Bill Bryson

Diary - 6 March 2004

It really is nice to be back.

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June. My first day back in Britain after eight years in America and I couldn’t be happier. The sun is shining and I have a large cheque in my pocket with which to conclude the purchase of a nice house in Norfolk. Things could not be better. Setting off from Gloucester Road Underground station, I join a throng waiting for a Circle Line train that never comes. Silently we wait and wait — for ten minutes, then 15 — but nothing happens. ‘I remember when trains used to go by here,’ I remark brightly after a time to the man beside me. By chance he is a fellow American, but new to the country, and possibly to humour, and doesn’t realise I’m joking. ‘Are you saying there are no trains here?’ he asks in alarm.

‘Well, no, because then there wouldn’t be people here, would there? I mean, we wouldn’t all be standing here if there were no trains.’

‘But we are standing here and there are no trains.’

This is not an easy point to answer. A voice comes over the Tannoy apologising for the delay, which it says is due to a shortage of rolling stock. ‘You see, there are trains,’ I explain to my new friend. ‘They’ve just ...mislaid them.’

‘This sure is a screwy country,’ he says.

‘Yes, it is,’ I reply happily.

July. The thing I like about Britain — and I mean this — is that you can never guess how you are going to be thwarted. In America, you can count on a thwarting in a dozen or so well-defined situations — generally they involve airline employees, uniformed (but unarmed) government officials and hotel check-in people from whom you seek a room while it is still daylight — but here it is much less predictable, as I am reminded when I try to buy a rail ticket over the telephone and am told that it cannot be issued because the postcode I have provided is invalid. ‘Just a moment,’ I say and put the phone down while I go and collect some papers. I return to the phone and say, ‘Well, I’m holding several documents here, many of them of an official nature, and that’s the postcode they all use.’

‘I’m sorry, but the computer doesn’t recognise it.’

‘Well, perhaps you could introduce it, then,’ I suggest.

‘I’m sorry, sir.’

‘But I need to get to London,’ I say.

‘Sorry. It’s out of my hands.’

I now know, of course, that the only way to buy a ticket in advance is to go online and spend three hours entering approximately 900 details of your proposed journey, including preferred width of track and whether you have a nut allergy, all of which the computer instantly forgets if you decide to consider the travel options between the same two places on another day of the week. For us, matters are complicated by the fact that to get to London we use two rail services — one from Wymondham to Cambridge, run by Anglia Railways, which is wonderful, and one from Cambridge to London which is run by WAGN (short for, I believe, ‘We Are Going Nowhere’) and is anything but. What is most interesting is that the two don’t seem to co-ordinate in any discernible manner. If you ask for a ticket at King’s Cross, they don’t even know where Wymondham is. Often they insist that you must go to Liverpool Street. Still, as I commonly remark, you are very lucky in this country to possess a national rail system. Kind of.

October. The first crack in my perennial equanimity appears. After discovering to our horror that we are the last people in England not to own a retro-look Roberts radio, we hasten to John Lewis in Norwich. Roberts radios, as you will know, come in every colour there is. Only five are on display at John Lewis, but a little sign says that all the others are available. ‘We’d like a Roberts radio in this rather nice claret colour,’ I say to the young man.

‘We don’t stock that one,’ he answers, without looking up.

‘The sign says you stock all of them.’

‘Yes, but this is a smaller branch, so we don’t stock everything.’

‘Then why, pray, put out a sign that says you do?’

Mrs Bryson, recognising certain danger signals, is tugging me towards the lifts and fresh air, but I prevail upon him to take the little sign away.

‘You’re just provoking people and not all of them will be as constitutionally genial as I am,’ I explain. Reluctantly, he removes the sign and puts it in a drawer. An hour later when we return to buy a radio (cobalt-blue) the sign, I notice, is back.

November. An important cultural milestone has passed. It is now a million days since ITV has shown a television programme that anyone not on medication would wish to watch. We are now beginning to adjust to the idea that it is not necessary to search channels numbered higher than 2 on most nights, or higher than 1 when Jim Davidson is on BBC2. But we are still very happy. We spend a lot of time listening to our Roberts radio.

December. The Home Office orders my American daughter-in-law to leave the country. She arrived as a visitor with her husband, my son, and then applied to stay on. This, it turns out, is illegal — which is interesting because that is precisely what I did in June and they made me a commissioner for English Heritage. Anyway, although she is of impeccable character and properly married and takes up hardly any room, she is ordered to go back to Chicago until she can prove that she would like to live with her husband, which of course is what she was doing when they told her to leave. I am told that this new hard line on immigration is the fault of the Daily Mail. I don’t really understand why, but I add the Daily Mail to the list of things I don’t particularly like at the moment — the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, fly-tipping, Thomas Cook holidays, Microsoft (of course), people who send emails that ask for a receipt, the dollar exchange rate and George Bush’s daughters. I do not, however, add the Home Office to my list, because they have the power to send me away at any time and I really wouldn’t want that. So let me say here that the Home Office is wonderful. And it really is nice to be back.