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I'm Cheap But Demanding - Bryson's <i>Notes From A Small Island</i>?

Anyone who has read Bill Bryson's Notes From A Small Island--how did you like it?

I'm re-reading it and here's my favorite line so far: he's in Exter, stopped in at the TI office to have them book accommodations for him, the woman at the TI has to interrogate him about how much he wants to spend, and he says that it became apparent that he was in the category of

Cheap But Demanding

Posted by
1003 posts

I read it many years ago, so I don't remember specific lines. but it is indeed a WONDERFUL book. I do vaguely remember a hilarious bit about US tax rules and how hard it was to get used to dealing with them again, however.

Posted by
811 posts

That's funny - I just finished reading it last week!

Of course, half of the humor was probably lost on me as I haven't been to England yet, but the half I caught I enjoyed immensly.

Posted by
10344 posts

Bryson's reporting of himself as being in the "Cheap but Demanding" category in selection of accommodations reminded me of something we see here on a regular basis:

the optimistic request for a "cheap but nice" place to sleep.

Okay, which one do you want? You don't get them both in the same place.

If it's nice, it won't be cheap; and if it's cheap, it won't be nice (clean maybe, but not nice).

Posted by
9363 posts

Especially if they want "cheap but nice" in London or Paris.

Posted by
150 posts

I remember the part when he's at John O'Groats (Britain's northernmost point) and when he turns up at the car rental agency the man says "ah, you must be the fellow from down south", to which Bryson replies: "But surely everywhere is down south from here?".

Posted by
1872 posts

A little off task, but it reminds me of the painter I have worked with for years who has always told me, "There's cheap, fast, and good. You can have any 2 you want, but never all 3". This book sounds fun.

Posted by
1829 posts

He's back with us now (2003) and an honourary Englishman! Is now on the boards of all sorts of heritage and environmental organisations.

One of my favourite bits of NFASI is Chapter 8, the description of his journey along the Dorset coast. The man has a way with words and is spot on about so much of this small island.

Posted by
10344 posts

Linda: I'm glad to see you, resident of the "Small Island" in question, are on this topic. Yes! Chap. 8, I just finished reading chap 8 & 9 yesterday. I followed along his hiking route, as I was reading about his Dorset hike, with GoogleMap.

I see that Bill, in the 1990's, was still able to take the Wilts & Dorset public bus from Salisbury to Stonehenge--the bus that stopped running last year and made it more challenging to get from London to Stonehenge by public transport.

Posted by
668 posts

I am originally from the "Small Island" and I found it hilarious. I was fortunate to attend a book reading by him a year or two ago and he was just as funny in person as his writing. I think I have read all his books now and most are very good. His "autobiography" Thunderbolt Kid was probably the poorest in my opinion.

Posted by
10344 posts

Iain: Ahh, interesting about the book reading.

Severgnini, in Field Guide to the Italian Mind, offers a lot of one-liners that are easily quoted here. Bryson's gems seem to take a half a page to develop, difficult to quote here.

However, in addition to Bryson's "cheap but demanding" (his accommodation preference)

I found this one:

"It sometimes occurs to me that the British have more heritage than is good for them."

Posted by
1288 posts

I love Bill Bryson's books and now after reading this thread, I'm inspired to re-read them.
Interestingly, a few years ago, the British public voted Bryson's Notes from a Small Island as their favorite book about Britain. Be sure to read Neither Here Nor There, too.

Posted by
964 posts

I read NFASI a few years ago and thought it was great, but can't remember much of it. I'm 'between' books at the moment, so Thanks Kent, now I know what I'm going to read next!

Posted by
10344 posts

Maggie: I was following Bryson's route on his Dorset coast hike, on GoogleMap.com, and saw Boscombe just east of Bournemouth. I suppose he would have walked right past or through Boscombe, on the route he describes in the book?

Posted by
1717 posts

Hi Kent, and y'all. I read that book, in the year 2005. I think that book is more humorous, and better, than his book about his experiences travelling at Europe ("Neither Here Nor There ...").
Bill Bryson is a good writer. He did much thinking about, and studying, the topics that he wrote about. I even liked reading his book about travelling across Australia. Bill Bryson does not know much about Australia, and he did not experience much in Australia, but he wrote a book about it, which is compelling to read. My favorite book written by Bill Bryson is The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, but it is not a book of travel essays. I think I should mention : in Bill Bryson's books, I think his use of the "F..." word is not necessary, and not approved of by me.

Posted by
1717 posts

A video version of that book is in some public Libraries in the U.S.A. I viewed that video, in the year 2006. I did not like the video. In that video, Bill Bryson is not photogenic, and his voice did not sound very pleasant. Perhaps he was not feeling well that day.

Posted by
319 posts

Kent,

Thanks for bringing back fond memories.

I was studying abroad in London in the fall of 97, and took a trip out to Stonehenge. This was my first trip to Europe, and so I was in awe of everything. But Stonehenge could not be topped. What a sight.

It was while setting up that trip that I learned how we are divided by a common language. I thought that they probably pronounced Salisbury differently there than I did. Since I pronounced it as "SAULS-berry", I figured they pronounced "SALS-burry"! The agent on the phone could not figure out where I was trying to go! I'm sure she had a good laugh when I got off the phone.

It's too bad that going there now requires an expensive and polluting rental car. I hope they bring back the bus.

