“A latter day Henry James?”
The following is my transcription of Mark Lawson’s interview for BBC Four with Bill Bryson (available on the BBC iPlayer for viewers in the UK during the next few days). Bryson echoes many of my sentiments regarding life in Britain as an American ex-pat. I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as it has been a labour of love for me to transcribe it.
One last word before I hand over to Mark Lawson and Bill Bryson. In the interview, mention is made of famous American ex-pats in the UK, and the unique position Bryson holds amongst them:
* Of course, there are many popular US citizens resident and known within Britain: Kevin Spacey, David Soul, Katie Puckrick, Bonnie Greer, Ruby Wax, Jerry Hall, the late Caroline Benn (wife of Tony Benn), and the late Linda McCartney, to name but a few. However, few of them do hold the position in the hearts and minds of the Brits as held by Bill Bryson. He seems to be the most doggedly British in his habits and outlook. He is the closest we have today to a modern Henry James – except this Anglophile comes without the snobbish hauteur and by accident rather than design. This Henry James is a humorist and a gentle soul whose observations often leave him rather than others on the floor flayed by gaucherie, poked by the sharp stick of satire.
Mark Lawson Talks to: Bill Bryson – transcript
(NB: I have not undertaken to transcribe all the pauses and ums and ahs that appeared in this conversation in order to protect the ease of exchange in written form)
[Intro: Mark Lawson’s voice-over with apposite instrumental from Talking Heads’ ‘This must be the place (Naive melody)’]
[Mark Lawson:] In the opening line of his first best-seller, Bill Bryson was rude about his hometown. “I come from Des Moines, Iowa. Somebody had to” begins The Lost Continent, the story of his return to explore the USA, fifteen years after first immigrating to Britain. The town forgave him to the extent of making him a freeman, recognition of the huge success of his books about culture and language, including The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, and most recently Shakespeare: the World as a Stage. Bill Bryson, though, continues to live in Britain, where he holds several positions at least equivalent to the freedom of Des Moines. He has become the UK’s most popular US citizen*.
Mark Lawson (ML): You’re an honorary member of the Order the British Empire, President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which is probably quite an unlikely outcome for a boy from Iowa. Are you surprised by the way it’s turned out?
Bill Bryson (BB): Yeah, yeah, no, absolutely; obviously. I mean when I grew up the summit of my ambitions was to be a copy-editor on the Chicago Tribune. I mean that’s where I thought I was going, really, until adulthood that’s where I thought I was going. And ended up living in England entirely by accident, I didn’t have any expectations of living here; much less getting to do all the things that I’ve got to do since I came here. So, yeah, total surprise.
ML: It’s interesting comparison with Alistair Cooke, because you’re a kind of reverse – he was an Englishman who became effectively American, and to some degree, you’ve done the opposite. Tessa Jowell [then New Labour’s Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport] in the citation when you were given your honorary OBE, she said, ‘Despite having been raised in the US, he has become a true British institution.’ Were you happy with that eulogy?
BB: [BB laughs] Yeah, yeah, no I mean, this is home to me. I’ve physically lived roughly half my life in this country and I’ve been really continuously attached to it in a sort of spiritual sense since I first came over here in the early seventies. So, yeah, this is, you know, this is home to me. And it’s something that I almost never think about except in circumstances like this when somebody raises it in an interview or brings it to mind. Because I don’t go walking down the street thinking I’m an American living in Britain. I mean, I’m just me here, this is where I live; this is where I’ve lived for a long time. It feels perfectly natural to be here.
ML: What specifically prompted that decision to come here?
BB: Well, in those days the actual coming over was what everybody was doing. It was the days of, you know, Europe on $5 a day. And everybody had this Arthur Frommer’s guide and it was what you did – you came over and you got a big backpack and you hitchhiked all around the Continent. And it was essentially what everybody was doing. And – but for me, I landed and I just – and all of those National Geographic articles all suddenly became three dimensional all around me; and it was just hallucinogenic . And I was totally captivated from the first moment. I mean really, really just loved it. I mean, I remember writing home to my mom and saying, you know, I won’t be home, actually won’t be home, I won’t be going back to Drake, university, for the first semester. But I’ll be back after Christmas; you know I’ll go then. In fact, you know, between the beginning of the first semester and the ending of the first semester, is when I met my wife, and started dating her and thinking ‘I really like it here’. So...
ML: But some people do – who have done what you did – they define themselves as being exiles or, but you never think in those terms.
BB: I mean I don’t; privately I might think in that way. It’s a very convenient thing to have – it’s a real privileged position. You know, when things are going well here, I can join in the celebrations and be part of it all. But, you know, if you get knocked out in the first round of the World Cup [ML laughs] I can stand back and I disown it. These poor people they just can’t play football. And so you have this – you can kind of pick and choose to what extent you belong to things. And there is always a kind of distance between you and the society that is mostly good. It just, it gives you a certain different perspective that is mostly valuable, particularly if you are a writer.
ML: But what I always found very striking about the The Lost Continent, your first travel book, is it was much more – to use a loaded phrase – anti-American than most writing by Americans is. I mean there is a particular passage, which is comic exaggeration, but: “There is something deeply worrying and awesomely irresponsible about this endless self-gratification, this constant appeal to the baser instincts. Do you want zillions off your state taxes even at the risk of crippling education? Oh, yes the people cry. Do you want TV that would make an imbecile weep? Yes, please. [BB and ML laugh] Shall we indulge ourselves with the greatest orgy of consumer spending the world has ever known? Sounds neat, let’s go for it.” So you can’t run for President now [BB laughs] because that would be brought up in the New Hampshire primaries, I think.
