Bill Bryson slept here in 1973. I opted for lodgings less wooden in Dover: a hostelry where the morning bacon is given twenty minutes in a sun bed. I found a modern Socrates walking her dog. Sensing I was an outsider, she issued a sequence of penetrating questions: Who are you, Where are you going, Do you know about salad packing, Does your mother know you’re doing this. She later bought me lasagne and a cup of tea.
Bryson stayed in a swanky hotel in Soho; so did I. Sat outside a cafe I watched the passing profiles: an orthodox Jew with red headphones, a heavily made-up Italian, a beautiful Arab man, a punk, a pensioner, an African marching back and forth like a restless peacock. Across the street a girl spends her cigarette break scrolling empty pages of social media. I walk to the girl and ask what time her bar shuts. You should go now. It is happy hour. £3.80 a pint. What the fuck’s happy about that, I thought.
The manager of the Castle Hotel in Windsor reads what Bryson wrote about his hotel. He asks if I’ve been to Windsor before. I tell him that the last time I was here, when I was an undergraduate, I spent a large portion of the evening in a shopping trolley.
In 1993 Bryson explored Windsor’s high street, spending happy hours in a department store, testing the beds, fiddling with toys. I visit a shop called Glorious Britain and consider the array of mobile phone covers available, a testament to our shared quest for individuality. Eton is nearby but I refuse to visit, on account of my occasional communist principles.
I walked to Virginia Water through Windsor Great Park, stopping at Guards Polo Club to enquire about membership. The chairwoman asked if I owned a horse or knew any royals. I answered yes to both questions and left. In Virginia Water, where Bryson used to live, there is a retirement home called Sunrise. When I start falling to bits I don’t expect to be told, in a vain effort to lift my morale, that life is just beginning.
Dying with a partner in Salisbury. The red phone-box is a symbol of Britishness; these two are beautifully cut-off. Are we so well connected that we can let these boxes wilt?
In ’93 Bryson lasted eleven minutes at Stonehenge. This Chinese lad did a lap with his i-pad in seven. In an effort to avoid the £3.20 bus fare, I walked to Stonehenge along the A303, nearly losing my head to the wing-mirror of an Eddie Stobart lorry. Life on the road, huh?
On Studland Beach, just west of Bournemouth, I was pleased to find two nudists enjoying the gale-force winds. I closed my eyes and zig-zagged towards them. When I could sense they were nearby, I asked bashfully whether they came here often. I was told to open my eyes and take a pickled onion.