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The Road To Little Dribbling

Adventures of an American in Britain

By Bill Bryson

Eastleigh appears to have been bombed heavily during WW2, though perhaps not quite heavily enough.

...the sumptuously mismanaged lives of celebrities whose common denominators appeared to be tiny brains, giant boobs, and a knack for entering into regrettable relationships.

George Everest, the man of the mountain, pronounced his name with two syllables: Eve-rest. He never even saw the mt. He was an army surveyor who completed the work of a now-forgotten man named William Lambton. Lambton's project was to survey an arc of longitude across India as a way of determining exact circumference of the Earth. Everest almost only mt in Asia to have an English name. British cartographers generally scrupulous about preserving native designations, but Everest known locally by a host of names, so someone put Everest's name on the map. At the time it wasn't known to be the tallest peak in world, and the rest of the survey was found to be largely inaccurate anyway, so whole exercise a typical shambles.

.... bad as I am today, I am pretty much in tip-top condition compared to what I will be next week or the week after.

.... it should never have been allowed, but there you are. The world is full of shitty things that should never have happened. Look at Eric Pickles.

.... I was, as a TripAdvisor writer might have put it, deply trubbled.

Britain only 700 miles from top to bottom and so slender that no-one more than 70 miles from one of the edges.

Heathrow chosen as major airport site after WW2 by Alfred Crutchley, who had made fortune consolidating concrete companies. He chose site because half-way between his home and his London office, but of course he died long before Heathrow became a major hub.

Leslie Charteris (the "Saint" author) was actually half Chinese, born Leslie Yin in Singapore. After the success of the TV series, he gave up writing and left the task to ghost writers. ("A practice that is more common than you might think. This one is written by Andy McNab.")

.... the longest distance an American will walk without getting into a car is 600 feet, and I fear the modern British have become much the same, except that on the way back the British will drop some litter and get a tattoo.

Lengthy discourse on the irrationality of the British "system" of numbering roads and highways. "And to think there are people who need alcohol and sex to have fun." The downside of all this is that you can easily cross a line and become too interested in London postal districts or something, and before you know it you have joined a society and receive a quarterly newsletter, and possibly even go on coach trips...

One of the pleasures of dotage is that you realize that you have pretty much all you will ever need, apart from a few perishables.

Mary Anning, Dorset Jurassic Coast. Usual pleasant monologue of travel stuff, but then gets to Torquay and encounters two indifferent and unhelpful watch shops when trying to change battery in his watch. "I quite like Torquay and might come back one day, but where watch batteries are concerned, they can go fuck themselves."

"I spotted a space in a layby and darted into it with an abrupt and daring manoeuvre that prompted six or eight other cars to honk their horns and flash their lights in a spontaneous gesture of admiration."

"This I realized, is my future: a dotage spent shuffling around places like Dartmouth, visiting shops and tearooms, bitching about crowds and costly, inconvenient park-and-ride schemes"

Britain has 108 steam railways, which is surely 106 more than any nation needs, run by 18,500 volunteers. It is an extraordinary but true fact that there are thousands of men in Britain who will never need viagra as long as there are steam trains in operation. And Britain also has a Water Tower Appreciation Society and a Roundabout Appreciation Society. There are people who spend their free time, not at gunpoint, travelling around seeking out the most attractive and satisfying roundabouts.

(On a tour of Blenheim Palace) ... 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.

Durham Castle walls are not solid stone, but rather an outer skin about six inches thick, and a similar inner skin, and in between a cavity about 5 feet across filled with rubble and shingle held together by a gloopy cement-like mortar. And because the mortar was held between two impermeable outer layers, air couldn't get into it, so it took a long time - 40 years - to dry out. As it dried the whole thing shrank and settled, which the castle masons had to allow for in building horizontal features like lintels and door jambs. Amazing that people would have the foresight and dedication to ensure perfection that they themselves might never live to see. And this was end of C11.

"I said some complimentary things about Durham in Notes From A Small Island and the university gave me an honourary degree. When I came to accept the degree I said some more complimentary things and they made me chancellor. This is my kind of town." A chancellor is nominally head of the university, but in practice has no duties, power or defined purpose. Job is to be harmless and amiable, and preside over graduation ceremonies. So a little bit like the Queen Mother.

US unis staggeringly rich: Harvard endowment is $32 billion, Yale $20 billion, Princeton and Stanford each at $18 billion. 81 unis in US have endowments exceeding $1 billion, or more than all the British unis outside Oxford and Cambridge put together.On top of that is earnings from sports: Ohio State U earns $115 million from its sports program, of which $40 million is donations - people give the uni football team $40 million a year so they can attract better players. $40 millioon is about the total endowment of Exeter U in UK.

Bryson met a rep from Virginai U who said they'd just hired a team of 250 people (with the boss paid $500,000 pa) to raise $3 billion. Yet in terms of world ranking, Virginia U was on same level as Lancaster U in UK, with an endowment fund one-thousandth the size of Virginia.

Despite its perennially modest funding, Britain still has 3 of the world's top ten unis, and 11 of the top 100. Britain has 1% of the world's population, but it manages 11% of its best unis.