BB: No, in that sense you are absolutely right; I mean I do have, I get very wearied by America. And I am very critical of America in that sense because, you know, America by being the wealthiest country, by having all this stuff, by having been so successful, it could build any kind of society it wants. And it’s chosen, over the course of my lifetime, to just shop. To just have consumer society. And there is no real dedication to quality of life or enriching experiences nationally. You can have all those things if you choose to. But the kind of tenor of the nation is just let’s just make a lot of money and let’s spend it. And let’s supersize everything. And I just think there is something quite sad about that. So, in that sense I have rejected America. I mean I get tired of that side of things very quickly when I’m over there – I don’t want to live there. I can see why it would appeal to some people, they go over there and they’re just dazzled by the convenience and the ease and the availability of everything. But I think because I grew up with that, I’d actually rather be in a more European sort of context where it, life isn’t anything like as easy, but it is, I think it has better quality to it.
ML: And it is also interesting in terms of the response to your books, because that first book The Lost Continent was much loved in Europe partly because it did reflect the European prejudices against America. And I think, remembering the reviews in America but also I’ve been looking at some of them, they were really quite touchy about that first book weren’t they? [BB laughs]
BB: Well it’s a strange thing, and a lot of it has to do with just sense of humour. One of the things you can do in Britain is you can make a joke that on the face of it seems quite harsh, but everybody knows you don’t really mean it seriously; and in America I discovered when that book came out that a lot of people will take these remarks [ML sniggers] absolutely literally. And the one I remember is that I was at the Little White House in Georgia the place where FDR – Franklin Delano Roosevelt – had gone for treatments for his polio. And it had been this little resort and I was there and I was there all by myself and I was enjoying this very nice experience. And then a whole coach load of pensioners came and they all came off the coach and they all came swarming into this little museum and sort of displaced me. And I just made some remark, I said something to the effect of, ‘I stood back and contented myself with the thought that soon they would all be dead.’ [ML laughs] And nobody in Britain would think that I really was wishing for a coach-load of pensioners to die. [ML laughs] Whereas in America, I mean I remember the review – I think it was for The Washington Post – but it was for an important newspaper, said something, cited that as an example, and said effectively this man doesn’t need a publisher, he needs psychiatric treatment. [ML robustly laughs] Because they took it completely seriously, and I think you run into that a lot in the States that people get offended very much more easily there.
ML: It also raises another question because as you know there have been recent scandals in America in publishing about fake memoirs, particularly involving the writer James Frey, and now if anyone publishes anything that is autobiographical there are lawyers and fact-checkers going through it. You were before those years, but, in general, I mean there is a, there is a trick you use quite often in the early books, which is you say something and then you say, ‘I just made that up’. But, in general, how fictional were those early books?
BB: Oh, all my books are – everything is based on an actual reality; the basic things happened. You know if I say; my latest book was a memoir about growing up in Iowa in the ‘50s, and all of those things – I mean all of the stories, all of the anecdotes, really happened. But of course I am then describing them in ways that really essentially fictionalise them; I mean intentionally without trying to fool anybody, because I describe them in terms that are clearly intended to be comical, rather than be taken literally. I mean there is one in this memoir, Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, where I talk about this friend’s dad who dives off the high board at a place called Lake Iquawbe [sp?] and has the most spectacular belly flop, which is absolutely true, he did. I mean, that happened. But I talk about he was moving, actually started to glow red he was moving so fast, and things like that. I mean there is so much exaggeration attached to it that it effectively becomes a fictionalised account of a real incident. And I think that description could apply to almost anything I have written in terms of the travel books and memoirs.
ML: But having met you over the years, you’ve always seemed to me a rather shy person and courteous. But in the books, the Bill Bryson is this, very often, this very quick, wise-cracking, guy with the come-backs. But that is, there is literary exaggeration there.
BB: I mean it’s complete alter-ego. I say those things, sometimes, but I kind of mumble them and then flee. Whereas when I come to write about myself, I suppose it’s natural to make myself look a little bolder and more assertive. But, no, in reality, I’m, I’m, I am very shy and very inclined to slip into the shadows and I can’t – I really can’t do anything about that. I mean I’ve tried to make a virtue of that as much as I can. What I do when I go places is I don’t interact much, I don’t take part, I’m not in the foreground, I’m sitting at the back eavesdropping. And most of what I write about is things that I’ve overheard, not that I’ve been part of.
ML: But that thing about fact-checking is that I interviewed David Sedaris recently who writes comic autobiography as you know, and he said he’s found increasingly, particularly with The New Yorker magazine, that they now will ring up the people involved in a family anecdote for example, if he says my dad used to hit us with a spoon. They rang up his dad and said ‘Were you in the habit of hitting your children with a spoon?’ [BB laughs] Have you suffered that kind of attention?
BB: Well, yeah, when you write for American publications like The New Yorker, which I have done, you get fact-checked. It’s a really humbling experience, because you didn’t realise you were making an error. I mean usually it is an error of fact that you said somebody was born in 1947 and in fact it was 1948. And, I mean, they are generally fairly trivial things, but it’s the accumulation of them that makes you realise that just how fallible you are, and how much more care you could probably exercise when you do this. So, in that sense I think it is probably a really good thing. It can get ridiculous when they start asking your dad if he hit you with a spoon. [ML laughs]
ML: But that’s always been the famous, famous generalisations about British and American journalism, which is that British journalism is all made up but it was funny, and American journalism was accurate but is humourless. But there is something in that isn’t there? That you can end up – with fact-checking you can end up removing the life and humour from a piece.
BB: As the writer you can end up spending just huge amounts of your time trying to satisfy these people, in pointless ways. I remember once I did an article, a travel article, for an American magazine, and one of the – and I had said something about – I think I was in Charleston, South Carolina. And I talked about these, all the houses have these tiny, tiny front gardens but every front garden had a little Vietnamese gardener, just sort of doing things with little scissors. And they phoned me up and they said they’d looked into this very carefully and they couldn’t confirm that these people were Vietnamese. [ML and BB laugh] And you’d just think, well okay, you know just; I didn’t ask them myself, I just kind of assumed. And so you can, it gets to a level of ridiculousness very quickly if you’re not careful.
