A pal lent me the audio version of Bryson's new (2016) book The Road To Little Dribbling. It is a followup to his Notes From A Small Island of twenty years ago. I had liked the former book reasonably well, though it had a few things that infuriated me. I immediately liked this less well. I don't think that is entirely Bryson's fault - I think it was the reader. There were elements that I disliked that are certainly Bryson's, and I had to keep turning it off. Eventually I gave it up. I feel certain that there are adventures and anecdotes I would have liked, but I can't get past some things.
And they are the same things. Bryson is a great deplorer of others, and is condescending about them. He takes care to distance himself from those others. It isn't mere grouchiness or cynicism, or at least not always. Example: he relates two incidents from going into McDonalds. In the first, he is ordering for a group, including grandchildren who interrupt him to change their order, causing him to start over repeatedly. The counter server does not regard the list as corrections, but as an accumulation, resulting in 32 Big Macs, etc. I am entirely with Bryson on this one. He is being reasonable and can't get anyone to understand this. But in the other incident, he places an order and objects when he is asked "Do you want fries with that?" He goes on at length, won't let it go. The young man keeps protesting "We're just told to say that." Bryson will have none of it and goes on insulting him.
This is just Bryson being a prick. Not the only time.
This condescension was present in the earlier book. It's worse now. It's not in all his books, but it popped up immediately here.
In Notes, Bryson was quite taken with the extent of the British bus system, and quite upset that lines were being cancelled because they were no longer paying their way. In Little Dribbling, he is similarly pleased with the English rural countryside, going on to warn that it won't last forever if people don't protect it. He is irritated that people are making decisions about the countryside for economic reasons, protesting that there are other values in the world which might guide our actions.
He is in both cases partly correct. A government might decide to subsidise bus lines or vistas because they thought them socially useful, or beautiful, or kindly, or historic, or sacred or any of a hundred other values. Societies find ways of agreeing what they are going to spend their money on. What we spend money on is perhaps the best indicator of what we actually value, rather than claim to value.
Yet the key here is that this is a subsidy, this is an agreement to spend money, there is a cost here. The money part, the "merely economic considerations" don't go away. Someone has to give up some of the fruits of their labor for this. Someone works an extra hour or two every week to pay their share of it.
Makes me crazy. It is coming up again today with a highschool classmate posting on FB about raising the minimum wage. Money isn't magic. If you took all the money from CEO's and the 1% and spread it around it wouldn't raise wages. I also find it infuriating that people can make lots of money for socially useless or even bad reasons. But infuriating is irrelevant.