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Less funny sequel to the '95 travel classic 'Notes from a Small Island', wherein I retrace Bill Bryson's giant American footsteps.
Less funny sequel to the '95 travel classic 'Notes from a Small Island', wherein I retrace Bill Bryson's giant American footsteps.
263 backers pledged £8,020 to help bring this project to life.

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Dear Bill Bryson: Footnotes from a Small Island

£8,020

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We hit our funding target - what now? 

The new target for the campaign is to reach £8000. Here's why. 

1) Because if I reach the target, I will have 'I LOVE BILL' tattooed somewhere on my body. 

2) Because 10% of all money raised beyond my initial target will be passed on to the charity Room to Read, which works to increase literacy rates for children in the developing world.

3) Because the more money raised the better the finished product - more can be invested in the binding, the weight of the paper, the typesetting, the cover finish, embossing, illustration. 

 4) Outside of production costs, ALL surplus money raised will be entirely invested into getting the book stocked, distributed, promoted, and reviewed. In effect, backers of this project are less pre-ordering a book, and more pushing a piece of literature into the world. 

***

Eight Things You Need to Know About the Project

1) To mark the twentieth anniversary of Notes from a Small Island, I retraced Bill Bryson’s journey as precisely as possible – same hotels, same plates of food, same amount of time in the bath – before finishing outside his house on Christmas Eve. 

Me in Bryson's village, ten minutes before I knocked on his door and asked for a cup of tea. (He no longer lives there, by the way, so don't try and stalk him.)
Me in Bryson's village, ten minutes before I knocked on his door and asked for a cup of tea. (He no longer lives there, by the way, so don't try and stalk him.)

2) I am almost finished writing a book about the experience, wherein I draw a comparison between Britain then and Britain now, in a style that is accessible and light-hearted rather than scholarly. Why did I bother? Because I felt that a younger, less cosy, less American perspective on my homeland wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. And I was sick of serving tacos in a Mexican restaurant. 

How the book will look . . .
How the book will look . . .

3) Regarding the author: I'm officially 30 but tell people I'm 29; have had a couple of plays produced and published; am the arts and culture editor of The Holborn, a lifestyle magazine based in London. 

The Holborn - a magazine for trendy people.
The Holborn - a magazine for trendy people.

4) I am trying to raise £5000 to print 800 copies of the book, and to cover the design and editing costs. A reputable firm in the south of France - Fanlac - have been lined up to print the text. They produce beautiful books that feel and look as good as they read. If I raise more than £5000 - which would be wonderful - I would be able to distribute and market the book more effectively. And I'd also be able to buy a decent suit for the launch party. 

Suit for the Launch Party
Suit for the Launch Party

5) I wrote the first chapters of the book as a 'writer in residence' at the Shakespeare And Company bookshop in Paris (it's not that glamorous; I sleep on the floor next to the Science-Fiction shelves). I will be returning there to write the final chapters. The bookshop is perhaps one of the most famous in the world, and I appreciate their support.

 6) You will be rewarded for backing this project. Rewards include: a copy of the book signed by the author; a copy of the book signed by a Parisian waiter; a cameo role in the book (I'll invent that we had an argument about particle physics in Bradford, and that you won the argument).

This man will sign your book.
This man will sign your book.

7) That my designer is Brendon Bostock at Active Reflection, that my video man is Charlie Slade, that my editor (Dr Richard Morgan) is costing a small fortune, that my assistant editor is a cat, and that I thank each of them for their hard and excellent work.  

8) Finally, you need to know whether I can write. You need to know if I'm worth backing. Within reason, anybody can produce a half-decent video and write 500 words about why their project is great, so it's important I give you a sample of the book. After all, you wouldn't support a painter without seeing examples of their work, so why should I expect you to support me if you haven't read any of my stuff? So here's the first couple of pages: 

Preface 

Dear Bill Bryson 

Ever since I was a kid I wanted to be a middle-aged American. I’d go about school wearing white socks and a fanny-pack, mouthing off about taxes, telling anyone that would listen about my four-speed lawnmower. I used to tip the dinner-ladies 25%, for god’s sake.

Why? Well, in a word – you. I first saw you on television when I was nine and should have been in bed. You were stood in some field, saying how very nice it was. But it wasn’t what you were saying but how you were saying it. I liked your voice, Bill. You sounded so, I don’t know, understanding, as if you’d agree to any reasonable proposition – ‘Say, Bill, mind if I chuck an egg at you?’ ‘Well, I’m mowing the lawn right now, but how does three o’clock sound?’ I asked my Mum if we could get you over for a few babysitting shifts. She told me to turn that crap off and get to bed.

