About The Author
Bill Bryson was born in the American Midwest, and now lives in the UK. A former Chancellor of Durham University, he was President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England for five years, and is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society.
His best-selling travel books include The Lost Continent, Neither Here Nor There and Notes from a Small Island. Another travel book, A Walk in the Woods, has now become a major film starring Robert Redford, Nick Nolte and Emma Thompson.
His acclaimed book on the history of science, A Short History of Nearly Everything, won the Royal Society's Aventis Prize as well as the Descartes Prize, the European Union's highest literary award. He has written books on language, on Shakespeare, on history, and on his own childhood in the memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. His last critically lauded bestsellers were At Home: a Short History of Private Life, and One Summer: America 1927.
His new book, The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island, now out in paperback, documents a brand-new journey round Britain to see what has changed in the twenty years since the publication of Notes from a Small Island. Following (but not too closely) a route he dubs the Bryson Line, from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath, by way of places that many people never get to at all, he sets out to rediscover the wondrously beautiful, magnificently eccentric, endearingly unique country that he thought he knew but doesn't altogether recognize any more.
Exclusively for Foyles, Frances Gertler chatted to Bill about the perky feeling having a British passport gives him, his most embarrassing moment ever, and what makes London for him the best city in the world.
Questions & Answers
Your first books were on travel, but for some time now you’ve been writing on a variety of subjects, including biography, science and history. Did you always have this new project in the back of your mind?
Every time I do a new book I think of it only at the time I’m starting to embark on it, it’s not like I’m planning several books into the future. It was really my publisher who persuaded me to write this one and I’m glad he did. He was the one who pointed out that this year was the 20th anniversary of Notes from a Small Island and that it had been some time since I’d done a travel book. I was a little dubious at first because I thought, ‘I’ve done that and I don’t know if there’s going to be that much new’ but then the more I thought about it the more I thought I’d like to do a travel book. For my kind of travel writing it’s much better for me to write about societies that I’m familiar with, which really means basically Britain and America, or Australia perhaps. I thought about it and realised a lot had changed. When I looked at Notes from a Small Island, I was shocked at how dated it seemed to me, how much the world has moved on in 20 years.
The pull of science in particular is strong in you, do you ever wish you had made that your full time career?
No. Not for a minute! I could never be a scientist. I think the only thing I can be is a journalist because the only thing I’m capable of doing is flitting from thing to thing, and to be a productive scientist at any level I think you’ve really got to stick with something, for example, choosing a hormone early in your career and then staying with it, or researching a particular breed of snails, something like that. I say that without any scorn, I think the world is a much better place because there are people like that, completely focussed over a long, long period, that’s just not me at all.
How do you allow for the changes in yourself over the last 20 years, as well as those in England? Is it hard to distinguish between internal shifts of perception and objective differences?
That’s a really good point and I try hard in the book, really did try hard not to be just a grumpy old man, because as you get older that becomes your default condition. When I sit about talking with people my own age, that’s what we do, we bitch about the world and what’s gone wrong with it and how much better it was in our day. I do indulge that from time to time in the book but I really tried not to let that be the common theme of the book. I really wanted to look at positives as much as I could. What happens in the book is that a lot of the time I end up talking not so much about Britain and how it’s changed, but how I and my relationship with the wider world have changed.
Can you pinpoint a time when you became more insider than outsider as far as the UK is concerned?
No, I don’t think I can because it was just so gradual. I still feel profoundly an outsider. It’s a really strange schizophrenic position that I find myself in because I’ve lived here for so long, and I’ve known the country for so long and because my wife is British and most of my long term friends are British I feel very, very much at home here but at the same time I am permanently and irreversibly a foreigner here.
Similarly, do you feel like an outsider now when you visit the US?
Absolutely, in exactly the same sort of way, it’s the mirror image of here but when you’re a writer that’s not at all a bad position to be in. I think it’s really helpful to have some distance between you and the culture you’re peering at.
You’ve written about the meaning of home, and also about how much, and sometimes how little, you feel at home in the UK. Where – or what – makes you feel most at home?
Again, it’s a really good question and it’s one I’ve never successfully answered. Why do I like Britain so much and why do I feel at home here? There isn’t any natural reason for me to do so really but honestly, almost from the first moment I set foot on British soil a thousand years ago I really liked it, I felt really drawn to it and I hadn’t been particularly an Anglophile before that. I hadn’t expected that I would be so immediately drawn to the country but I was and I remain so and as I guess you’ll know from the book, it kind of becomes part of why I’m doing this, trying to work out why I’m so drawn to this place.
What made you decide to take the citizenship test you so entertainingly describe in Little Dribbling, having lived here so long without it?
Well partly it was just feeling like I really ought to. And I assumed at the outset that there would be important reasons in terms of taxation and inheritance and all those kinds of legal reasons to do so. Turns out there’s not really. In a way it was an exercise in getting my papers in order. For a long time the United States wouldn’t allow its own citizens to take out citizenship of another country at the same time and I think they finally relented on that, but now I have two passports; it’s the reason why so many Americans have become British citizens in recent years. I love it though, I’m very proud to have it. I didn’t know quite how I would respond but it makes me feel quite perky when I pull a British passport out but it doesn’t make me feel British. I still feel slightly fraudulent. I’m not British, I’m never going to be British, it’s only in a paperwork sense.
You often recount various hilarious situations (I like the great McDonald's humiliation you describe in this book) but of all the many embarrassing situations you have found yourself in, is there one that particularly stands out and still has the power to make you cringe?
