Quotes from Notes from a Small Island

Bill Bryson ·  324 pages

Rating: (77.5K votes)


“I know this goes without saying, but Stonehenge really was the most incredible accomplishment. It took five hundred men just to pull each sarsen, plus a hundred more to dash around positioning the rollers. Just think about it for a minute. Can you imagine trying to talk six hundred people into helping you drag a fifty-ton stone eighteen miles across the countryside and muscle it into an upright position, and then saying, 'Right, lads! Another twenty like that, plus some lintels and maybe a couple of dozen nice bluestones from Wales, and we can party!' Whoever was the person behind Stonehenge was one dickens of a motivator, I'll tell you that.”
― Bill Bryson, quote from Notes from a Small Island


“Suddenly, in the space of a moment, I realized what it was that I loved about Britain - which is to say, all of it. Every last bit of it, good and bad - Marmite, village fetes, country lanes, people saying 'mustn't grumble' and 'I'm terribly sorry but', people apologizing to me when I conk them with a nameless elbow, milk in bottles, beans on toast, haymaking in June, stinging nettles, seaside piers, Ordnance Survey maps, crumpets, hot-water bottles as a necessity, drizzly Sundays - every bit of it.

What a wondrous place this was - crazy as fuck, 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? Who else would think it not the least odd to make their judges wear little mops on their heads, compel the Speaker of the House of Commons to sit on something called the Woolsack, or take pride in a military hero whose dying wish was to be kissed by a fellow named Hardy? ('Please Hardy, full on the lips, with just a bit of tongue.') What other nation in the world could possibly have given us William Shakespeare, pork pies, Christopher Wren, Windsor Great Park, the Open University, Gardners' Question Time and the chocolate digestive biscuit? None, of course.

How easily we lose sight of all this. What an enigma Britain will seem to historians when they look back on the second half of the twentieth century. Here is a country that fought and won a noble war, dismantled a mighty empire in a generally benign and enlightened way, created a far-seeing welfare state - in short, did nearly everything right - and then spent the rest of the century looking on itself as a chronic failure. The fact is that this is still the best place in the world for most things - to post a letter, go for a walk, watch television, buy a book, venture out for a drink, go to a museum, use the bank, get lost, seek help, or stand on a hillside and take in a view.

All of this came to me in the space of a lingering moment. I've said it before and I'll say it again. I like it here. I like it more than I can tell you.”
― Bill Bryson, quote from Notes from a Small Island


“And I find chopsticks frankly distressing. Am I alone in thinking it odd that a people ingenious enough to invent paper, gunpowder, kites and any number of other useful objects, and who have a noble history extending back 3,000 years haven't yet worked out that a pair of knitting needles is no way to capture food?”
― Bill Bryson, quote from 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.”
― Bill Bryson, quote from Notes from a Small Island


“To an American the whole purpose of living, the one constant confirmation of continued existence, is to cram as much as sensual pleasure as possible into one's mouth more or less continuously. Gratification, instant and lavish, is a birthright”
― Bill Bryson, quote from Notes from a Small Island



“Do you like that?" I'll say in surprise since it doesn't seem like her type of thing, and she'll look at me as if I'm mad.
That!?" She'll say, "No, it's hideous"
Then why on earth," I always want to say, "did you walk all the way over there to touch it?" but of course...I have learned to say nothing when shopping because no matter what you say... Read more - "I'm hungry", "I'm bored", "My feet are tired", "Yes, that one looks nice on you too", "Well, have both of them", "Oh, for fuck sake", "Can't we just go home", "Monsoon? Again? Oh for fuck sake", "then why on earth did you walk all the way over there to touch it?" - it doesn't pay, so I say nothing.”
― Bill Bryson, quote from Notes from a Small Island


“...it occurred to me, not for the first time, what a remarkably small world Britain is. That is its glory, you see--that it manages at once to be intimate and small scale, and at the same time packed to bursting with incident and interest. I am constantly filled with admiration at this--at the way you can wander through a town like Oxford and in the space of a few hundred yards pass the home of Christopher Wren, the buildings where Halley found his comet and Boyle his first law, the track where Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile, the meadow where Lewis Carroll strolled; or how you can stand on Snow's Hill at Windsor and see, in a single sweep, Windsor Castle, the playing fields of Eton, the churchyard where Gray wrote his "Elegy," the site where The Merry Wives of Windsor was performed. Can there anywhere on earth be, in such a modest span, a landscape more packed with centuries of busy, productive attainment?”
― Bill Bryson, quote from Notes from a Small Island


“When the Duke [W.J.C. Scott-Bentinck] died, his heirs found all of the aboveground rooms devoid of furnishings except for one chamber in the middle of which sat the Duke's commode. The main hall was mysteriously floor less. Most of the rooms were painted pink. The one upstairs room in which the Duke had resided was packed to the ceiling with hundreds of green boxes, each of which contained a single dark brown wig. This was, in short, a man worth getting to know.”
― Bill Bryson, quote from Notes from a Small Island


“By the time I had finished my coffee and returned to the streets, the rain had temporarily abated, but the streets were full of vast puddles where the drains where unable to cope with the volume of water. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you would think that if one nation ought by now to have mastered the science of drainage, Britain would be it.”
― Bill Bryson, quote from Notes from a Small Island


“Is it raining out?’ the reception girl asked brightly as I filled in the registration card between sneezes and pauses to wipe water from my face with the back of my arm. ‘No, my ship sank and I had to swim the last seven miles.”
― Bill Bryson, quote from Notes from a Small Island



“Among the many thousands of things that I have never been able to understand, one in particular stands out. That is the question of who was the first person who stood by a pile of sand and said, “You know, I bet if we took some of this and mixed it with a little potash and heated it, we could make a material that would be solid and yet transparent. We could call it glass.” Call me obtuse, but you could stand me on a beach till the end of time and never would it occur to me to try to make it into windows.”
― Bill Bryson, quote from Notes from a Small Island


“I had recently read that 3.7 million Americans, according to a Gallup poll, believed that they had been abducted by aliens at one time or another, so it was clear that my people needed me."