To be honest, I forgot about you after that. Then I found your book one day, the one inspired by the field, the one you wrote twenty years ago before going back to the States, the one that was a best-seller in charity shops all over Europe.

Anyway, long story short, I’ve decided to retrace your steps. Why? Because I’m bored. Take it from me, there’s only so many tacos a guy can serve before he wants to put a pint of salsa down his windpipe.

First stop, Calais. You remember this town, Bill? You’ve little reason to, I suppose, since you did bugger all here. And the things you did do – well, I can’t even be sure you did those either. For example, you say you took a coffee on the Rue de Gaston Papin. I asked a local shopkeeper where I might find such a road. She answered with a look that suggested both xenophobia and pity, before telling me that such a road almost certainly doesn’t exist, on account of Rue de Gaston Papin meaning the Road of the Forgetful Squid, or something equally unlikely.

I’ve got to say, Bill, I was pretty wound-up. I slammed my copy of Notes from a Small Island against the counter; withdrew my babysitting offer; poked the shopkeeper in the eye. I mean, if you were fibbing about Gaston Papin, what else were you fibbing about? Does Milton Keynes even exist?

Disillusioned, I asked a passing clergyman how to get back to the ferry terminal. She issued a volley of eloquent, and no doubt instructive, French words, which I pretended to understand perfectly, while, in fact, I understood nothing.

I reasoned that the ferry terminal must be near the water, and so headed for the beach, where I found a teenager chain-smoking electronic cigarettes and whispering philosophical maxims to a point in the middle distance. I pointed to the bundle of cranes and freight containers yonder and said, skilfully, and in French, ‘Boat?’ He shrugged six times and then quoted Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who once said, or so I’m led to believe, ‘In autumn there is hope’, which I understood to mean that he wasn’t at all sure.

On the ferry, I took up vigil on the smoking deck. The day was bidding adieu, and as the coconut cliffs of Dover began to draw up from the channel’s dark soup (overwritten?), I reasoned that things weren’t so bad after all – to be on these waves and under this sky and at the dawn of what promised to be an eventful, if unoriginal, journey around a small island. (What’s the deal with copyright, by the way?)

Yours, Benjamin 

Chapter 1

There wasn’t really a young man quoting Rousseau; there was no passing clergyman; I did not poke a woman in the eye. I made those things up to get your attention, which is what you’re supposed to do at the start of a book. You’re also supposed to start with a description of the weather, so I should add that, for the most part, it was overcast in Calais. I also suggested that the reason I chose to retrace Bryson’s journey was because I was bored serving tacos. Again, not true. The truth is that by copying Bryson I felt my writing might attract more than seven readers.

I was only in Calais for two hours. It should have been six, but I had missed my train at London Bridge that morning, having accepted a second bowl of porridge at a flat in Stockwell, causing me to miss my ferry crossing at Dover. I eventually took a delayed early-evening service, on which nothing much happened, though I might have sent a text message to a Spanish girl who told me two months earlier not to fall in love with her.

I walked into Calais’s centre along the Rue Constant Dupont and the Rue Pierre Mullard – street names that seemed elegant and thrilling, despite their essential banality. I passed a pub called Le Liverpool, which looked sad and unpopular. I suppose it was once busy with British day-trippers in shell-suits stocking-up on Kronenbourg and Côte du Rhône, the sort of people Bryson records seeing a lot of in ‘94. I wondered about the provenance of this pub. Perhaps, in the late 80s, a canny Frenchman thought he’d cash-in by giving the day-trippers a slice of home, understanding that the British tend to go overseas not to escape their culture but to find a warmer or cheaper version of it.

I came to the Place d’Armes, where I made a cursory effort to find a Virgin Mary Occasional Lamp. (Bryson bought one here, you see, before spending the evening playing with it in his hotel room.) I took a walk up to the old town to see the Rodin sculpture. The Burghers of Calais depicts half-a-dozen members of Calais’s medieval middle-class looking fed-up, on account of the King of England having just announced that they were to be executed the following Tuesday. The burghers were eventually pardoned after the King’s better-half intervened. Rodin has a lesser known sculpture, round the back of the hotel, of the men looking relieved.

I took the plat du jour at Au Bureau on the Rue Royal and drank two bottles of Stella Artois and it felt good and warm to be alone and softly drunk, having not eaten since the second bowl of porridge ten hours earlier. I enjoyed the strange anonymity of being foreign, when one is at once more and less obvious to others, more and less significant. I knew no one in this city; I had no appointments or obligations; I had never cried or laughed or made mistakes here. For all anyone knew, I might have been arrogant or timid or generous or sad. As I reflected on the cleansing effect of travel – that I was once again at the beginning of my character – the beef stew arrived. 

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- (29 days)