Thursday, 4 June 2009

To see oursel's as others see us!

Well the full Robert Burns Quotation is:

“Oh wad some power the giftie gie us,
To see oursel's as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
And foolish notion”

Well it's no bad thing, trying to understand how other nationalities view you and I do like a laugh, so I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s Notes From A Small Island, again! Well here's someone who certainly can let us Brits see ourselves as an American sees us.

He’s one of the best authors I’ve come across at making me laugh. The other was David Niven!

The first time I came across Bill Bryson was when I told a colleague I was going on holiday to Malta. The next day she handed me a copy of Bill Bryson’s book, Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe. Now I know that although she had travelled to lots of countries, but for some reason she had never fancied the idea of going to Malta. She shuddered when I told her I was going. So maybe she thought I would need some cheering up. Now I had always wanted to go to see the island that withstood so much of a battering from the Germans during WW11 that the George Cross was awarded to its people in 1942 for their heroism. My dad had been there too during the war when he was in the Royal Navy and he loved it.

After we landed at Luqa airport we stood for quite a long time in the queue at passport control. It appeared that the people working there had just suddenly downed tools and left. At least three planes had come in, German passengers were in front of us and Italians behind us. Still nobody deigned to come and look at our passports. After about 10 minutes I decided to get the book out and start reading to pass the time away.

Now I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for with this book. I just packed it in my hand luggage without looking at it. As I read it I realised this was just my kind of humour. I tried to hold my laugh in, smirking, grinning and gritting my teeth, but eventually I couldn’t hold it in and laughed out loud. If you’ve never done this whilst reading a book in a public place, I can tell you it’s very embarrassing. You feel like you’re a bit of a looney, well you can’t exactly share the joke. I was embarrassed and looked up to see if anyone was looking, apart from my husband who had given up on me. Well a German lady was looking and as my eyes caught hers, she smiled and gave me the thumbs up. At least she didn’t think I was a fruit and nutcase. From then on I've been hooked on Bill Bryson's writing!

So back to Notes from a Small Island (Great Britain for anyone who hasn’t read it). He has a good understanding of Britain and the British, probably better than most British people! However, what I don’t understand about Bill Bryson is how he can look at all our faults here in Britain and find them endearing. Amazing!

I love the record of his nostalgia trip around Britain in 1995, before he returned to live in the USA which is recorded in his book Notes From a Small Island. Things have changed a bit since 1995 but I hope not too much.It’s interesting to see ourselves as others see us and Bill Bryson certainly has the gift of getting you to see how other people see you. When he’s writing about it, it’s more than interesting, it’s thought provoking and often hilarious.

Our Attitude to Pleasure

One of our peculiar quirks he notes is our attitude to pleasure:

"I used to be puzzled by the British attitude to pleasure, and that tireless, dogged optimism of theirs that allowed them to attach an upbeat turn of phrase to the direst inadequacies – “well, it makes a change”, “mustn’t grumble”, “ you could do worse”, “it’s not much, but it’s cheap and cheerful”, “it was quite nice really” – but gradually I came round to their way of thinking and my life has never been happier.

I remember finding myself sitting in damp clothes in a cold café on a dreary seaside promenade and being presented with a cup of tea and a teacake and going “Oooh lovely!”, and I knew then that the process had started. Before long I came to regard all kinds of activities – asking for more toast in a hotel, buying wool-rich socks at Marks and Spencer, getting two pairs of trousers when I only needed one – as something daring, very nearly illicit. My life became immensely richer."

He’s right you know, we are so easily pleased by the little things here in Britain. It’s probably a throw back to the war years. Those of us who remember sweetie rationing after the war still can’t believe that we can buy unlimited supplies of chocolate. Me, I can’t believe my luck when I get a decent cup of coffee in cafes now, something you take for granted in places like Spain. Even the greasiest spoon café serves fabulous coffee.

Communist Britain?

Another thing I found fascinating was Bill Bryson’s thoughts about what Britain would have been like under Communism.

It has long seemed to me unfortunate – and I’m taking the global view here – that such an important experiment in social organisation was left to the Russians when the British would have managed it so much better. All those things that are necessary to the successful implementation of a rigorous socialist system are, after all, second nature to the British. For a start, they like going without. They are great at pulling together, particularly in the face of adversity, for a perceived common good. They will queue patiently for indefinite periods and accept with rare fortitude the impositioning of rationing, bland diets and sudden inconvenient shortages of staple goods, as anyone who has ever looked for bread at a supermarket on a Saturday afternoon will know.

They are comfortable with faceless bureaucracies and, as Mrs Thatcher proved, tolerant of dictatorships. They will wait uncomplainingly for years for an operation or the delivery of a household appliance. They have a natural gift for making jokes about authority without seriously challenging it, and they derive universal satisfaction from the sight of the rich and the powerful brought low. Most of those above twenty five already dress like Eastern Germans. The conditions, in a word, are right.

