Bill Bryson returns to these shores. In 1994, Notes From a Small Island of course was a huge hit. A travelogue around Britain, written by an American, which meant his observations on the character of our people were as sharp and witty as his observations about the places he visited. I loved the book when it came out – his impassioned rant about Oxford architecture, his elegy for Morecambe, and his curry-precipitated U-turn of opinion on Bradford.
In the Road to Little Dribbling, Bryson – 20 years older too – returns to the theme to see how Britain has changed. Coming across as a genial, erudite ‘grumpy old man’, what I like about Bryson is that he’s not just a travel writer, he researches deeply to teach us obscure stuff we never knew and is not shy to call out injustices as he sees them. Did I know the Settle-Carlisle rail line was engineered by an unsung hero called Charles Sharland, who died at 25, never to see the line completed? No I did not, but there should be a statue of him. As in his previous book, Bryson’s focus is in three areas – architecture, and our total bodging failure to appreciate it and invest in the long-term to preserve the treasures we have, service without a smile (watch batteries in Torquay, anyone?), but fundamentally our beautiful, endlessly explorable countryside.
Bryson is careful not to retrace the exact same steps geographically. He frames the book round a route from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath – of course, quite a wild and wobbly route meaning he can go where he wants! It’s a strange and disappointing thing that of the 26 chapters, 16 are gone before he reaches the Midlands, one chapter covers Wales (but a lovely write-up of Tenby and St Davids by the way), and as for the whole of Scotland? Guess. You might argue that this reflects the population density, but even so, it’s tough treatment for that great nation. Having said that, Bryson is as ever a funny, perceptive and wonderfully opinionated travel writer and long may he remain so.
It might seem strange to combine this review with The Pie at Night – but this is my review and I’ll do what I like! I first heard Stuart Maconie as a music journo, guesting on the Mark Radcliffe show along with Andrew Collins back in the 90s, with acerbic and bitingly funny music reviews. Now, he is for my money among the best homegrown travel writers around. Only nine years younger than Bryson, he feels and writes like a different generation. I’ve previously read and loved Pies and Prejudice, and Adventures on the High Teas, and now Maconie goes in search of what Northern England does for leisure. Be that football, the races, drinking, dancing or the more artful worlds of books, art and music.
Maconie, roots firmly in his native Wigan, describes himself as a romantic about the north’s industrial past, but a hard-headed one. He holds no illusions about a lost golden age of happiness – the reality of industry was back-breaking hard work. But work it was, and in return on precious holidays, those northern workers played hard too, and that is I think what Maconie’s getting at – laiking aht in the north, in whatever form, comes from a communal thing, an intensely shared culture that exists to this day.
And you get Maconie’s deep-rooted love for his North coming through in waves. In contrast to Bryson, his focus is more on characters and people, and he observes and seeks them out in a way that Bryson – more recognisable in the street – probably now cannot. Unashamedly political, Maconie’s writing is rich and lovely and often poignant to read as he travels though Stockport, Blackpool, Todmorden, Halifax, Great Gable and past High Force in Teesdale to name only a few places.
So is The Pie at Night only of interest to northerners then? Would southern people read this as a bit of pious ‘rootsier-than-thou’? I don’t know. I’ll have to ask Jane… but I loved it.
The Pie at Night – In Search of the North at Play