Read Notes From a Small Island Online

Authors: Bill Bryson

Tags: #Europe, #Humor, #Form, #Travel, #Political, #Essays & Travelogues, #General, #Topic, #England - Civilization - 20th Century, #Non-fiction:Humor, #Bryson, #Great Britain, #England, #Essays, #Fiction, #England - Description and Travel, #Bill - Journeys - England

Notes From a Small Island

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Notes from a Small Island

Notes from a Small Island
Notes from a Small Island
Notes from a Small Island
PROLOGUE
MY FIRST SIGHT OF ENGLAND WAS ON A FOGGY MARCH NIGHT IN 1973
when I arrived on the midnight ferry from Calais. For twenty minutes, the terminal area was aswarm with activity as cars and lorries poured forth, customs people did their duties, and everyone made for the London road. Then abruptly all was silence and I wandered through sleeping, low-lit streets threaded with fog, just like in a Bulldog Drummond movie. It was rather wonderful having an English town all to myself.
The only mildly dismaying thing was that all the hotels and guesthouses appeared to be shut up for the night. I walked as far as the rail station, thinking I'd catch a train to London, but the station, too, was dark and shuttered. I was standing wondering what to do when I noticed a grey light of television filling an upstairs window of a guesthouse across the road. Hooray, I thought, someone awake, and hastened across, planning humble apologies to the kindly owner for the lateness of my arrival and imagining a cheery conversation which included the line, 'Oh, but I couldn't possibly ask you to feed me at this hour. No, honestly -well, if you're quite sure it's no trouble, then perhaps just a roast beef sandwich and a large dill pickle with perhaps some potato salad and a bottle of beer.' The front path was pitch dark and in my eagerness and unfamiliarity with British doorways, I tripped on a step, crashing face-first into the door and sending half a dozen empty milk bottles clattering. Almost immediately the upstairs window opened.
'Who's that?' came a sharp voice.I stepped back, rubbing my nose, and peered up at a silhouette with hair curlers. 'Hello, I'm looking for a room,' I said.
'We're shut.'
'Oh.' But what about my supper?
Try the Churchill. On the front.'
'On the front of what?' I asked, but the window was already banging closed.
The Churchill was sumptuous and well lit and appeared ready to receive visitors. Through a window I could see people in suits in a bar, looking elegant and suave, like characters from a Noel Coward play. I hesitated in the shadows, feeling like a street urchin. I was socially and sartorially ill-suited for such an establishment and anyway it was clearly beyond my meagre budget. Only the previous day, I had handed over an exceptionally plump wad of colourful francs to a beady-eyed Picardy hotelier in payment for one night in a lumpy bed and a plate of mysterious chasseur containing the bones of assorted small animals, much of which had to be secreted away in a large napkin in order not to appear impolite, and had determined thenceforth to be more cautious with expenditures. So I turned reluctantly from the Churchill's beckoning warmth and trudged off into the darkness.
Further along Marine Parade stood a shelter, open to the elements but roofed, and I decided that this was as good as I was going to get. With my backpack for a pillow, I lay down and drew my jacket tight around me. The bench was slatted and hard and studded with big roundheaded bolts that made reclining in comfort an impossibility - doubtless their intention. I lay for a long time listening to the sea washing over the shingle below, and eventually dropped off to a long, cold night of mumbled dreams in which I found myself being pursued over Arctic ice floes by a beady-eyed Frenchman with a catapult, a bag of bolts and an uncanny aim, who thwacked me repeatedly in the buttocks and legs for stealing a linen napkin full of seepy food and leaving it at the back of a dresser drawer of my hotel room. I awoke with a gasp about three, stiff all over and quivering from cold. The fog had gone. The air was now still and clear, and the sky was bright with stars. A beacon from the lighthouse at the far end of the breakwater swept endlessly over the sea. It was all most fetching, but I was far too cold to appreciate it. I dug shiveringly through my backpack and extracted every potentially warming item I could find - a flannel shirt, two sweaters, an extra pair of jeans. I used some woollen socks as
mittens and put a pak of flannel boxer shorts on my head as a kind of desperate headwarmer, then sank heavily back onto the bench and waited patiently for death's sweet kiss. Instead, I fell asleep.
