October is my favourite month. I love the colours. I love the light and I love that distinct autumnal smell of apples and hops and harvest. During the pandemic I’ve spent a great deal more time outside. There’s something deeply reassuring about nature continuing to do its thing and often in spite of human activity. In this slightly wistful frame of mind, I picked up – correction, I nicked from my other half – Bill Bryson’s ‘The Road to Little Dribbling.’
I’m a bit of a Bryson fan. I read ‘Notes from a Small Island’ years ago and ‘Dribbling’ marks the twentieth anniversary. An American who has lived here for many years is now a naturalised British citizen, his observations of the British at work and play are laugh out loud funny. Admittedly, he can be fairly brutal about people (particularly those whose grasp of punctuation and grammar is questionable) and institutions. But he’s also keen to point out his own ‘idiosyncrasies.’ This is a guy who, although he has serious thoughts, does not take himself too seriously. I lost count of the times he referred to either his wife or a kindly friend gently taking hold of his elbow and leading him away before he got into a serious bundle with some hapless and stubborn soul, with whom he’d taken issue. But I digress. His love of Britain shines through even if he isn’t blind to its faults and failings. In fact, it’s these same faults and failings that he finds strangely endearing. What stood out for me most, and some may disagree, is the fact he mourns the Britain of twenty years ago and is not altogether impressed by Britain as it is today.
To my delight, Bryson mentions many places I know so well, like Kingsbridge, where I once lived, Salcombe, Start Bay and Dartmouth in South Devon and, in the more distant past, Birmingham. Randomly, this got me thinking. Years ago, when I was a ‘wannabe’ writer and in the days before the self-publishing revolution, I did the thing that everyone did: I submitted my then story to publishers. (Back then it was possible to submit direct.) Receiving my umpteenth rejection, the tone of the hand-signed letter (yes, letter) was, nevertheless, kind and encouraging. Amazingly, a book, ‘Funeral Music’ by Morag Joss, was also sent. The sender was none other than Kate Lyall Grant, currently publisher at Severn House. She has no idea how much this meant to me at the time. It felt as if someone was, at last, taking me, and my writing, seriously. It certainly spurred me to continue to write and, not long afterwards, I obtained agent representation. I wonder if small acts of kindness like this still occur and whether this says more about the way we were then than how we are now.