Sunday, January 24, 2016

Nostalgia ("The Road to Little Dribbling" by Bill Bryson)

In the seventh chapter of The Road to Little Dribbling, author Bill Bryson introduces us to one of his friends, a retired travel editor named John Flinn, by writing that he "loves baseball and shares with me an abiding admiration for the fashion model Cheryl Tiegs as she was forty years ago and, in our memories, will always be." This lone statement--meant, I suppose, as a cheeky commentary on the author's age and overall temperament--is in fact the perfect distillation of everything that is wrong with Bryson's most recent book in one sentence, as he uses much of the travelogue's 375-page run to point out everything about British society, culture, and topography that has changed since the publication of his last memoir about Great Britain, Notes from a Small Island, twenty years ago.

Granted, nostalgia can be a worthwhile topic to explore, as long as the author is cognizant of the silliness behind his or her own feelings, which Bryson frequently claims to be. (And were Bryson writing this in the same style as his other books, there would be little reason to worry. After all, Bryson is one of the few writers who can offer biting criticisms that also come off as exceedingly reasonable and erudite.) But there are more than a few moments--when he finds himself engrossed in a tabloid, for example, or speaking with service workers, or criticizing the British government--when Bryson's frustrations with the changed world around him compel him to let loose with obscenities, invectives, and fantasies of violence, all of which are delivered to the reader without a hint of irony or self-awareness. (This is in contrast to some of Bryson's other books, such as A Walk in the Woods, in which the author depicted himself as cross between intrepid explorer and bumbling old fool, albeit one with an impressively bookish understanding of the world, and delivered his criticisms of people and places with a warm, dry wit.) As we flip from one page to the next--and as Bryson journeys from one location to the next--he punctuates his story with the cynicism and humorlessness of a man who believes he can better connect with an audience through negativity, all the while dismissing such behavior as an inevitability of age. (At 63 he's now considered a senior citizen, a fact he continually presents as though it explains away everything.)

What's especially troublesome is that, in writing about his dejection in the face of a country with which he is suddenly unfamiliar, Bryson's nostalgia is competing against others who, at the same time, are seeing Great Britain in the way Bryson once did. They are young, perhaps the same age as Bryson when he first set out twenty years ago, and they are stopping and seeing the unique, unheralded places that rest beyond the major highways for the very first time. They don't see their country as something to be compared against a mental scrapbook; they see it as Bryson himself once did and still wants to...which, in a way, makes this book not only immediately outdated but also in many ways unnecessary.

That's not to say there aren't moments in which we see the old Bryson return to us. In fact, his grating negativity is mostly consigned to the book's first hundred pages; once they have passed, and Bryson is fully engaged in his journey, he becomes more and more tolerable, until the book begins to read like it should. Bryson offers us historical backstories or short, biographical anecdotes about important people, such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Alexander Keiller, Herbert Ponting, Roger Bannister, Lawrence Bragg, and Basil Brown, among others. (His account of Michael Ventris, which occupies a single paragraph, is simple, straightforward, and entirely heartbreaking.) Without pause, these moments transport us back to the books that made us adore Bryson in the first place--in my case, A Short History of Nearly Everything, followed by A Walk in the Woods and, eventually, At Home and One Summer. But those moments are rare, often interrupted by descriptions of the land--which are not half bad at times--or more of Bryson's complaints.

In pining for Bryson to tell us more of these stories rather than more of his desire for the way things used to be, the reader becomes Bryson himself:  upset that so much has changed so suddenly, that what lies before us is not what we're familiar with or what we expect. (Those moments when Bryson becomes the befuddling yet knowledgeable traveller with whom we are accustomed serve only to remind us of exactly what we're missing out on when those moments end.) Unintentionally, Bryson's sour attitude offers us the best insight into exactly how he feels as he crosses his new home country, except that our nostalgia is for a man rather than an island.

A few pages after introducing us to John Flinn and sharing their affection for a more youthful Cheryl Tiegs, Bryson finds himself sitting in his hotel room watching television...or at least attempting to. As it happens, British television has little to offer our author, and he settles on a nonfiction program--a travelogue, as it happens, in which a former government official "with a taste for annoyingly colorful suits" rides trains across the country:
     Occasionally he would get off the train and spend approximately forty seconds with a local historian who would explain to him why something that used to be there is no longer there.  
     "So this used to be the site of the biggest prosthetics mill in Lancashire?" Michael would say.
     "That's right. Fourteen thousand girls worked here in its heyday."
     "Gosh. And now it's this giant supermarket?"
     "That's right."
     "Gosh. That's progress for you. Well, I'm off to Oldham to see where they used to make sheep dip. Ta-ta."
     And this really was the best thing on.
In moments such as these, one wonders if Bryson isn't making us the target of an elaborate satire, almost like performance art in book form. Surely, we wonder, no one could lack such self-awareness--to bemoan the vacuity of television while simultaneously finding that same vacuity important enough to note in a book...and not just any book, but one in which an older man travels across the county to discover that something that once used to be there is no longer there. Except, in the end, we discover that we are the same. We undertake a journey, only to discover, much to our genuine disappointment, that the man who had once been there may no longer be there anymore.