I was awakened again by an abrupt bellow of foghorn, which nearly knocked me from my narrow perch, and sat up feeling wretched but fractionally less cold. The world was bathed in that milky pre-dawn light that seems to come from nowhere. Gulls wheeled and cried over the water. Beyond them, past the stone breakwater, a ferry, vast and well lit, slid regally out to sea. I sat there for some time, a young man with more on his mind than in it. Another booming moan from the ship's foghorn passed over the water, re-exciting the irksome gulls. I took off my sock mittens and looked at my watch. It was 5.55 a.m. I looked at the receding ferry and wondered where anybody would be going at that hour. Where would I go at that hour? I picked up my backpack and shuffled off down the prom, to get some circulation going.
Near the Churchill, now itself peacefully sleeping, I came across an old guy walking a little dog. The dog was frantically trying to pee on every vertical surface and in consequence wasn't so much walking as being dragged along on three legs.
The man nodded a good-morning as I drew level. 'Might turn out nice,' he announced, gazing hopefully at a sky that looked like a pile of wet towels. I asked him if there was a restaurant anywhere that might be open. He knew of a place not far away and directed me to it. 'Best transport caff in Kent,' he said.
'Transport calf?' I repeated uncertainly, and retreated a couple of paces as I'd noticed his dog was straining desperately to moisten my leg.
'Very popular with the lorry drivers. They always know the best places, don't they?' He smiled amiably, then lowered his voice a fraction and leaned towards me as if about to share a confidence. 'You might want to take them pants off your head before you go in.'
I clutched my head - 'Oh!' - and removed the forgotten boxer shorts with a blush. I tried to think of a succinct explanation, but the man was scanning the sky again.
'Definitely brightening up,' he decided, and dragged his dog off in search of new uprights. I watched them go, then turned and walked off down the promenade as it began to spit with rain.
The cafe was outstanding - lively and steamy and deliciously warm. I had a platter of eggs, beans, fried bread, bacon and sausage, witha side plate of bread and marge, and two cups of tea, all for 22p. Afterwards, feeling a new man, I emerged with a toothpick and a burp, and sauntered happily through the streets, watching Dover come to life. It must be said that Dover was not vastly improved by daylight, but I liked it. I liked its small scale and cosy air, and the way everyone said 'Good-morning,' and 'Hello,' and 'Dreadful weather - but it might brighten up,' to everyone else, and the sense that this was just one more in a very long series of fundamentally cheerful, well-ordered, pleasantly uneventful days. No-one in the whole of Dover would have any particular reason to remember 21 March 1973, except for me and a handful of children born that day and possibly one old guy with a dog who had encountered a young fellow with underpants on his head.
I didn't know how early one could decently begin asking for a room in England, so I thought I would leave it till mid-morning. With time on my hands, I made a thorough search for a guesthouse that looked attractive and quiet, but friendly and not too expensive, and at the stroke of ten o'clock presented myself on the doorstep of the one I had carefully selected, taking care not to discompose the milk bottles. It was a small hotel that was really a guesthouse, indeed was really a boarding-house.
I don't remember its name, but I well recall the proprietress, a formidable creature of late middle years called Mrs Smegma, who showed me to a room, then gave me a tour of the facilities and outlined the many complicated rules for residing there - when breakfast was served, how to turn on the heater for the bath, which hours of the day I would have to vacate the premises and during which brief period a bath was permitted (these seemed, oddly, to coincide), how much notice I should give if I intended to receive a phone call or remain out after 10 p.m., how to flush the loo and use the loo brush, which materials were permitted in the bedroom wastebasket and which had to be carefully conveyed to the outside dustbin, where and how to wipe my feet at each point of entry, how to operate the three-bar fire in my bedroom and when that would be permitted (essentially, during an Ice Age). This was all bewilder-ingly new to me. Where I came from, you got a room in a motel, spent ten hours making a lavish and possibly irredeemable mess of it, and left early the next morning. This was like joining the Army.
The minimum stay,' Mrs Smegma went on, 'is five nights at one pound a night, including full English breakfast.'
'Five nights?' I said in a small gasp. I'd only intended to stay the one. What on earth was I going to do with myself in Dover for five days?
