strewn along the Bill Bryson Highway of Life suddenly seem far away and harmless, and the world becomes tranquil and welcoming and good.

When you write books for a living, you come to realize that while not all people who write to authors are strange, all people who are strange write to authors.

You can’t go to East Anglia and not visit Sutton Hoo. Well, you can, obviously, but you shouldn’t.