ML: We know quite a lot about your childhood, which we are going to talk about now, but we know a lot because there are flashbacks in The Lost Continent and then there’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, which tells us a lot about your childhood. The attitudes were interesting to me because the first book is really about how dull the place was, how terribly dull it was. But in the latter one we get a sense of boyish excitement about the same kind of things, but that really, that’s just the different perspectives of an adult and a child.
BB: Yeah, and what’s happened is that when I wrote The Lost Continent that was the first book I ever wrote really. I mean it was the first narrative book with chapters and a real structure to it. And, so I’d never put together a whole book before, I’d never written humorously before, and so it was a kind of learning experience for me. And part of the way I made, found the humour was to be really quite nasty or aggressive kind of humour. And there’s a lot you can make fun of in a place like Iowa. But as I aged and mellowed a little, I realised that actually I had been way too hard and part of the reason I wanted to go back and revisit all of that with The Thunderbolt Kid was to have another chance to actually say, well, you know, Iowa is ridiculous, and a lot of these things are quite inherently comical. But there was also a lot that was really good and nice and sweet about it. I wanted to have a chance to just kind of make amends and I think I did with the book, because you know there were a lot of really, really wonderful things about growing up in that period. And in a lot of ways I’m extremely lucky to have come from Iowa. I grew up thinking that I was somehow terribly disadvantaged by being out in the middle of nowhere, but when I look back on it now, I actually in a lot of ways ; I couldn’t have had the life I’ve had if I’d grown up somewhere different.
ML: But the writing of memoirs has caused problems in some families; I mean there are Irish families where they’ve ended up in court and suing each other. But, your siblings and your mother, how did they take to the two books and memoirs?
BB: Really, really well. I mean, if you’re writing that kind of book and it involves real people, you know you just have to have their goodwill. And because you can disguise an awful lot of identities, I mean, first, all the names of people in The Thunderbolt Kid are fictionalised names. So you can disguise identities. All the people that are in that book will recognise themselves. The Willoughby family, the Willoughbys, they know who they are, even though that’s not their real name.
ML: Has anyone objected to the portrait of themselves?
BB: No, but the interesting thing was, there was, in one of the, there was a girl; I can’t even think of what name I gave her in the book now, but a girl that was really absolutely lovely, and everybody was, I mean, I was just completely besotted with her, as everybody was; she was just really beautiful. And, and the whole story in the book is again absolutely true, but we used to play doctor, or something, strip poker [ML sniggers] in a tree house when we were eight years old. And get naked in this tree house, and of course the girl – I can’t remember what name I gave her – but I wanted her to, I wanted to be there when she did, and she always refused to do it. And then I went away on vacation and came back and discovered that she had, she had stripped off in the tree house [ML laughs] and I had missed it. And, so anyway, there was just this little episode in the book about this kind of early infatuation with the female body. And what I discovered after the book came out: there are at least four different girls, women who think that they are that person [ML and BB laugh].
ML: So there was a lot of strip poker going on at that time?
BB: Well, I suppose, I’ve always assumed that was the way it was in most childhoods; but there certainly was there. Well there was a woods and a tree house in it and we built it really just essentially to go over there and take our clothes off.
ML: The Thunderbolt Kid this fantasy superhero alternative to your childhood, was he a literary conceit when you came to write the memoirs, or had he really existed?
BB: Yeah, yeah, yeah, he did. And it was essentially as I described it in the book that there was this wonderful oiled wool jersey that I found in the basement that had a very small thunderbolt, a very faded satin thunderbolt on the cover. And I was just at the age where I was extremely susceptible to superhero stuff; but also old enough to be able to kind of use my own imagination to create alternative worlds and existences. And this thing to me became, this jersey became the thing that gave me superpowers. And it was my father who dubbed me the Thunderbolt Kid just in a kind of moment of passing affection. And from time to time after that he called me that for a while. I mean it wasn’t a real recurring motif in my childhood, but it was a, it did actually happen more or less as I described it in the book.
ML: It’s always interesting the superpowers that people would choose. Actually, I think some newspapers have a column now where they ask celebrities which superpower would have if you could have one. But it’s always interesting the one that you chose, it was to do with, I suppose the time as well, the sense that you were growing up in quite a dull place as well.
BB: Yeah, well, no I’m pretty sure whatever the circumstances were growing up I would have chosen and indeed would the ability to see under people’s clothing. [ML and BB laugh] If you’re going to choose a superpower, what else would you go for? I mean, certainly at that age I was – and it probably was a function of the period – because there was, it was nearly impossible to see naked female flesh in those days. It’s so easy now, but when I was a kid, I mean it was really – you could look in an art book and see a painting by Rubens or something or, or that was it; I mean there wasn’t, there wasn’t any possibility.
ML: I suppose now we’d want the superpower to put clothes onto people. [BB laughs] Underwear onto actresses as they get out of taxis and that kind of thing... [BB laughing]
BB: Possibly, yes [BB laughs]
ML: It was an interesting time – people think it isn’t an interesting time the ‘50s – it’s a much mocked decade, that. But one of the things that you address particularly in the second book is that you have to put it into context. I mean now we realise quite topically those people were coming out of this terrible depression and then there was the fear that the world might end. And the fifties in that sense that people dislike about it of being pinched and colourless, it comes from that being stuck in that historical context.
