Bill Bryson’s Small Island
Since reading the book ‘Notes from a Small Island’ by travel writer Bill Bryson, I have long pondered the irony of an American producing a best-selling book about a small country he just happened to be visiting at the time that was not his native country. One would think Bryson would have found enough material to write about in the United States of America without having to travel thousands of miles to the United Kingdom in order to produce his best selling work. The USA is also many times the size of the UK, so one would think the possibilities would be endless just staying on his own home soil. On the other hand, having lived in England for a total of 11 years, I can understand why he found so much to write about and in a humorous manner too.
There’s such a rich diversity of cultures intermingled on the island and the split into 43 counties only serves to intensify that diversity in terms of history, accents, local culture and landscape. To make life even more interesting, each county has its own police force and local governments. It follows that each county has its own computer systems that don’t integrate very well with those of the other counties, giving rise at times to a bumbling confusion that is charming, but at the same time alarming. All this points towards the mildly eccentric nature of the country and its people, most of whom are engaged in a constant internal struggle to break through their conservative cultural barriers. The latter is fueled, or alleviated depending on how you look at it, by the copious consumption of alcohol that allows temporary respite from those barrier limits. This has the unfortunate consequence of manifesting in excess of all kinds that, in its worst form can be described as ‘anti-social behaviour’.
When viewed by those coming from outside the UK, these sorts of things can be seen as humorous or even comical and I guess this is why writers such as Bryson have found so much to write about on the small island that hosts England, Scotland and Wales. From my own experience, having emigrated to England from South Africa, I found there to be a charm about the country that was enhanced by the beauty of the landscape. Small things caught my attention at the outset such as the sign in Sainsburys supermarket instructing shoppers to please place a sticker on their shopping trolley if they found it to be difficult to handle or the ghostly voice in the Post Office that directed customers to the next available counter. Over the next 10 years, the charm faded into everyday life as I was granted British citizenship and became just another jaded Brit.
My work as an IT Consultant took me to other locations in Europe, but I returned to the UK at weekends to be with my family. When the family situation ended, I found myself living in Denmark and missing the English food, humour and general culture, so last year Franklin and I decided to return to the UK where I would take up a contract near the town of Reading. We found a beautiful flat (apartment to everyone outside the UK) next to the Thames river in Reading and spent the year exploring the delights of England. These included such things as: Christmas mince pies, which I consumed in great number, puddings, roast dinners, fish and chips and Marks & Spencer food in general. Of course the countryside, too, was glorious as always and Franklin would gasp every time we rounded a corner in the road as another breathtaking landscape of rolling green hills or forests came into view. We visited the usual places such as Tower Bridge in London, which Franklin still teasingly refers to as ‘London Bridge’ despite me correcting him on numerous occasions.
Despite having returned to the UK for a year, we began to realise that, in terms of living conditions and general quality of life, we were missing the tranquil, but efficient life we had in Denmark. This was hi-lighted for us during the Christmas season when we decided to visit family in London. We visited one of the major shopping centres in the area simply because it was on our way, but were sorry that we did. I do realise that the number of people out shopping at that time was elevated, but I can in all honesty say that I have never in my life seen so many people in one place. It was overwhelming. Customers were fighting over tables in the food court and jostling for position in the queue to get on to the escalators between floors. It was all we could do to force our way through the throng and hope they didn’t turn violent while we were there. Then there’s the overcrowding on the roads in the UK. It seemed like there was a major incident every day on one or other of the motorways in the south of England. Motorists would be held up for hours on a motorway while police and forensic scientists gathered evidence before the wreckage could be cleared away. I found myself getting back into the habit of calling the traffic line before I left home to travel anywhere by car. The railways, too, are subject to constant delays and strikes, so you never really know if you’re going to reach your destination on time or even at all.
It is said that we cannot truly appreciate what we have until we have lost it. Such was the case at the start of 2017 when we packed our bags and, with a sigh of relief, boarded the plane for Denmark, leaving the small island in the hands all those who aren’t aware of the stresses of their environment or who actually enjoy living in such a fast-paced, stressful and unpredictable society. No doubt we will return to the UK now and then to recapture the nostalgia and to visit family there, but even though Denmark doesn’t have the landscape or culture of the UK, we are happy to drift with the contented current of life here, secure in the knowledge that most foreigners are bypassing Denmark in their headlong dash to reach the UK. Perhaps they, too, will one day realise that a healthy currency and good social benefits don’t necessarily create a healthy society.
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