I’ve sung praise for Bill Bryson before, and his new(est) book earns more.
It suffers slightly relative to his other travel books by being more formulaic – arrive at a destination, describe the high street, drop a quip, move onto local history – but it’s at least a formula that works.
For me, reading Bill is a reminder that seeing new places is an opportunity to expose yourself to things that will provoke new insightful and interesting thoughts, and then give you room to think them. In Dribbling this element remains the same.
Bill’s underlying route this time is ‘The Bryson Line’, a line he defines as the longest possible straight line through Britain, from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath.
However the route is quickly sidelined / abandoned completely and replaced with his traditional wandering, writing and wondering along the way.
I think that part of the talent of travel writing is a knack for finding convincing routes and destinations, but a bigger part is having the means and desire to describe these in a way that generates interest, whether with written words or raconteured tales. The final part is having the mind that processes the novel locations in a way that generates insights.
I think any two of these three things is required to be compelling. Ted Simon has his most insightful passages on a dilapidated tanker ship crossing the Pacific (this doesn’t fulfil point one). Countless people around the world have interesting insights in novel locations, but they don’t tell anyone else about them (this doesn’t fulfil point two). Recounting a casual story ticks boxes one and two.
The real compelling travel author manages all 3.
Reading Bill – here or elsewhere – you get his accounts of cool, deliberately sought out places. You get poetic descriptions of places he chanced upon and you get honest descriptions of shitty places. You also get nuggets of wisdom: a quote that perfectly sums up a place (London ~”centuries of happy mistakes”) and, less frequently but in my opinion most importantly, are the profound insights like the one below, which are the reason I read his new books:
“Large parts of my life are the result of decisive actions taken by others”.
This insight taps into a realisation of Alex’s from earlier this year: “we’re adults now, we can do whatever the fuck we like”. The Road to Little Dribbling was another vicarious reminder from Bill to have the courage to do what the fuck you like in life, but this time with the caveat of remembering that your life is ultimately the result of infinite random decisions of nature and of actions (both random and decisive) taken by others.
Instead of this being a prompt to feel like you’re unimportant, it is instead hugely liberating: there are no expectations, no obligations, no benchmarks except, ultimately, the ones you assign to yourself.
You can literally do whatever the fuck you like.
Although to clarify: you probably can’t be the next Michael Jackson, no matter how much the fuck you would like to be. What you can do, however, is prioritise actions that would lead you on that trajectory.and decline to do things that would distract you from it.
These are your prerogatives.
I think we’re tricked into believing (either intentionally or otherwise) that we can’t achieve our dreams because they’re too specific. So don’t try to be a millionaire or be famous: try to be smarter with how you spend your money, change the things you value, do what you enjoy, and seek wealth and recognition that way.
If your goals and desires are built on solid and examined bedrocks you won’t encounter cruel phenomena like becoming a millionaire but remaining unfulfilled and unhappy.
That whole tangent also taps into Bill’s insight above: in that it arose because a German pilot bombed a cottage in WW2, which led to Bill Bryson’s wife’s dad being relocated, leading to his meeting Bill Brysons’ wife’s mum, them having a child who became Bill Bryson’s wife who then met a young Bill Bryson and changed the trajectory of his life in a way that saw him visit Runnymede, experience a particularly interesting synapse firing, write about it, and inspire me and countless others in turn.
Overall, a good read.