BB: Well, it is, but also you’re talking about it being pinched and colourless because you’re talking about the 1950s in Great Britain. You know, when you still had [rationing], when it still was pretty colourless. Whereas America, you know the great thing about America that I dwell on in the book is that the war ended, America had no bomb damage to repair, it had all of its factories were there and you just, they just had to stop making tanks and bombers and start making washing machines and Buicks and things. And they did. So overnight America became hugely prosperous and the war was the best thing that ever happened to America in terms of the economy. And that was absolutely the world I was born into. You know I was born in 1951 and into a house that had, you know, a television and a telephone, and refrigerator and all of these things that you know, so there’s never been a time in my life when I didn’t have those things. Whereas with my wife, who was born in 1953 in Britain, most of those things that I’ve just mentioned, and lots more, she didn’t have until she was well into the 1960s. Her dad didn’t have a car until she was in her early teens and things like that. And so America was really sunny and bright and cheerful in terms of the economy. But then going running on alongside it was this strange paranoia and fear, the Cold War and all of that. That is something that fascinates me, because that it was oppressive in terms of – you know, it’s so hard to try and interpret that age, because on the one hand there was this great optimism and everybody had lots of money in their pockets. At the same time, there was this real feeling that we could all be dead next month, because there could be World War Three.
ML: And as a child you were conscious of that were you?
BB: You were conscious of it, but I don’t think anybody, I don’t really think anybody took it very, very seriously at all. Certainly as a child you could easily overlook it. I don’t know how much my parents really worried when, you know about the Cold War, and worried about Khrushchev and things like that. But I think the time when these two opposing realities clashed was the Cuban Missile Crisis, and that certainly was when for the first time in my whole life that a real chill went down my spine and I thought – [ML interrupts]
ML: You were eleven presumably?
BB: Yeah, I was eleven years old. And I can remember watching President Kennedy coming on television, interrupting the programme I was watching, and coming on and he looked ashen; he looked really scared – the President looked quite worried. And saying, and he was talking about exactly what was going to happen now about firing a warning shot across the bow of a Russian ship and that if it kept on going, well essentially, you know, prepare for the worst. And you realised that actually this – we could die. You know, when you’re that age you don’t think about dying at all, but the idea that we could all die together, all collectively, was really quite chilling. And I think, certainly for me, that was when it all came to a head and I think for a lot of other people too.
ML: The attitude to your father in the two books, as a child in Iowa, because in that first book William McGuire Bryson, Senior is really the butt of a lot of it and he’s this rather dull man. And then it’s a surprise, it was a surprise to me, to discover in the later book and other things I’ve read – and he now has his own Wikipedia entry even – that he was actually quite exotic as parents go because he was a distinguished sports writer. But you are much harder on him in the first book.
BB: Yeah, yeah, well again and the second book really was an intention to make amends with that because although my father is absolutely the person that appears in both books, you need to read both books to see that he was a rounded human being, and he was. In the first book he’s just this sort of Dagwood Bumstead kind of comic one-dimensional comic character who is essentially there just to always get us lost on vacations. [ML laughs] And it’s exactly what he did, I mean we spent whole, my whole childhood was spent going on vacations to places that only my father found interesting and were dreary and far-flung and anyway we got lost going there. And he was the world's cheapest man. So, all of those things are absolutely true, but there was this whole other side to him, which was that he was a very, very gifted writer and a great baseball writer. And in America, as you’ll know, that is really saying something, to be able to write well about baseball is something to be able to say. And he was, I think people – you know, he was known, and that’s quite an accomplishment for somebody who works for a provincial newspaper in Des Moines, Iowa. The other thing that has never been in any of the books is that he was actually a jerk too. And the reason I became I writer was that he was – I mean when I look back on it was because he was really quite dismissive of me and my brother and sister and I think I became a writer to sort of show him. Just to – so I mean in a sense I’m deeply indebted to him. But the reason I grew up with an ambition was because he wasn’t a particularly nice man. Everything in the house revolved around my father and my mother’s whole life was about making him happy. And he was also fairly depressive which is again something that I’ve never – it’s not a condition that I’ve ever experienced and also I tend not to be as sympathetic with it as I probably ought to be. I take more after my mother. And so I always saw him as being a depressive as a kind of self-indulgence, which she was really bolstering and supporting, when I thought really what he needed was just someone to kick him up the ass. [ML laughs] And I particularly started to feel that way as I got into my teenage years.
ML: What would he have expected you to become or wanted you to become?
BB: Well, I think, I mean, I don’t, I mean I don’t really know what went on in his head, but I think he recognised fairly early on that I was pretty good at English and that, you know, that this was, I was following him in some sense and that this was the thing that I was able to do. And as I got older, you know, as I got into my teenage years, I think that I – I don’t know, maybe reading my school essays or something, maybe he saw that there was something there. And I think part of him would have been – if he’d lived long enough – would have been very proud of me, but also part of him would have been kind of threatened by it. But my relationship with my dad was not on the whole a very, a very good one. And he tended to be – he was one of those people, he’d come, when I played little league baseball, he’d come to the games and watch, and then afterwards he’d always tell me everything I’d done wrong; it just wasn’t very supportive. It wasn’t nasty exactly, he just was – it was a bit more, it was a bit more to do with a kind of gruffness that he wasn’t able to show affection and be positive; his way of parenthood was essentially by pointing out all your inadequacies. And because I was more sensitive than my brother and sister I think my response to that was to be fairly rebellious. I mean for years I didn’t, I didn’t dine with my family; I took a tray up to my bedroom and watched television. I mean I became quite reclusive, but not in a, not in a sort of clinical sense, I just you know, I preferred to go eat upstairs. And I wasn’t withdrawn or anything.
ML: One of the comic exaggerations in The Lost Continent that I always loved is that even the car was so big that in effect you were in different worlds there, the children and the parents.
BB: Well, yeah, yeah, you can do that in America. I remember very clearly that, because none of that seemed very strange to me and kids in America, I think because they can drive when they are sixteen, they tend to fly away much sooner. And I remember coming over here and when I started to date my wife and we went to her parents’ house on a Sunday afternoon and just thinking, we’re spending the whole of Sunday afternoon sitting here with your parents watching television? I thought that’s so bizarre. I hadn’t spent that much time with my parents for, you know, since I was eight years old. And, and that’s what people did here, and still do. And I mean I think it’s, I’ve warmed to the idea now, but to me, coming from the circumstances I came from, it just seemed very strange that you would want to socialise with your parents once you got to a certain age.