(NY Times)

"I watched the rain beat down on the road outside and told myself that one day this would be 20 years ago." Why on earth would the weary traveler who consoled himself with this notion, marooned in a shuttered-tight, sodden Welsh mining town, even consider hitting the road again? Anyone who followed Bill Bryson on his trek around Britain in 'Notes From a Small Island,' published here exactly 20 years ago, will instantly understand. From the very beginning, Bryson, an American from Iowa who has lived and worked and established a family on the far side of the Atlantic, has responded to his British surroundings with an irresistible mix of frustration and fascination. That first travelogue was inspired by what turned out to be a temporary move back to the United States. This new one, which begins with Bryson taking a challenging (and, he mischievously observes, not entirely accurate) test to qualify for dual citizenship, has him questioning how much he really understands modern Britain, "a country that I don't altogether recognize." Has he just become older and crankier? Or have the places he first knew as a young man really changed? There's a simple way to find out.

He has a plan, of sorts. Rather than retrace his old route (which was, to put it mildly, somewhat improvisational), Bryson calculates the longest distance you can travel in Britain in a straight line, from Bognor Regis in the south to Cape Wrath in the north, christens it the Bryson Line and decides to begin at one end and finish at the other, visiting it from time to time but otherwise fetching up wherever he pleases. After all, as he explains elsewhere, "the first principle of a British system is that it should only appear systematic."

As in his previous outing, Bryson uses visits to historic sites like Runnymede and Sutton Hoo to ruminate on the facts and fantasies of Britain's past and the various people who populated it. An outing in the New Forest prompts a discussion of Arthur Conan Doyle's spiritualism; in Oxford, we hear the story of Roger Bannister during a detour to see the track where he ran the first sub-four-minute mile. And so the journey continues, from the tranquillity of the Cornish fishing village of Mousehole to the turbulence of a soccer match in Liverpool, from the sadly diminished down-market resort of Blackpool to the orderly and unshowily prosperous Scottish tourist town of Ullapool.

Bryson can't resist a few sentimental return trips. Virginia Water, where he found his first job, at a very casually run insane asylum (now turned into a gated compound of 'executive homes'), is disappointing, its fine old houses replaced by mansions "in a style that might be called Russian Gangster."

Stonehenge, on the other hand, is a marvel, rescued from the badly designed way station of the previous book, whose visitor center exuded "the warmth and charm of an army barracks," by an expansive reconfiguration that prompts several pages of reflection on the grandeur of prehistoric ruins. What Bryson admires most is the site planners' new respect for the landscape, since he remains convinced that Britain's greatest treasure is its countryside: "the world's largest park, its most perfect accidental garden." It's a treasure, he adds, that's endangered because too many people take it for granted. He himself does nothing of the sort, only pausing in his rambles along the footpaths and fields of the glorious South Downs to joke about "the rarely discussed subject of cow attacks."

Although he's now entering what he fondly calls his "dotage," the 64-year-old Bryson seems merely to have sharpened both his charms and his crotchets. As the title of "The Road to Little Dribbling" suggests, he remains devoted to Britain's eccentric place names as well as its eccentric pastimes, calling our attention to the likes of the Society for Clay Pipe Research, the Pillbox Study Group and the inexplicably popular Roundabout Appreciation Society. He's still apt to seek out the obscure: the ill-tended grave of George Everest, who, as it happens, never saw the mountain that's named for him, or the proposed location of Motopia, a community that would have banished cars, part of which now lies under the M25 motorway. And he much prefers small museums like Cambridge's Scott Polar Research Institute and Grimsby's Fishing Heritage Center to eminent edifices like the Natural History Museum in London, which "can't afford to be a museum anymore, so the directors are stealthily turning it into a food court."

Bryson has retained his gift for the casual put-down (the train from London to Cornwall is "like rigor mortis with scenery"), but he's more than willing to allow others to have "reflex loathings" - things they dislike without having to justify or explain them. Among his own: "all pigeons everywhere, at all times" and "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." While he's visiting Manchester, a quirk in the V.A.T. prompts an amusing rant on what new taxes he might impose to erase Britain's national debt, a list that includes "earphone music leakage" and "walking much too slowly in crowded places."

While in "Notes From a Small Island" Bryson praised the "deference and a quiet consideration for others" that he saw as "a fundamental part of British life," now he chidingly observes that "lots of people are governed not so much by whether something is right or wrong as by whether they think anyone's watching." Yet the tone of these remarks suggests that Bryson is often just playing at being a curmudgeon. Essentially genial, he remains devoted to a host of "pleasing Britannic things," from the small (Boxing Day, cream teas, Ordnance Survey maps) to the significant: "On tricky and emotive issues like gun control, abortion, capital punishment, the teaching of evolution in schools, the use of stem cells for research, and how much flag waving you have to do in order to be considered acceptably patriotic, Britain is calm and measured and quite grown up." Which, in the long run, is more important than lamenting that once upon a time "you could (genuinely) conduct any of 231 types of transactions in a British post office."

Despite the shoddiness and inefficiencies and shortsighted priorities of 'Austerity Britain,' Bryson remains a convert. "It is a permanent astonishment to me," he remarks toward the end of his journey, "how casually strewn with glory Britain is." Where else can you visit a modern earthwork sculpture that's "the largest representation of a woman in the world," then drive a few hours south to see a hillside where, for roughly 3,000 years, a giant chalk figure of a horse has been dutifully preserved? And all this in a country where a modest cup of tea is still the most common remedy for anything that ails you, a country where a surprising number of people become genuinely excited when presented with a hot beverage and a small plain biscuit.

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