Cycling home the other day I whizzed past a small tatty tree with little bits of laminated paper tied to its branches. I stopped and went back to investigate because that’s the kind of thing Bill Bryson would have done. This tree, I was informed, had been dedicated by the Living Poetry Society, to the memory of Robin Williams and those affected by suicide.
Its a random tree in south London between a burger bar and a busy main road. Opposite is a park full of lovely old trees with low-hanging branches and lots of visitors, so it seems odd that they should pick this neglected specimen. Is there a reason, a story? It doesn't say. Had he been with me I bet Bryson would've ferreted it out. He's drawn to these small, slightly odd, immensely touching signs of humanity like a moth to a flame.
Not wishing to repeat himself, Bryson plotted a line the length of Britain from Bognor Regis in southern England to Cape Wrath on Scotland's north coast that didn’t cross saltwater at any point. The idea was to travel along it, deviating occasionally, and avoiding the places he'd visited in the first book.
Some hope. He weaves his way across the map of Britain like a snail meandering up the garden path. He does, to be fair start in Bognor, but almost immediately he finds himself back in Dover wondering how much it has changed since he last wrote about it. He spends a good deal of time in Cornwall and Devon and then circles like a plane round London, visiting Wraysbury, the proposed site of Heathrow's third runway, the Holloway Sanatorium for "well-off deranged people" (now apartments) where he met his wife (a nurse), and Windsor Great Park, all while waiting for his grand-daughter, Rosie to be born. "Don't go too far," his wife has told him.
But his journalist's eye for a good story however silly, scandalous or ridiculous is as sharp as ever and the dryness of his humour is a joy as he skewers the ridiculous and the scandalous and elevates the funny and the charming. From the changing face of our villages, to the poor state of tea room cake and the outrageous price of a cuppa, to the Sellafield Disaster, he is never less than entertaining.
Bill Bryson is in a fortunate position: enough of an outsider to see us clearly, enough of an insider to appreciate our eccentricities, large and small and even, after 40 years, to acquire a few of his own. In a time when we struggle to make sense of our national identity, Mr Bryson reminds what it is to be British.