You wonder if the publishing phenomenon that is Bill Bryson would have shifted the mountain of books that he has if he had been called something else – say, Derek Goodchild or Miles Trotter, or, indeed, William McGuire, which are his first and middle names.
The name Bill Bryson suits the persona the author presents to perfection. It is comfortably alliterative, cosily ordinary, slightly old-fashioned. It sits easily with spectacles and a friendly beard, tweed jacket, roomy corduroys and scuffed shoes, which is how Bryson is often photographed. His trick, a kind of genius, is to have infiltrated our national life to the point of becoming almost an institution, while cannily hanging on to his immigrant status as the faux-naïf from Des Moines, Iowa. He came to live among us and to look like one of us, yet sees us and things about us – things comical, absurd, sweet and mysterious – that we cannot see ourselves.
This latest examination of British peculiarities and virtues is the sequel to Notes from a Small Island, published twenty years ago. As Bryson tells the story, the notion came from his publisher: ‘in his eyes I could see little glinting pound signs where his irises normally were.’ And why not?