Mrs Smegma arched an eyebrow. 'Were you hoping to stay
longer?'
'No,' I said. 'No. As a matter of-'
'Good, because we have a party of Scottish pensioners coming for the weekend and it would have been awkward. Actually, quite impossible.' She surveyed me critically, as she might a carpet stain, and considered if there was anything else she could do to make my life wretched. There was. 'I'm going out shortly, so may I ask that you vacate your room within quarter of an hour?'
I was confused again. 'I'm sorry, you want me to leave? I've just got here.'
'As per the house rules. You may return at four.' She made to depart but then turned back. 'Oh, and do be so good, would you, as to remove your counterpane each night. We've had some unfortunate occurrences with stains. If you do damage the counterpane, I will have to charge you. You do understand, of course?'
I nodded dumbly. And with that she was gone. I stood there, feeling lost and weary and far from home. I'd spent an hysterically uncomfortable night out of doors. My muscles ached, I was dented all over from sleeping on boltheads, and my skin was lightly oiled with the dirt and grit of two nations. I had sustained myself to this point with the thought that soon I would be immersed in a hot, soothing bath, followed by about fourteen hours of deep, peaceful, wallowing sleep, on plump pillows under a downy comforter.
As I stood there absorbing the realization that my nightmare, far from drawing to a close, was only just beginning, the door opened and Mrs Smegma was striding across the room to the strip light above the sink. She had shown me the correct method for turning it on - 'There's no need to yank it. A gentle tug is sufficient' - and evidently remembered that she had left it burning. She turned it off now with what seemed to me a sharp yank, then gave me and the room a final suspicious once-over, and departed again.
When I was sure she was quite gone, I quietly locked the door, drew shut the curtains and had a pee in the sink. I dug a book from my backpack, then stood for a long minute by the door surveying the tidy, unfamiliar contents of my lonely room.'And just what the fuck is a counterpane?' I wondered in a small, unhappy voice and quietly took my leave.
What a different place Britain was in the spring of 1973. The pound was worth $2.46. Average weekly take-home pay was £30.11. A packet of crisps was 5p, a soft drink 8p, lipstick 45p, chocolate biscuits 12p, an iron £4.50, an electric kettle £7, a black-and-white TV £60, a colour TV £300, a radio £16, the average meal out £l. A scheduled airline ticket from New York to London cost £87.45 in winter, £124.95 in summer.  You could have eight days in Tenerife on a Cook's Golden Wings Holiday for £65 or fifteen days from £93. I know all this because before this trip I looked up the issue of The Times for 20 March 1973, the day I arrived in Dover, and it contained a full-page advertisement from the Government outlining how much most of these things cost and how they would be affected by a zippy new tax called VAT, which was to be introduced a week or so later. The gist of the advert was that while some things would go up in price with VAT, some things would also go down. (Ha!) I also recollect from my own dwindling cerebral resources that it cost 4p to send a postcard to America by air, 13p for a pint of beer, and 3 Op for the first Penguin book I ever bought (Billy Liar). Decimalization had just passed its second anniversary, but people were still converting in their heads - 'Good lord, that's nearly six shillings!' - and you had to know that a sixpence was really worth 2%p and that a guinea was £1.05.
A surprising number of headlines from that week could as easily appear today: 'French air traffic controllers strike', 'White Paper calls for Ulster power sharing', 'Nuclear research laboratory to be closed', 'Storms disrupt rail services' and that old standby of cricket reports, 'England collapse' (this time against Pakistan). But the most arresting thing about the headlines from that dimly remembered week in 1973 was how much industrial unrest there was about: 'Strike threat at British Gas Corporation', '2,000 Civil Servants strike', 'No London edition of Daily Mirror', '10,000 laid off after Chrysler men walk out', 'Unions plan crippling action for May Day', '12,000 pupils get day off as teachers strike' - all this from a single week. This was to be the year of the OPEC crisis and the effective toppling of the Heath government (though there wouldn't be a general election until the following February). Before the year was out, there would be petrol rationing and mile-long queues at garages all over the country. Inflation would spiral up to

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