There are so many! The one that does it for me is also in this book, the story about being in the basement of H&M in Kensington High Street and looking for the food hall. I’m afraid that’s absolutely true too. And when the guy told me – with great glee - that I wasn’t in Marks and Spencer, which was actually next door, I shouldn’t have berated him, but how can you be so ignorant that you don’t know that Marks and Spencers have food halls in almost every basement in the country? If you look at the building it’s actually a mistake you could understand how somebody could make. Of all the things that have happened to me in recent years that I have absolutely been humiliated by, that’s the one. Whereas with McDonald's I still feel I’m in the right.
What changes have you found most – and least – pleasing about Britain in the 20 years since Notes from a Small Island? You mention the absence of any feeling of aesthetic obligation towards one’s own street, but what about the loss of the eccentricities that, say, allowed Holloway patients to mingle freely with the local villagers?
I guess this is creeping back into grumpy old man territory, but it does seem to be a fact that when you watch discussions about what’s wrong with Britain now and what we need to do in order to make a better society, people are always talking about affordability and sustainable housing, all that kind of thing, investing in infrastructure, and I always think, ‘well that’s what you had when I got here! You had affordable housing for everybody who needed it, you had houses everywhere and you decided to get rid of them, so no wonder you’ve got housing problems now because you sold everything off and didn’t really use the money to invest in some kind of alternative, just frittered it away.’ So in that sense, I really do regret that.
I think Britain, when I first came here in the early 70s, even though it had all kinds of economic problems, was a more well-ordered and thoughtful and admirable place, for the very reasons I talk about just in terms of – and these are slightly trivial things – but simply the fact that psychiatric hospitals had their own cricket teams, that kind of thing. It just seemed to me an immensely civilised country and I think it’s given way to this kind austerity, which I rant on and on about. I find really, really dispiriting the idea that we can’t afford anything at all any more .
The pleasing thing is how much you have managed to hold on to, despite all the pressures to develop. The British have a real tendency to take for granted what they’ve got, to think there is an inexhaustible supply of heritage: In theory, you can tear down Victorian buildings all over the place because you’ve got just so many already. Or because you’ve got a seemingly infinite stock of glorious countryside you can just go out and put up 3,000 homes here and 15,000 homes there. But you don’t, it’s not infinite, these things are very finite. But what I find so miraculous and wonderful is the fact that so much of the good stuff still survives. If you were parachuted randomly into the country and just landed in the middle of somewhere, it would almost certainly be pretty glorious, even spectacular. That’s quite an achievement.
Your love of the beauty of the British landscape shines through practically every page. Do you think we Brits simply take it for granted, and what can be done to make us cherish it more?
I was president of the campaign to Protect Rural England I was actively involved in that for five years. We started off under a Labour government and finished under a Conservative government and they were both by and large useless, it was impossible dealing with politicians and trying to get them interested in national affairs. The only person I met who came across to me as actually heroic was Hilary Benn who was the environment secretary and is genuinely committed to the countryside. But almost everyone else had the attitude of ‘yes yes, beautiful countryside is all very well and it’s really important but we need to push it, economically we need to develop it’.
You are also emphatic in your appreciation of London as ‘the best city in the world’ and cite many reasons why you believe it to be so. Should it be part of the mayor’s remit to promote within and beyond London its many virtues, as well as debating what needs to improve?
I’m just like everybody else, I spend a lot of time moaning in London and wishing crowds would thin out, and getting exasperated, but when you go to some other major city in another country suddenly London looks really good. But I do think a big part of that is there is so much greenery in London, you’ve got parks and spaces. And the fact that you can escape. I mean, go to Manhattan and try to find some tranquillity and you can’t. You just won’t. Even if you go to Central Park, most of the time if you go for a walk on any paved surface there you’re just going to get bowled over by people on roller blades, because all these people are driven into this one little corner of greenery. I bet wherever anyone is in London, they’re within a mile of some pretty nice greenery where they can have several acres to themselves.
Are you looking forward to the release of A Walk in the Woods? What kinds of feelings does it bring up for you?
It’s interesting because at the moment I’m sort of helping promote it but I had nothing to do with the making of the movie. But I do like it. It’s not the greatest movie ever made but I think it’s entertaining and intelligent and I was very pleased with it so I don’t know exactly what my position with the movie is other than that I wish it well, and there’s nothing in that distresses me, but it’s not my property, it belongs to somebody else now.
What project/s are you working on next?
Well I haven’t even completely finished Little Dribbling yet. It’s going through the Americanizing process now with my editor in New York, which is kind of a nightmare as you can imagine because I have to explain to American readers almost every single thing, for example, who Michael Portillo is, or Morecambe and Wise, and goodness knows what else. But then a lot of those things if there’s a joke attached to it, the joke isn’t funny if you have to explain the punchline. So I’m really struggling with that and with adapting things to make them more acceptable to an American audience, which is as far as my thinking has gone in terms of looking ahead.
Do you find that when you’re in the US promoting your books they are still grappling with the idea of how you could possibly prefer Britain. Do you find they’re trying to re-convert you?
Yes, I think the typical American can’t understand or believe that any American would not want to live in America. Especially when I go home to Iowa, where most people can’t understand why you’d want to live anywhere outside of Iowa. I can understand their thinking because America is an attractive country in a lot of ways. Economically, if what you want is a really good income and a comfortable life, you’d choose the States. I just happen to think there’s a better quality of life in Europe generally and for me, in Britain particularly.