Please understand, I’m not saying that Britain would have been a happier, better place under Communism, merely that the British would have done it properly. They would have taken it in their stride, with good heart, and without excessive cheating. In point of fact, until about 1970 it wouldn’t have made the slightest discernible difference to most people’s lives, and might at least have spared us Robert Maxwell."

Oh how right you are Bill. We did put up with Mrs Thatcher for far too long, now I have no idea why we did that. Why didn’t we stand and shout outside 10 Downing Street “You’re a monster! You’re selling off all the country's assets to your rich cronies” She really was a monster, but we don’t do that kind of thing. We save the whales, march to stop new airport runways being built and stop children being smacked. What wimps.

However I think things are changing here, the media has got hold of what’s become the latest political scandal about the expenses MPs are claiming. Things such as swimming pools, chandeliers and cleaners for their second homes when the rest of us are struggling to hang onto our first ones. People are really incensed by it and yes it’s a disgrace, but it’s not illegal, well not all of the claims, but it is immoral in the current climate. Day after day it goes on and it’s become the main topic of virtually every TV news and discussion programme. The media are feasting on it! So come on Gordon! Just get your act together, reform the expenses and haul those greedy MPs into line before we all die of boredom!

Yes, we do stand in queues for hours and expect others to do the same. Well why shouldn’t they if we have to. You’ve probably heard the moaning and whinging when you go on holiday and the Germans or Russians try to jump the queue. Mind you the road rage phenomenon has reared its ugly head since this book was written, so maybe we are changing, a little. For the worse!

Another thing I’m not so sure about is the dressing like East Germans bit, but then again I don’t know what East Germans dressed like in 1995. It might have been like those horrendous shell suits that people of all ages, shapes and sizes went mad for here in the ‘nineties. Gross! However I bet it was nothing like the apparel of a couple of fifty plus year olds I saw the other day. They were tattooed and hairy, wearing leather biking gear; Bill didn’t visit Washington, the English one) so maybe we’re the exception to the rule.

I've been wittering on here for ages so think I’d better start drawing this to a conclusion and what better topic to finish on than the weather. The favourite topic of conversation of the British.

Our attitude to it bewilders Bill! Apparently he carries a weather forecast clipping taken from The Western Daily Mail:

"Outlook: Dry and warm, but cooler with some rain.”

As he comments;

“There you have in a single pithy sentence the English weather captured to perfection.” (I assume he means British, rather than just English).

“To an outsider the most striking thing about the English weather is that there isn’t very much of it at all. All those phenomena that elsewhere give nature an edge of excitement, unpredictability and danger – tornadoes, monsoons, raging blizzards, run-for-your-life hailstorms – are almost wholly unknown in the British Isles, and this is fine by me. I like wearing the same type of clothing every day of the year. I appreciate not needing air conditioning and mesh screens on the windows to keep out the kind of insects and flying animals that drain your blood or eat away your face while you are sleeping.

I like knowing that so long as I do not go walking up Ben Nevis in carpet slippers in February I will almost certainly never perish from the elements in this soft and gentle country.”

Well I have to say that’s an admirable expression of satisfaction with our weather system here. Not sure the rest of us feel the same though. We seem to like complaining about it despite the fact that most of us have lived with it all our lives.

Why aren’t we conditioned to it? Why do we complain about snow showers in April and May when it happens most years? One thing I really don’t understand is that we complain about our poor summers and yet they are the norm. However if we do get happen to get a hot one and yes it does happen, occasionally, people go mad complaining about the heat and the lack of rain. Come on, get a grip, you either want hot weather or you don’t.

When it comes to the weather I have to admit that we British are prone to hyperbole and Bill Bryson notes this:

“… As I sat eating my breakfast in the dining room of The Old England Hotel in Bowness - on -Windemere, two days after leaving Morecambe, I was reading an article in The Times about an unseasonable snowstorm - a “blizzard”, The Times called it-that had gripped parts of East Anglia. According to The Times report, the storm had covered parts of the region with “more than two inches of snow” and created “drifts of up to six inches high. In response to this, I did something I had never done before: I pulled out my notebook and drafted a letter to the editor in which I pointed out, in a kindly helpful way, that two inches of snow cannot possibly constitute a blizzard and that six inches of snow is not a drift. A blizzard I explained, is when you can’t get your door open. Drifts are things that make you lose your car ‘til spring.”

