When asked to write about my favourite book for Reaction, at first my mind went completely blank. Then it leapt backwards over fifty years, to my favourite childhood reads – Heidi, Swallows and Amazons, Little Women. Favourites yes, but favourite? Then a leap forward to when my boys were small and I spent lots of bedtime reading to them. Charlotte’s Web, Where’s Wally! And we just caught the beginning of Harry Potter which certainly improved bedtimes for me at least!
I absolutely loved Wolf Hall. I remember one Christmas retiring under the duvet and gulping it down in great dollops of enjoyment.
But I am going to cheat and opt for favourite author rather than book. Bill Bryson informs and entertains in every book. Checking on Amazon I am thrilled to see that there are some left to enjoy.
I still need to read A Short History of Nearly Everything. And I will. As a family we all enjoyed listening to At Home on a long car journey.
I remember reading, and loving, Notes from a Small Island when it was published over twenty years ago. And I enjoyed The Road to Little Dribbling, More Notes from a Small Island, published in 2015, even more. So, 20 years on, Bill Bryson is persuaded (by his publisher) to revisit the hills, dales, small villages and ancient monuments of the UK. Rather than retrace his steps moaning (as many of us would) about how much things have gone downhill, Mr Bryson decides to take the longest straight-line route possible. Not Land’s End to John O’Groats’, but, as he explains, the longest straight line runs from Bognor Regis on the south coast to the most north-westerly point of Great Britain, Cape Wrath in Scotland.
He doesn’t in fact stick to the line or anything like it, with diversions to Devon, Cornwall, the Lake District and Durham, and the book is all the more entertaining for it.
Much of his humour lies in the venom he unleashes on rude, ignorant people, high charges for viewing historic monuments, unclean hotels or restaurants that won’t serve Sunday lunch. Some of his insights and frustrations are uncomfortable for us British. They all ring loud bells.
He can turn on a sixpence from being lyrical to political to mischievous. During a rant about a tour round Blenheim Palace, he writes: “The rooms were small and airless and cramped. To make matters worse, somebody in our group was making the most dreadful silent farts. Fortunately, it was me, so I wasn’t nearly as bothered as the others.” Lots more laugh out loud moments like this.
His brilliance is in bringing the country to life not just by describing the things he sees, but by giving voice to the people he meets. “There isn’t a landscape in the world that is more artfully worked, more lovely to behold, more comfortable to be in than the countryside of Great Britain.” A reminder how lucky we are to live here.
Baroness Jenkin of Kennington is a Conservative member of the House of Lords.