Notes from a Small Island

Bill Bryson

Notes from a Small Island.

“The hospital, I came to discover, was its own little universe, virtually complete unto itself.  It had its own carpentry shop and eletricians, plumbers, and painters, its own bus and bus driver.  It had a snooker room, a badminton court and swimming pool, a little shop selling toiletries and sweets, a chapel, a cricket pitch and social club, a podiatrist and hairdresser, kitchens, a sewing room, and a laundry.  Once a week it showed movies in a kind of ballroom.  It even had its own mortuary.  The patients did all the gardening that didn’t involve sharp tools and kept the grounds immaculate.  It was a bit like a country club for crazy people.  I liked it very much.”

So writes Bill Bryson, creator of A Walk in the Woods and I’m a Stranger Here Myself, both of which have been reviewed in other issues of the Newswire.  The passage above is from one of his earlier works, titled Notes From a Small Island, in which Mr. Bryson tells the reader something about his life in England, and a trip he took around that “green and pleasant land” before returning to the US with his wife and children.  The hospital in question was a venerable mental institution called Holloway Sanitorium, in the village of Virginia Water, where Mr. Bryson was employed for a time.

“Most of the patients on Tuke Ward were like that when you got to know them -- superficially lucid but, underneath, crazy as an overheated dog.  It is an interesting experience to become acquainted with a country through the eyes of the insane, and, if I may say so, a particularly useful grounding for life in Britain.”

Mr. Bryson goes on to praise the community in which the hospital was located, in glowing terms.

“But what lent Virginia Water a particular charm back then, and I mean this quite seriously, was that it was full of wandering lunatics.  Because most of the patients had been resident at the sanitorium for years and often decades, no matter how addled their thoughts or hesitant their gait, no matter how much they mumbled and muttered, adopted sudden postures of submission, or demonstrated any of a hundred other indications of someone comfortably out to lunch, most of them could be trusted to wander down to the village and find their way back again.  Each day you could count on finding a refreshing sprinkling of lunatics buying fags (cigarettes) or sweets, having a cup of tea, or just quietly remonstrating with thin air.  The result was one of the most extraordinary communities in England, one in which wealthy people and lunatics mingled on equal terms.  The shopkeepers and locals were quite wonderful about it, and didn’t act as if anything was odd because a man with wild hair wearing a pajama jacket was standing in a corner of the baker’s declaiming to a spot on the wall, or sitting at a corner table of the Tudor Rose with swiveling eyes and the makings of a smile, dropping sugar cubes into his minestrone soup.  It was, and I’m still serious, a thoroughly heartwarming sight.”

Bryson is a wonderful writer, blessed with the ability to make the reader laugh even as he makes him or her think.  Notes will surely enhance any trip to England, even if the armchair variety is all you ever manage.  Be sure to read all about it!

Copyright © 2003, S. Halversen.
All Rights Reserved.