I hope you’ve enjoyed these extracts from Notes From A Small Island whether you’ve read the book or not. There are lots of topics I haven't covered like our attitude to our heritage, his feelings about Oxford, our Ordinance Survey maps and British buildings he would like to blow up.
I can't resist going back to it and re reading some extremely funny bits, he makes me laugh out loud and really cheers me up. If you want to find out more about Bill Bryson take a look at the official website.

I will add that, thank goodness for us, Bill Bryson eventually came back to England to live. He became Chancellor of Durham University and is now part of the campaign to protect rural England.
Good lad Bill! Keep up the good work.
Oh yes, we had a great holiday in Malta and one day I'll go back there.


  1. On a selfish and local note, I have this on my couchsurfing page.

    "I fell in love with Durham instantly in a serious way,
    "Why, it's wonderful - a perfect little city - and I kept thinking: "Why did no-one tell me about this? If you have never been to Durham, go at once; it's wonderful"
    Notes From A Small Island, by Bill Bryson, 1995

    I have really enjoyed his travel books, although the history and literature books are heavy going. I'm often reminded by my OH of a comment I made when he was reading 'A Walk in the Woods', "what's that about then?", apparently the clue was in the title...It was about a hike Bill took the The Appalachians.

  2. Winifred, I have to stop and get a copy of this sounds like fun reading :)
    Thank you for recommending it...
    There a re lots of times, old sayings pop into my head, and make light of moments, but then I think...who will understand what I mean, and just let it go.
    I'm tempted to use them anyway.

  3. "he can look at all our faults here in Britain and find them endearing"

    I should think this would be one of his greatest tools.

    "the expenses MPs are claiming."

    Not to forget cleaning the jolly old moat!

    "Outlook: Dry and warm, but cooler with some rain.”

    Well, there you have it, something for everyone.

    I am a great admirer of the English, partly because of their (your) comedy, and partly because of all those WWII documentaries in which people came out of the air raid shelters each morning and made breakfast in their bombed-out homes. Those old films just rip me apart, and cause me to say with all my heart, "God bless you over there on the other side of the big lake."

  4. Of all your very entertaining posts, this has to be one of the fact one of the best ones I have read of all blogs I have visited. I think Britain is changing, and like you, not for the better. Too much Too soon is a saying which springs to mind...all those sayings are sayings I grew up with but I wonder how many of todays young have heard them?
    But it is good to see, when faced with disasters, we still pull together with amazing braveness and community spirit..maybe if the press reported some of that occassionaly rather than just the crimes and corruption, it would remind us of our identity as an Island nation, and allow us some pride again for being British.

    A fantastic, thought provoking post. Well done, worthy of any literary award!

  5. Thanks everyone for your lovely comments.

    Jordylass- I didn't put that bit about Durham in the posting. My husband tells me that we shouldn't tell anyone about how great this area is. We should keep it quiet in case lots of people want to move here. Durham certainly is a gem but unfortunately the planners have spoilt some of it. That old National Savings Department building now the Passport Office is a disgrace. The Prince Bishops Shopping Centre isn't much better.
    I haven't read any of his other books only the travel ones. I didn't like A Walk in the Woods as much as his other books but I can't remember why. Need to go back and read it again, my memory is terrible.

    A Brit in Tennessee - His travel books are so funny and you can read them over and over and still laugh. They really do make you laugh out loud. I'd just use the sayings anyway Jo. I use the ones I remember and my children haven't a clue what I'm talking about.

    Snowbrush - Yes our MPs are coming in for some stick at the moment. The media are having a field day, have to say I've got no sympathy for the greedy rats.
    I love the old war films, I look out for them even though they are in black and white. I wonder how on earth people coped with the fact that apart from the bombing, they could have been invaded every day. They were an amazing generation of people and I don't think we'll see their like again. We're all too soft.

    Gaynor - Yes it's sad that Britian is changing so fast, not always for the better. Don't you get sick of hearing all the doom and gloom while there are so many other amazing things happening nationally and locally. You're right we need to hear more about them.

  6. I saw some of his books when I was at a book fair and could have gotten them for a dollar. Now I wish I had. I like to read books like that.

  7. "I love the old war films, I look out for them even though they are in black and white."

    Even though? Unless terrific scenery is involved, I kind of like b&w. I would even hazard a guess that most of what I watch is old and there black and white.

    You got though, I trust, that I wasn't speaking about films as in fiction, but films as in documentaries.

  8. I laughed out loud many times while reading this book. I think it is his best. But of course, it is geared to what an American thinks of England, even if it is familiar (thanks to my husband). Meanwhile, I love his other books but not like this one ... his one about Australia is amusing, and there are a couple I tried to read but didn't get far (the one about language) ... he's a hoot and does it better than anyone else.

  9. So, what of your trip? Did you ever make it past customs?

  10. I'm a big BB fan and have all his books, I think he's a brilliant narrator of life.


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