The world is always in decline if you want it to be. In the 1880s, the English experienced an intense collective wistfulness for the period before 1850, which was the year that railroads had finally connected the country. A simpler era, the feeling went, beer and accents stronger, and people moving only at the pace a horse could take them. Of course, it was also a time when 5-year-olds worked in factories. The rails were what made it easier to cast light onto all the injustices of dim and distant places. You have to be careful when you look backward.
Until now, the wonderful American writer Bill Bryson has always stayed on the right side of that line, consistently a nostalgist, never a pessimist. Alas, “The Road to Little Dribbling,” his new account of travels around England (often by rail, in fact), has crossed it, the author’s tone for the first time no longer so much curmudgeonly as incurably sour. “We live in a world that has practically no appreciation for quality, tradition, or classiness,” he writes early on, and virtually every page thereafter offers some variation on that glum assessment. It diminishes the book — the first of his career, for me, which is only an equivocal pleasure.
“The Road to Little Dribbling” is a sequel to “Notes from a Small Island,” which came out in 1995 and recounted with wry curiosity the Iowan’s first encounters with a country that would soon give him both a wife and a career in journalism. Now, 20 years on and closing in on citizenship, Bryson decides to explore his adopted homeland again. The organizational principle he follows is a neat invention that he denominates the Bryson line, “the farthest you could travel in a straight line without crossing salt water.”
This allows him to visit dozens of small, out-of-the-way places, from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath. (“The most iconic structure on the Settle-to-Carlisle line is Ribblehead Viaduct,” goes one representative and unchallengeable line.) The book is best when Bryson latches onto their forgotten local histories — the life of the bureaucrat who gave Mount Everest its name, for instance, or the charming story of an eccentric Nobel laureate who anonymously took a job as a London gardener. That makes sense, since as he has aged, Bryson has shifted from his early travel narratives — such as “In a Sunburned Country” and “A Walk in the Woods,” with their beautiful comic flights — toward books that are equally superb but more heavily based in research, like “A Short History of Nearly Everything” and “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid.”
Unfortunately, being back out on the road seems to have brought out the worst in him. “The Road to Little Dribbling” suffers from, to borrow Alfred Kazin’s devastating criticism of H.L. Mencken, a fatal want of generosity. It’s hard to believe that so original and perceptive a writer could rant with such banality about tabloid stars (“I hate to sound like an old man, but why are these people famous?”) and modern youth (“Is it really just me getting old or is it actually the case that all people under the age of thirty are basically now about ten years old?”).
But in fact that’s only the start. I gasped at the scene in which Bryson notices a boy littering, then says, “if Britain is ever going to sort itself out, it is going to require a lot of euthanasia.” What makes this so ugly, even as a joke, is that it’s about a child, and for that matter a child of the working class, a “little oik.” It appears that Bryson has internalized England’s worst trait, its classism — he is astonished and heartbroken, later, when a woman in a Patagonia jacket undertips. Has he missed the last few decades? It was all people in Patagonia jackets who brought the thing down, not the ones in soccer shirts.
The good news, paradoxically, is that “The Road to Little Dribbling” feels so perfunctory. Bryson barely adheres to the Bryson line, sticking mostly within shouting distance of London, where his family is conveniently located; there’s an overwhelming and occasionally even explicit awareness that he’s attempting to cash in on the popularity of his earlier book. I certainly have my fingers crossed that this is what accounts for this sequel’s dispiritedness, indeed its mean-spiritedness. Bryson has given me hundreds of hours of happiness, and owes me nothing. But I dearly hope that he has more than this left to give.