ML: One of the recurring riffs in The Lost Continent is the – from the very first page – is the risk of being trapped and having to spend your life, and indeed your death, your eternity in Iowa. [BB laughs]
BB: [Laughing] Did I say that?
ML: [Laughs] Yes, you do. What [BB and ML laugh]
BB: [Laughing] It was a long time ago.
ML: Well you make the point that your father never escaped it even in death he’s still there, so he can’t get away from it. But, at what stage did you start, did you have a sense growing up of the risk of marrying a girl called Bobbie and being trapped here forever?
BB: Well, I don’t think, I mean I really do think from a really very early age I knew I was going somewhere else. And some of my earliest memories, you know, fully formed memories that I can recall clearly are of reading or of looking at pictures in National Geographic and having this very positive feeling that the world outside Iowa was very exciting and interesting. You kind of read an article about Tahiti or Samoa or something and think, oh, wow I’d love to go there. Or the next one would be about Belgium or Ireland or someplace and you’d think, oh that’s really; so it just made everywhere look really good and so I had this very powerful desire to go out and see this other world.
ML: And you’re a few years younger than that Bill Clinton, George W. Bush generation that had to get out of Vietnam, find ways out of it; but were you ever at risk of being sent?
BB: Yeah, I was, but right at the very end of being at risk. I mean, they had an annual lottery and it was, it was this bizarre event that was televised nationally, and as I recall, there were two drums, one of them was a birth date, and the other one was an order of being picked. And, so they’d pull out, and my birthday was December 8 and they pulled it out and the number that they matched it up to was 335. So you knew that there were going to be 334 other birthdays likely to go before mine. So I knew right away I was safe. But if your birthday came out and the number one came out, you knew that there was a very... [ML interrupts]
ML: Well, I’ve read memoirs of that and novels, that thing of people would talk about whether they had a higher or a lower draft number.
BB: And that is what that was. And you only had to go through this the once. It was everybody who was going to be eighteen that year, so all of us, you know, everybody knew, everybody from your school year – all the millions of other eighteen year olds from all over the country were watching television that night to see what number they were getting.
ML: One of the paradoxes for people who read the memoirs, I think, is that you embody one of those ‘60s / ‘70s words: ‘drop-out’. I mean, you were a drop-out; you left, you left college.
BB: Yeah, well, I went to college with great reluctance, I wanted to go off and see the world and I didn’t want to hang around anymore and my mother – it was very important to her that I go to university and so she used up all her inheritance – which was quite modest – to pay for my tuition at the local university in Des Moines, which is Drake University. And I did keep dropping out and coming to Europe and hitchhiking around and one time I came and didn’t come home at all. I mean, I stayed for two years; that was when I got a job here and met my wife who was a student nurse and stayed on. So it took me overall it took me seven years to finish university, although I eventually I did; mostly to please her.
ML: You present yourself as a rather bad student and scholar and not even particularly bright, and yet we have particularly these recent books which have the complete history of the entire world in them and you have even Stephen Fry saying this guy knows a lot, and that kind of thing. So what happened? Are you misrepresenting your school days or were you a late developer in that way?
BB: No, no, I was a terrible student; and it wasn’t, it was mostly to do with attitude than sort of intellectual limitations. But, it was, I was very reluctant to go to school. I wanted; I don’t like structured learning and I don’t like people telling me, you know, this is how, this is what you’re going to be learning now. And I just wasn’t very good at being a student. But in terms of being brainy, I’m not particularly; I mean I’m really not particularly. I mean all I really do with these books is to just; I see myself as a reporter. I do exactly what you do when you are doing the job of being a reporter – just go out and ask questions and essentially, you know, I’ve never pretended to be expert at any of these things. What I’m doing is just going out and asking so how does this work; tell me what happens.
ML: The fascination with words, which has gone through several of your books specifically. That must have been helped by moving between two countries and then indeed living in Yorkshire where again English becomes different again. Because we become much more aware of accent and vocabulary when we’re away from it or we hear foreigners speaking it.
BB: My initial interest in language as something to write about was a direct outgrowth of working on newspapers here. You know, I worked as a sub-editor here and I was kind of right at the front of the coal face. And I used to wonder why, so why is it that all these words like humour and colour do I have to put a ‘u’ in and make sure; why are there these differences and why, and I just got curious to know and why, why, what happened? I mean we both speak the same language and yet, you know, why do you not say ‘gotten’ normally, but you will say ‘ill-gotten gains’. So why do you have this sort of little fossil ‘gotten’ in your usage but you don’t use it routinely; whereas we use it routinely.
ML: And if I look at a map of Iowa when I’m driving through there and I see a place called [Madrid] Ma-DRID to me, why do they say MAD-rid?
ML: And it’s all those kinds of things.
BB: And what you find out when you look into these things – there’s one in Kentucky: Ver-SAILS, Versailles it’s pronounced Ver-SAILS. And you go there and you sort of think – you sort of chuckle, and sort of snicker at these people because you assume that they’re too backwards to realise they should be saying Versailles, or Madrid, or so on. But actually very often those are reflecting ancient or very old pronunciations. That everybody may have been saying Ver-SAILS at that time and that’s how you get from Firenze to Florence, and so on, that these are actually historical reflections of pronunciations that very often were current at the time the town was named.
ML: But also American language because we’ve been quite hard on America in this interview, but the sort of, the sense of wonder there comes across in Made in America, is this sense of a young country being made up as they went along. There’s a chapter about names and you have the story of: “Soon after the Milwaukee railroad began laying track across Washington State in the 1870s, a Vice President of the company was given the task of naming thirty-two new communities that were to be built along the line.” It’s amazing; you say he named them after everything from Poets – Whittier – Plays – Othello – to common household foods – Holstein and Purina. And there’s still a Laconia there which it turns out to have been a mistake. He just, he thought he’d seen it on a map and he hadn’t.
