By Isabelle Ardron and Holly Adams
“I adore Durham as you know”, laughed Bill Bryson OBE, the award-winning author of Notes from a Small Island (1996) and former Chancellor of Durham University.
Yet when asked about his own university experience at Drake University, Iowa, Bryson reflects on his longing to escape and explore.
In 1972, after two years of his degree, Bryson made the decision to leave Iowa for a four-month trip around Europe. He recalls “I was a bit impatient to be grown up and to get out into the real world because I really had not gone anywhere other than across town for university.”
This was to be the first of Bryson’s many trips to the continent and inspiration for his book Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe (1991). When asked about his favourite place his travels have taken him, Bryson is quick to answer: “Britain.”
Bryson describes in more detail how “Over the whole course of my life I have to say Britain because obviously it changed my life. I was completely smitten”. Bryson is referring to the “lucky accident” of meeting his wife, Cynthia Billen, outside the psychiatric hospital where he worked.
Travel has shaped Bryson’s work and life, and he encourages the importance of travel for young people. Travel offers an “additional perspective”, a chance to re-evaluate our own cultures and sometimes ask, “Why don’t we do that where we come from?”
A gap year is so important. It is a chance to grow up and see more of the world than you would have done otherwise
As a dual citizen of both the US and Britain, Bryson expresses his thoughts about the political and social climate of the two countries. “I have never known America in a worse place than it is now”.
Not only does Bryson find the Trump Presidency deeply worrying, he suggests that issues such as gun crime and healthcare are simply irreparable.
As for Britain, Bryson considers there to be an exciting dynamism providing new opportunities for travel and adventure to ordinary people.
However, within this dynamism, Bryson believes there is a growing culture of self-absorption and greediness; “People are so obsessed with their careers that sometimes they are not aware of other people.”
Nevertheless, in comparison to the isolated and naïve ‘Small Island’ Bryson first visited in 1973, Bryson celebrates the possibilities gap years and years abroad provide for young people to see more of the world; “A gap year is so important. It is a chance to grow up and see more of the world than you would have done otherwise”.
The conversation turns to Notes from a Small Island itself, the book for which Bryson is best-known in the UK. Bryson admits ‘I don’t know’ why the book has garnered such popularity, unassumingly admitting to being “surprised” at the episodes which have resonated with readers.
As occurs throughout our conversation, Bryson shifts the focus of his answer to reflect more generally on his adopted homeland. He suggests that Notes from a Small Island makes it clear that “I really do admire Britain”, whilst celebrating as “great” the fact that you can affectionately “tease” the British.
The half-admiring, half-joking tone of Notes from Small Island is arguably what has given rise to its popularity; it reads like being fondly teased good-naturedly by a long-standing friend.
However, Bryson recognises that his comedy hasn’t always quite hit the mark. Of his book The Lost Continent, in which he focuses on America, Bryson concedes he was “too hard” on his home state of Iowa.
Although Bryson would “stand by” what he wrote as “true”, he regrets that the Iowa he presented was too one-sided, focusing more on a “rustic” “dopey” depiction of Iowans at the expense of their “decency” and “wholesomeness”.
Bryson’s regret over his depiction of Iowa led him to revisit the state in his memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid to “redress the balance”. This ability to recognise and reflect on his mistakes not only makes Bryson an amusingly self-deprecating writer and interviewee, but also an incredibly human one.
I have never known America in a worse place than it is now
It is this fundamental human approachability which perhaps explains where Bryson remains an enduringly popular Durham Chancellor.
Remembered for being heavily involved with the student life of the university, one of Bryson’s “great moments” as Chancellor was the acting masterclass he organised with Hollywood actor Russell Crowe for Durham students in 2011.
Bryson admits his surprise at pulling off an event he “never expected to happen”, and celebrates the “wonderful” Crowe, describing a photo he has of his children with Crowe in a Durham bar, all three of them “fairly intoxicated”.
This combination of celebrity glamour and down to earth humour has cemented Bryson’s place as a Durham icon. Another feature which has become a recurring theme and legacy of Bryson’s tenure as Chancellor is his appearance in numerous graduation photos.
Bryson admits he expected to find Congregation a more “boring” aspect of the role, shaking 800 hands “day after day for a week”.
However, his expectations were overturned, experiencing graduation as “the most magical week”, in which he had the privilege of seeing students at the moment, receiving their degree certificates, where they realised “I’ve done it!”
Bryson also celebrates the opportunity to be “part of a community” of academics and students which the role of Chancellor brings.
When questioned on his stance towards the changes the rises in college accommodation fees will bring to the student community, Bryson is understandably uneasy in committing himself to an answer on a situation he knows little about.
However, Bryson’s reflections on the cost of the UK-wide student experience do convey his enduring affiliation with the student community. He is critical of the idea of tuition fees as “very worrying”, arguing that universities, like the NHS, should be “free at the point of use”.
Bryson also recalls being struck by “how white” Durham was during his Chancellorship, and advocates diversification of the Durham student body.
He indicates his support for seeing a greater diversity of “skin tones”, economic backgrounds, and “accents other than the Home Counties” both at Durham and at universities across the country.
Bryson’s recollections of Durham are, however, overwhelmingly positive. From the friendliness of the Durham townspeople, “who would say good morning to me like I was the Lord Mayor”, to being “completely bowled over” by the city on his first visit, Bryson wholeheartedly celebrates the city, university, and its people.
Bryson celebrates Durham as a place where the university is comfortably “integrated” in the city which hosts it, where the students are “bright, motivated, engaged”, which benefits from being “isolated” in creating a close, community atmosphere for both study and socialising.
Bryson concludes his remarks on Durham posing the question “what more could you possibly ask for?” in a university which unites setting with a “first-class education”.
The same could well be said of Bryson, undoubtedly one of the most involved and well-loved figures in the University’s recent history.
Photographs: Durham University