“The Road to Little Dribbling” Essay Review

By Jessica Mohr

Let’s get the boring stuff out of the way first: “The Road to Little Dribbling” by Bill Bryson, published in 2015 by Anchor Books, is a just-shy-of-400-pages text detailing a practiced travel writer’s adventures in Britain, both as a tourist and, eventually, as a citizen. Just following the table of contents is a simple map of England with the relevant cities and nearby bodies of water marked for easy reference, should you get lost while reading. Each chapter, named after a different region or city on the island, details Bryson’s ongoing trials and tribulations associated with being an American in Britain.

What drew me to this book in particular was the time I spent living in London as a requirement for my participation in the Elon Teaching Fellows program. I was a secondary English education major in a past life (the first three years of my undergraduate career), and the fact that Elon wanted to offer me a small scholarship and a prestigious fellowship made it, at the time, a no-brainer to pursue that line of study. Eventually, I did drop the major, but that’s a story for another day. In the spring semester of our sophomore year at Elon, the entire Teaching Fellows cohort was required to go abroad, either to Costa Rica, London, or a country whose native language is your major (i.e. a double major in Elementary Education and French spent the semester in Paris). Since the rest of my English Education peers were going to London, I did as well. Since I had this experience living in London, and traveling around the United Kingdom, I decided it was a good idea to choose a travel writing book about these areas.

We spent just over four months, from January to April, living in a beautiful flat in South Kensington, which was spitting distance to the Gloucester Road and South Kensington tube stops. It was one of the most amazing, transformative, and educational experiences I have had while a student at Elon. I’d never lived anywhere other than the same 10-mile radius in Apex, North Carolina, and the only other places I had visited in the country were Washington, D.C. and Springfield, Pennsylvania where my grandparents lived. I guess you could say that hopping on a plane to the comparatively huge city of London, England was shocking to my smaller-town, Southern mind. However, once my initial culture shock and jet lag wore off, I began to really enjoy myself in this new city. It was fun learning all the quirks of the city, as well as London’s distinct personality, through taking classes, living, and working in London.

While I haven’t spent nearly as much time there as Bryson has, and I’m sure he will continue to rack up more days in the U.K. in the future, my study abroad experience allows me to speak about London as somewhat of an insider. I joke with my family that I wasn’t close to being a native, but, by March, I was scoffing in annoyance at tourists as I speed-walked to the tube twice a day to get to and from work. This is where the bulk of my “research” about the city comes in; first-hand experience. When Bryson discusses the Circle line, and how it is both a slow-moving enigma and definitely not a circle, I thought back to my own experiences with the line. It’s weird and unpredictable and kind of a dump, especially compared to the Jubilee or District lines. Rather than referencing specific bodies of research done on London itself, my experiences and reflections on the time I’ve spent in the city will serve as my primary source of

information. If nothing else, writing this paper will definitely make me nostalgic and want to go back as soon as possible.

My “take” on this book is that its author needs to relax a little bit with his casual elitism. I understand that he is an elderly white individual with a lot of privilege and fame to his name that undoubtedly contribute to the way he speaks about others, but, to me, that only explains his prejudices; it doesn’t excuse them. The general sense that I got was that Bryson is one of those oblivious old white people who just wants things to “go back to the way they were in the good old days,” where segregation was still a thing and women didn’t wear shorts above the knee, lest they be branded with a scarlet A. But at least gas was only a quarter a gallon, amiright? What I’m trying to get at here is that Bryson seems, strongly, to look down on younger generations and their mannerisms. As a person of said younger generation with some of said mannerisms, I didn’t too much enjoy reading about his snooty opinions about the kinds of pop culture I consume, or how stupid we all are because only some of us can’t point out America on a map. That last one, fine, I’m a little appalled as well, but that won’t stop me from defending my geographically challenged peers!

What frustrated me the most about Bryson’s attitude towards the younger generation was actually very early on in the book — section II of the prologue — when Bryson is discussing his learning curve when it comes to British society. He talks for a few pages about how “I am constantly at a loss in this new world,” and “It is a place full of celebrities whose names I don’t know and talents I cannot discern,” among other things. This is a common theme of conversation, that I am willing to bet my student loan debt on, that just about everyone else in my generation has had with someone from Bryson’s generation. For me, this conversation comes up a lot with my grandparents and other extended family; they make some sort of nested-in-truth joke about “oh millennials these days with their cell phones and Kardashians,” and proceed to shit all over my generation for no other discernible reason other than they’re upset that we understand how an iPad works, and they can’t figure it out to save their lives. This pissed off grandparent vibe comes out a lot when Bryson looks down his nose at modern pop culture, which is not something I really care for at all. Something that he needs to understand is that young people today can have a variety of interests, including media that others may deem “trashy” or “vapid,” and still be interesting, well-rounded, decent people. Just because someone enjoys watching Keeping up with the Kardashians from time to time doesn’t automatically make them someone of lower intelligence than someone who doesn’t. With all the nonsense that’s going on in the world today, who doesn’t need some escapism from our childish orange overlord every now and then? Some people like to read books, some people like to go for runs, some people like to binge watch Star Trek, and some people like to turn their brains off and watch reality television. They all have the same potential for assholery as the other.