BB: He thought he’d seen it on a map of Switzerland and he says on going back to the map and on looking more closely, he discovers that it doesn’t seem to exist at all. But he still names the place Laconia; which is wonderful. And all these places that really aren’t interesting like New Madrid or New London, and you think, did they really think that this was going to be the new London? Or what were their hopes? And probably very often they did. I mean when these places were planted nobody knew that one day this place will become one day Chicago. I mean there’s a whole part of northern Michigan where they eat pasties because they had tin mining there and they brought people over from Cornwall. [ML laughs] And it’s the only place in America where you can go and buy – not only go and buy pasties – but go and say pastie and people know what you’re talking about.
ML: The job you did before you started writing the books – sub-editor – it’s a strange profession. Sitting there late at night, eating banana sandwiches for some reason a lot of them [BB laughs] did in my experience. You’re correcting the facts and grammar of star columnists who really don’t thank you for it. There is a clear hierarchy between the sub-editors and the writers. Did you find that experience, I mean were you thinking I want to be a writer?
BB: No, not exactly, I didn’t want to be a writer on a newspaper. I mean, as far as I was concerned, people who did the writing on newspapers, they spent a lot of time having to stand outside in the rain [ML sniggers] waiting for somebody to come out and make an announcement. So in that sense I had no desire at all to write for newspapers; I liked being inside, being comfortable and having regular hours and all that. But a part of me did want to write, kind of on my own terms, I mean I wanted to write featurey type things and what I was doing, what I did was in my spare time I did start writing travel articles and things. Mostly as a way just to supplement my meagre salary. [ML laughs]
ML: And we should fill in younger viewers or people who have forgotten the newspaper history at that time, because it was very bloody. Rupert Murdoch had broken the print unions, taken his newspapers to Wapping and, it will seem extraordinary this now to people who weren’t involved in it, but journalists would go in under police escort. There would be stones thrown at the coaches. Often wouldn’t be allowed out because the police said it wasn’t safe to come out; and were producing newspapers in those circumstances. But you were right in the middle of all that.
BB: Yeah, yeah, it was an awful; it was just an awful time. It was really, it was really, it was sometimes quite scary, I mean you; I did get my car kicked in once. And it all happened very suddenly and like everybody else I never saw it coming.
ML: Well, it was almost literally overnight, wasn’t it?
BB: It was. And, I mean, I learned about it the night before we went. And it was I mean it was very bizarre: you go to Wapping the next day and there is this whole enormous building. I mean it seemed positively enormous. And it’s full of all these people who had quietly left Grayson Road and had disappeared. And they’d quietly vanished. They’d been setting everything up. And people who used to work there and had gone back to Australia, you thought, had actually just moved across town. And so you’d go in and there’s this whole newspaper all ready to go. And I was in, like many people I was in a position, I had a young family, I was too cowardly to be unemployed, it was not a good time economically to be out of work. I didn’t have any savings. And the NUJ, the union I belonged to, rather cravenly on reflection, decided that it wouldn’t, that, you know, it wouldn’t resist the move. And I think, you know, looking back over the longer period, it was, this was a change that was necessary. I mean, you know, it had to happen. The NUJ had resisted technology – new kind of technology for too long. So it just had to happen. But I thought when it was happening; I’m never going to get in this position again. The first thing I did was I started saving money, so that I would always have some kind of money I could, in the bank. I made a real conscious effort to save some money so that I would have some kind of cushion. And then as soon as there was an opportunity to go somewhere else – like lots and lots of other people – I left and went to The Independent. And it was a complete change for me; it was the happiest place in the world in the early days.
ML: And I was at The Independent and I remember when you left. There is this romantic fantasy, and it remains a fantasy for most journalists, of leaving, becoming a full-time writer, writing best-selling books. And I think people, a lot of people were quite cynical when you left, they thought it’s not going to work like it’s not worked for so many people; he’ll have to come back doing subbing shifts. Were you apprehensive when you left?
BB: Well, yeah; I mean people were – and see this goes back to what you were just saying a little while ago about journalists and reporters and so on, I think a lot of people felt particularly it wasn’t going to happen in my case because I was a sub-editor, [BB and ML laugh] I wasn’t a proper journalist. And I knew that there was a risk involved, but as I say, all the time that I was working as a sub-editor, in my spare time I was doing quite a lot of writing. And I had built up a number of contacts. And I was beginning to get books published and I was beginning to have, to make pretty good money. And I thought well if I can just if I can just do this full-time, and if I can make – I can’t remember what I needed, if I can make £800 a month, I think that was what I needed, so something like £14,000 a year or something – we can make it work. And I think I can do that. So I wasn’t thinking, I’ll go off and I’ll be on the best-seller list and I’ll become rich and famous, I was just thinking can we actually afford to survive. And I thought there was a pretty good chance of it and in fact we could, I mean it wasn’t that hard to make a living. There was a certain amount of scrambling that went on in those early years and you have to adjust to the fact that you might sell eleven articles in a six-week period, but you’re not going to get paid eleven times; I mean the money will come in over months – a longer period. So you have to be a lot better with relying on savings and kind of replenishing it when money comes in.
ML: And in fact, although some people I think think that the linguistic books came later, the first book you ever published was The Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words, which had come out of being a sub-editor.
BB: Exactly, it goes back to what I was saying about just being curious about why are there these differences, what, and. And the only thing that existed in terms of help for sub-editors was Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Which is, you know, a fantastic and incomparable book, but it’s not a very handy book, and I felt that there was a real need for a book like that. And I suggested it to an editor at Penguin and to my amazement they commissioned me to do it.
