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Thread: Bill Bryson's England

  1. #1
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    Unhappy Bill Bryson's England



    I am reading Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island again, 6 years after reading it for the first time.

    This time I decided to check online pictures of some of the places he visited to see if they were really as bad as he describes. I was shocked to find that many fine places were badly berated for reasons that I cannot grasp.

    In chapter 18, Bryson depicts the Victoria Gardens Shopping Centre in Harrogate as "just heartbreakingly awful, the worst kind of pastiche architecture - a sort of Bath Crescent meets Crystal Palace with a roof by McDonald's". Now have a look at the place and tell me if you agree. It looks quite nice to me. In fact, I wish all shopping centres could be as handsome and respectful the the city's traditional architectural style.

    In chapter 15, Mr Bryson had complained about the University Arms Hotel in Cambridge as being "an overpriced modern block", further adding "my gloomy room was lamentably at odds with its description in my guidebook". I suppose there is only one hotel of the same name in Cambridge, and that would be this Victorian palace (you can see a room on Booking.com). Now I have read enough books by Bill Bryson to know that he is rather on the stingy side, often arguing for a few pounds or dollars. On his journeys across the USA, he always seems to be staying at dingy motels where the TV doesn't always work and things fall apart. In light of all this what could possibly be wrong with the 4-star, historic University Arms Hotel ?

    Bill Bryson's books are fun to read (I read almost all of them), but it is prudent not to take his comments too seriously. He is often quite unreliable when it comes to facts. I already explained his linguistics shortcomings in his history of the English language, The Mother Tongue.

    Still in Notes from a Small Island, Bryson devotes the first pages of chapter 16 to explaining the basics of British aristocracy. He starts off with (a bit cockily IMHO), "If you have always been confused by why some people in Britain are called Sir This while others are Lord That, and others are the Earl of Such and Such or Viscount Something or Other, worry not, I'm here to help you". The problem is that he never comes to explaining that 'Sir' is used for the gentry (Baronets, Knights, Lairds, Untitled Nobility), while 'Lord' is used for the peerage (from Barons to Dukes). I am also surprised that nobody noticed a gross mistake on p. 163 on my already corrected edition reprinted in 2001. Bryson writes "Altogether some forty thousand lordly titles are in use in Britain, but the actual number of nobles is only a tiny fraction of that - a little under twelve hundred, or barely 0.2 percent of the British population". It doesn't take a genius to immediately realise that 1200 is not 0.2% of 60 million ! It is 0.002%. But, numbers apart, the sentence isn't even correct. He should have said "nobility titles" and not "lordly titles" as a "lordly title" would exclude the more numerous Baronets, Knights and so on. All of them are nobles though. What he meant is that only a tiny fraction of them are peers (with a seat at the House of Lords). Not terribly impressive for someone who intentionally spared three whole pages to "help us" understand the intricacies of the British nobility.
    Last edited by Maciamo; 02-01-10 at 23:17.

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    You forget; he sells his books to Brits and yanks.

    You don't sell books to the Brits by being nice about their country, but by giving them a reason to grumble and whinge.

    And the yanks wouldn't know nobility if it marched up and brained them with a sceptre, so finer details are less relevant than allowing them to wallow in words like Viscount and Knight.

    Simple.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Invictus_88 View Post
    You forget; he sells his books to Brits and yanks.
    ...
    And the yanks wouldn't know nobility if it marched up and brained them with a sceptre, so finer details are less relevant than allowing them to wallow in words like Viscount and Knight.

    Simple.
    His books are sold to English speakers in many more countries than just the UK and US, and are translated in French, Spanish, Japanese... Granted most Europeans will already know about the nobility (and notice his inadequate explanation with a snort), but what good is it to try to explain something if you don't do it properly, especially coming from the author of A Short History of Nearly Everything. That's out of character for him.

    You don't sell books to the Brits by being nice about their country, but by giving them a reason to grumble and whinge.
    I don't mind him lamenting about how badly managed is the public transport system, or b*tching about the weather, or whimper at the ugliness of Bradford, or denounce the tearing down a beautiful historic edifice. But what's the point of depreciating a grand Victorian hotel in Cambridge ?

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    You should also read 'Watching the English' by Kate Fox, that is if you haven't already Maciamo. It's basically the same sort of thing but with a focus on behaviour, and she bases what she says on her own experiments/investigations as a social anthropologist. It's pretty interesting and accurate, it breaks it down and somewhat categorises things too so it's a bit easier to understand than vague behavioural notions.

    But yeah Bill Bryson's book is a classic, interesting and a laugh.

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    Bryson's American influence

    Maciamo, I can appreciate both sides regarding the attractiveness of the Harrogate shopping center. Let me explain. Bryson views the world through an American lense (as do I), and I think many Americans, especially those of European stock, harbor a secret desire to see all of the Old World still populated with structures of hand-built field stone, sporting thatched roofs, with cobbled streets. It's not that we want to rob Europe of her advanced building techniques (such as the glassed roofing pictured), it's that we want to protect you all from the tainted, metallic urban sprawl that infects much of the landscape in the U.S. All of this runs well beneath the surface of course. That being said, I have a bit of construction experience and can very much appreciate the Harrogate building.

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    P.s.

    I got a chuckle out of that Invictus.

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    Always interesting to point at culture shock in travel writing, you'd expect the authors to be a litlle bit less narrow-minded than the average joe, and that makes you think how thick some yankees must be. On another hand, I have met an old Texas couple and a 27-years old Tennessee rural on a year gap in october in Mostar (Bosnia and Herzegovina), touring the fringes where most Europeans don't even dare dreaming going. I prefer to think about people like these or read quality travel writing instead of Bryson-type literature any day.

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    "Bryson depicts the Victoria Gardens Shopping Centre in Harrogate as "just heartbreakingly awful,"


    Indeed shame on Bryson for being so kind, 'soulmurderingly awful' would be a better description.

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    1 out of 1 members found this post helpful.
    It's not that bad... take a trip to Orlando and then talk to me. :)

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