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The Road to Little Dribbling

More Notes From a Small Island
Bill Bryson


From the Prologue

One of the things that happens when you get older is that you discover lots of new ways to hurt yourself. Recently, in France, I was hit square on the head by an automatic parking barrier, something I don't think I could have managed in my younger, more alert years.

There are really only two ways to get hit on the head by a parking barrier. One is to stand underneath a raised barrier and purposely allow it to fall on you. That is the easy way, obviously. The other method - and this is where a little diminished mental capacity can go a long way - is to forget the barrier you have just seen rise, step into the space it has vacated and stand with lips pursed while considering your next move, and then be taken completely by surprise as it slams down on your head like a sledgehammer on a spike. That is the method I went for.

Let me say right now that this was a serious barrier - like a scaffolding pole with momentum - and it didn't so much fall as crash back into its cradle. The venue for this adventure in cranial trauma was an open-air car park in a pleasant coastal resort in Normandy called Etretat, not far from Deauville, where my wife and I had gone for a few days. I was alone at this point, however, trying to find my way to a clifftop path at the far side of the car park, but the way was blocked by the barrier, which was too low for a man of my dimensions to duck under and much too high to vault. As I stood hesitating, a car pulled up, the driver took a ticket, the barrier rose and the driver drove on through. This was the moment that I chose to step forward and to stand considering my next move, little realizing that it would be mostly downwards.

Well, I have never been hit so startlingly and hard. Suddenly I was both the most bewildered and relaxed person in France. My legs buckled and folded beneath me and my arms grew so independently lively that I managed to smack myself in the face with my elbows. For the next several minutes my walking was, for the most part, involuntarily sideways. A kindly lady helped me to a bench and gave me a square of chocolate, which I found I was still clutching the next morning. As I sat there, another car passed through and the barrier fell back into place with a rever­berating clang. It seemed impossible that I could have survived such a violent blow. But then, because I am a little paranoid and given to private histrionics, I became convinced that I had in fact sustained grave internal injuries, which had not yet revealed themselves. Blood was pooling inside my head, like a slowly filling bath, and at some point soon my eyes would roll upwards, I would issue a dull groan, and quietly tip over, never to rise again.

The positive side of thinking you are about to die is that it does make you glad of the little life that is left to you. I spent most of the following three days gazing appreciatively at Deauville, admiring its tidiness and wealth, going for long walks along its beach and promenade or just sitting and watching the rolling sea and blue sky. Deauville is a very fine town. There are far worse places to tip over.

One afternoon as my wife and I sat on a bench facing the English Channel, I said to her, in my new reflective mood, 'I bet whatever seaside town is directly opposite on the English side will be depressed and struggling, while Deauville remains well off and lovely. Why is that, do you suppose?'

'No idea,' my wife said. She was reading a novel and didn't accept that I was about to die.

'What is opposite us?' I asked.

'No idea,' she said and turned a page.


'No idea.'

'Hove maybe?'

'Which part of "no idea" are you struggling to get on top of?'

I looked on her smartphone. (I'm not allowed a smartphone of my own because I would lose it.) I don't know how accurate her maps are - they often urge us to go to Michigan or California when we are looking for some place in Worcestershire - but the name that came up on the screen was Bognor Regis.

I didn't think anything of this at the time, but soon it would come to seem almost prophetic.