ML: And the book that really started it all off, The Lost Continent; this idea for a travel book which was – which is how it reads now – a travel book which was also a memoir, but what, what was the concept when it arrived?
BB: Well, the way I sold it to the publisher was exactly that idea was that I wanted to go back and see how America had changed since I had been growing up there in the ‘50s. And my whole idea was just to travel around the country and kind of just look at the country, from the unusual perspective of being an American who had lived away from it for some time. So I didn’t think of it as the start of a career as a travel writer at all; I mean, I didn’t even really think of it as a travel book, I was just going back and looking at my own country and my own circumstances. And what I did was I wrote the first chapter without having gone anywhere near America. If you read the first chapter you’ll see that it doesn’t: it’s all reflections; it’s all history. And I sent that and said, you know now I’d like to go make the trip and I sent it to a whole bunch of publishers and two of them got interested, interested enough to look into it more. Both of them essentially said what is the least amount of money we can give you to allow you to do the research to do the book. And I very carefully calculated, my mom promised to lend me her car, and I worked out the cheapest budget I could come up with. And I can’t remember what it was, but it was like £1200 to do a five-week trip across America. And one of the publishers then dropped out. [ML and BB laugh] The other gave me that kind of money and the book eventually did pretty well. But not immediately; it wasn’t until it came out in paperback and was read on Radio 4 that it suddenly took off in a fairly big way.
ML: But the reason it probably got onto Radio 4, it was one of those genuine word-of-mouth books, wasn’t it? There were good reviews, but then people started telling each other that they’d read it.
BB: Yeah, and it was such a lucky time to be starting out as a writer. I mean it was a real word-of-mouth age back then. And there were so many more things you could do to get started. I think it’s become a lot harder now. I mean it was, you know, things like readings in bookshops were just coming in, they were big occasions. People used to go to a reading just because, just for the glass of wine and a night out, [ML laughs] you know. And now people, I think, have just, there’s this sort of fatigue there – that there are so many events. So I came along at a very lucky time.
ML: The Bill Bryson we get in The Lost Continent is an interesting comparison with Paul Theroux: that he, he was the suave, waspish American abroad, and although you can be quite waspish, you’re very different; you’re kind of bumbling and slightly fumbly [sic] American abroad.
BB: Yeah, I mean that is me; that really is me. And, as, you know, as I was saying to you earlier, these things were all based on a reality that I, you know I – well, I remember an occasion once when I completely, just completely brought disorder to a check-in line at an airport because I couldn’t find our tickets. And this was – we were flying to England and in those days I smoked a pipe and because I knew how expensive pipe tobacco would be in England I brought an enormous tin of pipe tobacco. And I couldn’t find the tickets and as I was pulling all the stuff out of this carry-on bag, and getting kind of flustered and everything because I was holding up a queue, I pulled out the tobacco tin came out and the lid popped off [ML laughs] and this tin just rolled all the way across the concourse, you know, empting itself of its contents as it went. And my wife looked at me and just said: ‘I cannot believe that this is what you do for a living.’ And it is true, I am just completely hopeless, and I’ve just learned to survive doing that. I would give anything to be like Paul Theroux. Seriously, I would give anything to be able to do what he does in his books, which is just strike up these relationships with strangers. I am totally inept at that and can’t do it. So I have to write from a different perspective.
ML: So when you have to be in your role as Chancellor of Durham University, you have to put on your robes. And do you have a sense of the ridiculous and you’re so shy – that must be quite a hard thing to do, is it?
BB: Well, it’s not hard so much as strange. It’s, it’s unnatural, every bit of it. Putting on the robes really reinforces the personal preposterousness of this situation. Because, I mean, as your very first question to me in this interview, you know, I am a guy from Des Moines, Iowa. Suddenly, I’m in Durham Cathedral and I’m presiding over this very grand occasion. And it never escapes me that this is just ridiculous – what am I doing here? How did I end up here? I’m really pleased to be here but this just doesn’t make sense. This is totally – you couldn’t have forecast it that this is where I would end up when I left Des Moines. And putting on the robes is part – I felt very self-conscious when I first did it. And, of course, at Durham I had the additional, the additional factor that I was following in the footsteps of Peter Ustinov who was born to be a university chancellor and was, you know; the greatest storyteller of the 20th century. And all of those things that you would hope to find in a university chancellor, he had them in spades. I mean, better than anybody else. And so I’ve been acutely aware that I’m not Peter Ustinov. [BB and ML laugh]
ML: And recently the books they’ve been more in the genre of popular education than travel. There is, to use one of those words that has always been very peculiar to me, pedagogic instinct: you do have one of those?
BB: Well, it isn’t so much, it isn’t so much that I want to teach; it’s that I want to learn. I mean, generally, there are things that I’m really curious to know about. And I suppose the only part of it that is pedagogic is that I have this real instinct when I read something that I think is amazing or cool, I want to share it. You know, why didn’t they teach me this in school? I’d have paid attention to physics if I’d known this or, you know; and then I want to just go and find just any other human beings and say, ‘Did you know this?’ And I suppose that’s the kind of instinct that motivates me when I write the books.
ML: But then your readers...so you create this chain, because your readers, like when I read about Laconia and how it got its name and so on, I want to tell somebody else that; so you create a sort of chain of education in a way.
BB: What a nice thought! But that isn’t really what I’m thinking. It’s really just I’ve found this amazing fact about Laconia, or something like it, and I, you know, I want to get it out there, I mean I want to share it. And it doesn’t really matter whether I put it down on a page in a book or whether I’m just telling somebody in a pub. The great thing about putting it on a page in a book is that you get paid for it. You make a living from it. But, but it isn’t, that isn’t, that isn’t really why I’m doing it in a sense. I do it because I feel I have to get it out and share it.
ML: What are you writing at the moment?