--On his move back to America after living in England for twenty years.”
― Bill Bryson, quote from Notes from a Small Island


“Second, you are alive. For the tiniest moment in the span of eternity you have the miraculous privilege to exist.”
― Bill Bryson, quote from Notes from a Small Island


“I can never understand why Londoners fail to see that they live in the most wonderful city in the world. It is, if you ask me, far more beautiful and interesting than Paris and more lively than anywhere but New York—and even New York can’t touch it in lots of important ways. It has more history, finer parks, a livelier and more varied press, better theaters, more numerous orchestras and museums, leafier squares, safer streets, and more courteous inhabitants than any other large city in the world.”
― Bill Bryson, quote from Notes from a Small Island


“It sometimes occurs to me that the British have more heritage than is good for them. In a country where there is so astonishingly much of everything, it is easy to look on it as a kind of inexhaustible resource.”
― Bill Bryson, quote from Notes from a Small Island



“I passed the time browsing in the windows of the many tourists shops that stand along it, reflecting on what a lot of things the Scots have given the world—kilts, bagpipes, tam-o’-shanters, tins of oatcakes, bright yellow sweaters with big diamond patterns, sacks of haggis—and how little anyone but a Scot would want them. Let”
― Bill Bryson, quote from Notes from a Small Island


“Oh, go on' you prod encouragingly. 'Well, just a small one then,' they say and dartingly take a small one, and then get a look as if they have just done something terribly devilish. All this is completely alien to the American mind. To an American the whole purpose of living, the one constant confirmation of continued existence, is to cram as much sensual pleasure as possible into one's mouth more or less continuously. Gratification, instant and lavish, is a birthright. You might as well say 'Oh, I shouldn't really' if someone tells you to take a deep breath.”
― Bill Bryson, quote from Notes from a Small Island


“We clambered for hours up vast, perpendicular slopes, over clattering scree and lumpy tussocks, round towering citadels of rock, and emerged at length into a cold, bleak, lofty nether world so remote and forbidding that even the sheep were startled to see us.”
― Bill Bryson, quote from Notes from a Small Island


“Nothing gives the English more pleasure, in a quiet but determined sort of way, than to do things oddly.”
― Bill Bryson, quote from Notes from a Small Island


“This is something that has been puzzling me for years. Women will stand there watching their items being rung up, and then when the till lady says, ‘That’s £4.20, love,’ or whatever, they suddenly look as if they’ve never done this sort of thing before. They go ‘Oh!’ and start rooting in a flustered fashion in their handbag for their purse or chequebook, as if no-one had told them that this might happen.”
― Bill Bryson, quote from Notes from a Small Island



“Calais is an interesting place that exists solely for the purpose of giving English people in shell suits somewhere to go for the day.”
― Bill Bryson, quote from Notes from a Small Island


“Here are instructions for being a pigeon: (1) Walk around aimlessly for a while, pecking at cigarette butts and other inappropriate items. (2) Take fright at someone walking along the platform and fly off to a girder. (3) Have a shit. (4) Repeat.”
― Bill Bryson, quote from Notes from a Small Island


“The fact is that the British have a totally private sense of distance. This is most visibly seen in the shared pretense that Britain is a lonely island in the middle of an empty green sea. Of course, the British are all aware, in an abstract sort of way, that there is a substantial landmass called Europe nearby and that from time to time it is necessary to go over there to give old Jerry a drubbing or have a holiday in the sun, but it’s not nearby in any meaningful sense in the way that, say, Disney World is.”
― Bill Bryson, quote from Notes from a Small Island


“And so one more to the wandering road. Beyond Blackheath the highway began a steep and curvaceous descent towards Lithgow, where it skirted along hem of the mountains...”
― Bill Bryson, quote from Notes from a Small Island


“I took a train to Liverpool. they were having a festival when I arrived. Citizens had taken time off from their busy activities to add crisp packets, empty cigarette boxes and carrier-bags to the other wise bland and neglected landscape.”
― Bill Bryson, quote from Notes from a Small Island



“The way I see it, there are three reasons never to be unhappy. First, you were born. This in itself is a remarkable achievement.”
― Bill Bryson, quote from Notes from a Small Island


“no small achievement when you consider the British climate, the fact that Blackpool is ugly, dirty and a long way from anywhere, that its sea is an open toilet, and its attractions nearly all cheap, provincial and dire.”
― Bill Bryson, quote from Notes from a Small Island


“There is almost no area of British life that isn’t touched with a kind of genius for names.”
― Bill Bryson, quote from Notes from a Small Island


“zippy new tax called VAT, which was to be introduced a week or so later. The gist of the advertisement was that while some things would go up in price with VAT, some things would also go down. (Ha!) I”
― Bill Bryson, quote from Notes from a Small Island


About the author

Bill Bryson
Born place: in Des Moines, Polk County, Iowa, The United States
Born date December 8, 1951
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