Posted by
10344 posts

Michael: Yes, indeed, the Wilts & Dorset bus from Salisbury to Stonehenge went the way of all mortal things, last year. Or I suppose one could say it did not die but has only been discontinued, with the possibility (however unlikely) of being revived if demand ever justifies it.

Posted by
3428 posts

This is one of my repeat favorites (I've read it more than six times.. lost count). I love the way he talks about the commonalities of most British towns/cities/villages... Boots, M&S, etc. I also like his assessment of Inverness. I totally agree about the two "ugly" buildings and I love shopping in the Victorian Arcade. I envy him in many ways.

Posted by
10344 posts

Toni: Here's another good line, from his chapter on visiting the Cotswolds:

"I suspended my principles and rented a car for three days. Well, I had to. I wanted to see the Cotswolds."

Posted by
3428 posts

Kent- I had forgotten that one! I also loved the time he talked about having to return to London to get to another city because he couldn't get there from his starting point that day. I love the British Rail system ( it beats anything here in the US) but they are a bit disorganized about some things. I also enjoyed his "rant" about the disjointed time tables of the buses and trains in one location.

Posted by
964 posts

Hi Kent, sorry I didn't reply earlier- I'm sure Bill Bryson has been in Boscombe, because I think for a while he worked on the local newspaper, the Echo.

I bet he was walking the 'Dorset Doddle', a 30 mile trail along the coast. It's beautiful, but it's up and down hill, and a doddle, it's not! One of my friends did it last week on a sponsored walk- took her over 12 hours and the next day she could barely move.

Posted by
10344 posts

Maggie: What is a "doddle"?Are we going to need to brush off the English - American Dictionary? (that's been posted here in the past)

One people divided by a common language.

Posted by
964 posts

Hi Kent, a 'doddle' is something that's 'easy-peasy', 'a piece of cake' or a 'cinch'.

Having spent half my life in the UK and the other half in N. America, I get confused (not difficult) with which terms work where. So it's the the gas-petrol tank, the hood-bonnet and the trunk- boot forever for me. Poor thing.

Had a lot of fun when I first arrived in 1974- caused plenty of amusement offering to 'knock up' people in the morning, inviting them to share the Sunday joint and as for the mistakes I made about what 'Restroom was', well, the pregnant lady in Cleveland who enquired where she could find said facility probably still remembers that blunder.

I somehow suspect that Mr. Bryson deals with the same problem far more gracefully than I do!

Posted by
10344 posts

Maggie: We once, a while back, had an entertaining topic on here, with many replies, of the differences between what words mean in English and what they mean in American (English). Later, I'll see if I can find that topic.

Posted by
3428 posts

Kent- If you enjoy exploring English slang check out the Effingpot website. It is a hoot.

Posted by
586 posts

I swear I'm not trying to be a killjoy here--what a wonderful thread!--but I have to say, while I really enjoyed "Neither Here Nor There," I found "Notes" devoid of any original thinking on the English and English culture. It seems that after about 20 years of living in England, Bryson felt he had to write SOMETHING about the experience...perhaps it was too soon; maybe he needed some time to reflect, some distance. To me, the narrative is plodding, dull, and full of "I went here on the train...and then went there...and eventually slept here...and then I ate here." Simply doesn't measure up to his usual wit.

His obvious appreciation of all things British seems genuine and even touching. But beyond that, the book fell flat for me. He devotes too much time to a banal description of his immediate surroundings, and not enough to sharing why this culture matters to him. Susan Allen Toth's travel writing on England is much more insightful, more thoughtful. And I found Joe Bennett's "Mustn't Grumble: In Search of England and the English," a more enjoyable book than "Notes from a Small Island." Bryson is a fine travel writer, but I think this is a sub-par effort, for him.

Posted by
1829 posts

As a mere Englishwoman I have to say, even though it was written over 10 years ago, that he is so right about so much especially the little things. For example, our reaction when being offered a biscuit (cookie), saw it happen a couple of days ago. It is also good to see the familiar through foreign eyes. It is one of the few books that has made me laugh out loud. Caused a few raised eyebrows as I was on the train to work at the time!

On the whole we are not given to much introspective thought about who we are but like to think that we are down to earth and practical (whether true or not). Unlike the French, intellectuals are not widely admired but usually treated with suspicion. Thus our reputation with the French (amongst others) as being somewhat boorish. If you want to read another view of the English have a look at Jeremy Paxman's "The English - Portrait of a People".

BTW - I dip in to BB's book on the English language "Mother Tongue" on a regular basis, fascinating read.

Posted by
356 posts

Linda - I have just read a book called The Secret Life of France by Lucy Wadham which mentions the British and French view of intellectuals. I found it an interesting book as she compares the French and British throughout the book, but she does it in an evenhanded way.

Posted by
10344 posts

Toni: Thanks for the Effingpot webiste, the American's Guide to Speaking British (aka Americans, please don't call it a _____ pack).

click here if you are curious

And Linda: Thanks for the book recommendation!

Posted by
10344 posts

And the quote of the day from Bryson on the Small Island:

"It does rather feel like a place with more past than future." (said of Liverpool)

Posted by
51 posts

Notes from a Small Island is very good, most Bryson books are generally.

There is another book that I found very interesting called Watching the English by a lady called Kate Fox. If I remember correctly she's an Oxford University anthropologist who decided to do an anthropological study of the English. Pretty funny and worth a read.

Posted by
10344 posts

Alex: Thank you for the book recommendation. That might be my next one!