BB: Well, I’m doing a book at the moment – I’m never quite sure how much you should tell people about what you are doing at the moment, so perhaps I shouldn’t say too much. But I’m doing, it’s a history of private life. It’s looking at everything... My starting point was a curiosity; I was sitting at the kitchen table once and the table was cleared away of all the eating things, but there was still the salt and pepper on the table. And I just thought why is it always salt and pepper? You know, why not salt and cinnamon or pepper and cardamom? Why these two particular? And I kind of looked around the house sitting in this chair in this moment of idleness and thought I don’t really understand why any of these things are the way they are. So I just started looking into why do we live the way we do, why all the structures of life – all of the things that go on in our household, domestic sphere. Is there an interesting history behind these things, are there reasons here that I never really stopped to think about?
ML: Quite a big subject, though.
BB: Turns out it’s just huge! [ML laughs] I mean it just goes on and on and on. I’m having the most wonderful time. I’ve been really, really enjoying the research and the learning. But trying to make it all fit together is turning out to be quite a challenge. I haven’t quite worked out how to structure it all.
ML: Away from the books, one of your other roles is President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England. In which you’ve focused particularly on litter or garbage as you would once have call it. And you were called by a newspaper the Chief Womble, a reference that would be completely mysterious to Americans and people under a certain age. But why litter, why is litter so important?
BB: Well, litter is just one of those things. I mean, it’s not, I mean, you know, it’s not more important than curing cancer – or there’s lots and lots, it wouldn’t be hard to name lots and lots of things that are more important than litter. But litter is something that I – you know I can’t do anything about curing cancer, but I just felt that litter is something that I can manage. And I just, I think it’s a great shame that a country as beautiful and that has been historically as clean and loved and well looked after as Britain, should be so kind of casually, thoughtlessly moving down this road in which litter is becoming increasingly a feature of the environment. And I really am convinced that lots and lots of other people feel the same way. I just felt like we really ought to do something about this and I’d never been involved in any kind of a campaign in my life at all and I just thought, okay, for once in my life before I die, I will try and do something. And part of that may be just trying to persuade politicians to act more vigorously, or local authorities to act more vigorously. And part of it may be trying to think of a way or actions we can take as a society to make this less of a problem.
ML: Do you intervene if you catch someone in the act?
BB: Yeah, I do, I mean I know that you shouldn’t, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone to do it. And what I always do is I try first of all to sound very American because that seems to provide you with a bit of a shield. [ML laughs] And I always say to them, you know, I don’t ever say, ‘you should be ashamed of yourself’ or anything like that. What I just say to them is, you know, ‘you’ve got a really beautiful country, you should love it, and you shouldn’t do that’. And I make it more like a question of what are you thinking, what are you doing? And that generally works.
ML: Still quite brave though.
BB: Well, it’s impulsive and there have been occasions – there was one occasion not too long ago when I thought I really was going to be clobbered. And I was just walking in Victoria and a young man ahead of me had been eating fish and chips – this was the middle of the afternoon – and he wadded up the paper and kind of looked around and, and sort of slyly threw it into a doorway of a shop that was shut. You know, a business had gone out of business. And again, I slink up to him and said the same thing, ‘you’ve got a lovely country you shouldn’t do that’. And he looked at me kind of through narrow eyes and I really thought I am now – now’s when I get hit and he’s going to hit me now. And he just said to me in this very strong Glaswegian accent, he said, ‘I’m terribly sorry, but I just very, very drunk’. [ML and BB laugh] And he went back and picked it up, totally ashamed of himself, knew that he had done the wrong thing, he went back and picked it up and took it and put it in a bin. And we parted as – I said ‘good boy’ or something: ‘you should be proud of yourself – do that all the time now, you will feel better for it.’
ML: In the, your travel books so far, you’ve touched on at least all the continents but are there still places that you would like to go?
BB: There are loads of places I’d love to go, but not necessarily write about. I’ve never been to Russia. I’ve never been to China, except for a couple of days in Hong Kong. But that isn’t to say necessarily that I would want to write about those places. The problem I have is that the kind of books I write, it’s assumed that, they’re totally predicated on the idea that I’m going to be taking the Mickey out of the culture I’m writing about. And you can do that with big, modern, First World nations comfortably, but if I were to go to India, say, I don’t know how much I, how I could possibly write comically about people sleeping under bridges or, you know, living on the edge of culverts; you know, suffering. There’s not the scope there; not only is it not funny stuff innately, but then also if you somehow strained to make it comical there’s a real risk of seeming racist or insensitive – things that I’m not. And yet you could easily blunder into that sort of territory. So there is a lot of the world that I cannot write the kind of books that I would be expected to write about. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in seeing them or being there.
ML: Finally, often with ex-pats the desire to go back gets very strong as they get older. We see it in Australians, for example, who have come to Britain. Do you think, is there any chance that will happen to you or is it Britain forever now?
BB: Oh, you know, I think I’ll always live here, as long as you’ll have me. But there is, I do find that not the United States overall, but Iowa where I come from, I have a real attachment to it. I’m kind of: I appreciate it a lot more than I did when I was growing up there. It’s a strange place. I mean the beauty of a place like Iowa takes some getting to know. It’s a little bit like Norfolk where I live now, because it is flat and pretty featureless. And what makes it lovely is a lot more subtle than something like the Rocky Mountains, or, you know, some more dramatic type landscapes. And I do love to go back there and see that; I do feel a kind of ‘at home’ there. But not once in the thirty years since I left there have I ever thought that I would like to come back here and live. I mean, I come back and visit it regularly, but that doesn’t mean that I want to live there.
ML: Bill Bryson, thank you.
BB: Thank you very much, Mark.
[Credits roll] – Time 58 minutes, 29 seconds in total – © BBC – MMIX
Broadcast on BBC Four, 10:30pm Sunday 25th January 2009
This transcription made by August Jordan Davis from Monday to Wednesday 26th to 28th January 2009 from the video available on BBC iPlayer.