With this book, Bryson is attempting to give an accurate and detailed account of what it was like for him to live, travel, and investigate in Britain. His adventures to citizenship and travels around the island may be the closest some people get to a trip around England, or perhaps they are using this book as an intro course before jumping headfirst into a trip of their own. His question going in, as it seems to me, would have been “how can I explain British culture across

the island from my perspective as an American?” Overall, this seems to be the goal of Bryson’s account of his own adventures through unfamiliarity with the culture through to eventual citizenship and feeling more like a “local.”

When it comes to the overall genre of travel writing, I believe this book most strongly engages with the traveler/tourist interacting with the “other,” or someone who is unfamiliar to them. Bryson could have gone to a country that is significantly different from his home country of America, which I’m sure would have made for a very different kind of book, but he chose to visit another white-dominated, English-speaking country. Despite this, he still managed to make it sound like he was a stranger in a strange land.

This was odd to me because, when I lived in London, I didn’t feel as out of place as it seems Bryson felt. When I encountered someone different from me, either a British native or otherwise, I didn’t feel inclined to talk about it like I was a white cultural anthropologist deep in the bowels of Samoa for the first time. Granted, the culture outside of London is indeed a little eccentric — I couldn’t understand my Irish host even though his wife swore he was speaking English — but I was always relatively comfortable and adapted relatively easily to the small, occasional quirks that came up. Thinking back, the only times I was especially uncomfortable with what was happening was any time I was in an airport, but that was only because of my paralyzing fear of flying. The people rarely made me twitch to the point where I felt like a complete outsider.

In the grand scheme of things, Bryson’s overall lack of adaptability when it comes to new cultural differences leads me to believe his cultural literacy needs to be questioned. Going in, I was told that he was a great travel writer with many years, experiences, and adventures under his belt; I expected him to be a wise, understanding individual who has obviously learned a lot from his travels. Instead, this book read as if it were written by someone’s curmudgeonly grandfather who hasn’t left the 20-mile radius of his home town except for maybe the occasional business trip to South Dakota.

In order to be considered a culturally literate individual, Bryson would need to reflect on his experiences a little more and learn to understand that difference does not equal deficit. Just because someone is different than him, and may be treating him differently than he has grown used to here in America, doesn’t mean they don’t have the potential to be an equally brilliant and well-rounded individual as he believes himself to be. In order to facilitate my own understanding and enriched reading of the book, I made sure to read a small handful of reviews of the book before I purchased it. My first stop was Amazon reviews, as that was from where I ordered the book. I also read some reviews from Goodreads, which, after reading the book, I found myself agreeing with. Lastly, and unsurprisingly, the reviews within the book were glowing recommendations which praised Bryson’s “humor.” In terms of research regarding history and/or geography, I was fortunate enough to have my own firsthand experience with England to look back on. Instead of staring at a map on Google Images, I went back through the Google Drive folder that contains all the photos I took during my semester abroad in London in order to refresh my memory of the city. When he discussed towns and areas that I was not familiar with, I looked up images and maps to ensure I had an accurate mental picture of where he was taking me.

This review may come off as scathingly negative of Mr. Bryson’s mannerisms, writing, personality, and general existence on the planet…oh, who am I kidding, that’s exactly what it is! There’s no “but” there. Obviously, I am not a fan of Bryson’s. I must reluctantly admit that his perspective, no matter my opinions on how he imparts it with the rest of the world, is certainly a unique one. I doubt there are many other travel writers out there who share both his level of celebrity and cynicism, which can be an interesting way to look at international travel when you are a white American. If you’re an average Joe looking to gather all information possible before hopping on a plane to Heathrow, please promise me that this won’t be the only book about England you read before going over there. England is so much more than what Bryson portrays it to be. If you’re an old, pissed off grandparent type, have a ball! I’m sure you’ve been angrily shaking your fist at me the whole time, if you even made it this far. Enjoy yet another old white man agreeing with your worldview. Regardless of who you are, do us all a favor take Bryson’s words with a grain of salt. The United Kingdom has so much to offer Americans as a multicultural travel experience; we just have to let it.