Saturday, 3 September 2016

I'm honoured - Bill Bryson agrees with me

After considerable thought, Bill Bryson has decided that he doesn't agree with the British honours system. Writing in his book "The Road to Little Dribbling" he notes that there are two ways in USA to receive formal adulation: be a military hero and win Congressional Medal of Honour or buy society's admiration by donating money to get your name in front of a hospital, school or library, rather than letters after it. You don't add something to your name, you add your name to something. He explains that the advantage of this approach is a legacy of a hospital, school or library, whereas in Britain we just get another "knobhead in ermine". (Yes, Bryson said that - I didn't know he used such language).

He recognises that he might be accused of hypocrisy because he accepted an honorary OBE himself a few years ago. He rationalises this by saying he has always made it his practice to put vanity before  principle.

He also notes that, while his citation said it was for services to literature, it should have been for services to himself, because he hadn't done anything he wasn't going to do anyway. Which is part of the problem with honours - people get rewarded for being themselves. As I put it in my post of  21 August, in most fields those honoured have already been rewarded, either by being paid for the activity or in recognition within their field (e.g. sport). And so politicians can bask in reflected glory.

Anyway, the quote about "knobhead in ermine" may have become my favourite Bryson quote. My previous favourite was a little longer:

"Nothing - and I mean, really absolutely nothing - is more extraordinary in Britain than the beauty of the countryside.
Nowhere in the world is there a landscape that has been more intensively utilised - more mined, farmed, quarried, covered with cities and clanging factories, threaded with motorways and railway lines - and yet remains so comprehensively and reliably lovely over most of its extent.
It is the happiest accident in history. In terms of natural wonders, Britain is a pretty unspectacular place. It has no alpine peaks or broad rift valleys, no mighty gorges or thundering cataracts. It is built on really quite  a modest scale.
And yet with a few unassuming natural endowments, a great deal of time and an unfailing instinct for improvement, the makers of Britain created the most superlatively park-like landscapes, the most orderly cities, the handsomest provincial towns, the jauntiest seaside resorts, the stateliest homes, the most dreamily spired, cathedral-rich, castle-strewn, abbey-bedecked, folly-scattered, green-wooded, winding-laned, sheep dotted, plumply-hedgerowed, well-tended, sublimely decorated 50,318 square miles the world has ever known - almost none of it undertaken with aesthetics in mind, but all of it adding up to something that is, quite often, perfect.
What an achievement that is."



  1. Bryson is my favorite author, think I have read just about everything he has written Phil. I love the way he sees through the hypocrisy of us Brits and how odd we are. He pokes and teases us for our many failings yet we love him to do it. Of course we also know that he is invariably right about us too.

    1. Indeed. As he says, only the British would say "Oh, lovely!" when presented with a cup of tea and a dry biscuit. His A Short History of Nearly Everything is one of my favourite books. My younger son received his degree from Bryson, whose wonderful address to the graduands I can still remember snippets of. In particular, he told them that, like every other human being, they were totally unique and capable of almost anything they wanted to achieve. But, keeping their feet on the floor, he said they were not so unique that they shouldn't remember there are 7 billion others quite like them on the planet!

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