A moving image of Bill Bryson changing outfit and location
A moving image of Bill Bryson changing outfit and location

It's been 25 years since Bill Bryson proved – joyously and definitively – that only an outsider can see the whole truth about where you live.

In our case, finding out that a Johnny Foreigner – an American, no less! – could laugh at us in a way that made us laugh at ourselves came as delightful surprise. 

Notes from a Small Island was about as endearing a portrait of British weirdness as you could hope to find (or in his words, “crazy as f***”) – a love-letter, really, to Bryson's adoptive home, where judges wear “little mops on their heads” and people call complete strangers "mate" or "love".

Ever since that book, Bryson has charmed readers from San Francisco to Farleigh Wallop with his heart-warming brand of avuncular lampoonery, travelling the world and taking the mickey.

But sadly now, after a dizzying writing career, he has announced his retirement. “Whatever time is left to me on this planet I’d like to spend it indulging myself, rather than going out and trying to cover new territory,” he told Times Radio.

So, all hail Bill Bryson – the most insightful, witty and warm-hearted travel writer of the last 25 years. To mark the occasion, here are 15 his best observations.

What a wondrous place this was - crazy as f***, of course, but adorable to the tiniest degree. What other country, after all, could possibly have come up with place names like Tooting Bec and Farleigh Wallop, or a game like cricket that goes on for three days and never seems to start?

Notes from a Small Island

 

I ordered a coffee and a little something to eat and savored the warmth and dryness. Somewhere in the background Nat King Cole sang a perky tune. I watched the rain beat down on the road outside and told myself that one day this would be 20 years ago.

Notes from a Small Island

 

The tearoom lady called me love. All the shop ladies called me love and most of the men called me mate. I hadn't been here twelve hours and already they loved me.

Notes from a Small Island

I’ve said it before in another book, but I believe it’s worth repeating: the only thing special about the elements that make you is that they make you. That is the miracle of life.

The Body: A Guide for Occupants

 

All that is really going in your mouth is texture and chemicals. It is your brain that reads these scentless, flavorless molecules and vivifies them for your pleasure. Your brownie is sheet music. It is your brain that makes it a symphony.

The Body: A Guide for Occupants

 

Every time you breathe, you exhale some 25 sextillion (that’s 2.5 × 1022) molecules of oxygen – so many that with a day’s breathing you will in all likelihood inhale at least one molecule from the breaths of every person who has ever lived.

The Body: A Guide for Occupants

 

I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

I mused for a few moments on the question of which was worse, to lead a life so boring that you are easily enchanted, or a life so full of stimulus that you are easily bored.

The Lost Continent

 

It is a curious feature of our existence that we come from a planet that is very good at promoting life but even better at extinguishing it.

A Short History of Nearly Everything

 

Perhaps it’s my natural pessimism, but it seems that an awfully large part of travel these days is to see things while you still can.

Down Under

Hunters will tell you that a moose is a wily and ferocious forest creature. Nonsense. A moose is a cow drawn by a three-year-old.

A Walk in the Woods

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.

The Road to Little Dribbling

When you write books for a living, you come to realize that while not all people who write to authors are strange, all people who are strange write to authors.

The Road to Little Dribbling

The pleasant fact is that the British are not much good at violent crime except in fiction, which is of course as it should be.

The Road to Little Dribbling

I refer of course to the soaring wonder of the age known as the Eiffel Tower. Never in history has a structure been more technologically advanced, materially obsolescent, and gloriously pointless all at the same time.

At Home: A Short History of Private Life 

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