Notes From a Short Interview, with Bill Bryson

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“Durham is my favourite place in the whole universe – this is only place in the world where they call me ‘Doctor’ and name buildings after me.”

He might not be Chancellor anymore, but Bill Bryson’s love of all things Durham has far from diminished since he stepped down in 2011. “I wish Durham was regularly in my life again – I berate myself constantly for not making time to come up more. One of the things I loved about Durham was coming here and seeing the same people and getting to know about their lives. I miss belonging to something really quite special.”

“This is the only place in the world where they call me ‘Doctor’ and name buildings after me”

Bryson’s first visit to Durham, in the mid-nineties, is recorded in what is perhaps his most famous book, Notes from a Small Island (1995), when he described it as “wonderful – a perfect little city”, home to “the best cathedral on planet earth”. Twenty-five years later, he stands by every word of it: “That was all genuine and quite sincere. I’d only heard about Durham vaguely, but nothing had prepared me for it. I think one of the great views of the world is from the station looking out over the city – and, while I’m willing to concede that there are some other very fine cathedrals, I still think Durham is something special.”

Just ten years after Notes from a Small Island was published, Bryson was appointed Chancellor of the University, a post he held until 2011. “I said some nice things about Durham in my book, and they gave me an honorary doctorate,” he jokes, “then I said some more nice things about Durham in my acceptance speech, and they asked if I wanted to be Chancellor.”

Bryson didn’t live in Durham during his Chancellorship – his family were residing in Norfolk at the time – but he was nevertheless heavily involved in university life.“I always tried to come up at least a couple of other times during the year to make departmental visits and stay at colleges”, he explains, mentioning an unfulfilled challenge he had set himself, to stay the night in every college at least once. This is the man who, famously, arranged for Russell Crowe to visit Durham and hold a workshop for twenty of the University’s finest student thespians: “We had the best day! He’s such a nice guy, he had a great time and thought the students were fantastic. That was the occasion when I think I was most proud of this university and the people in it.”

His other favourite memory of being Chancellor is, surprisingly, attending twice-annual Congregation ceremonies for graduating students. “Everyone told me to steel myself, because I would have to shake everyone’s hand as they graduated. But it was magical, and I loved it – I was the person who got to see each graduate as their name is read, and it dawns on them that they’ve done it. It’s like a little buzz of magic.” Bryson was evidently fond of the pomp and ceremony, too: “I got to sit in Durham Cathedral, wearing the fanciest robe of them all, with the best seat in the house. How could anyone ever take that for granted?” Not bad, he considers, for a kid from Des Moines, Iowa, where “a building from before 1900 is considered ancient”.

Bryson’s enthusiasm for all things Durham is contagious

Nowadays, Bryson has dual citizenship and a British passport, having spent more than half of his life in the UK – and so it seems bizarre that he ended up here “totally by accident”. After travelling around Europe, he got a job in a psychiatric hospital just outside London, where he met Cynthia Billen, whom he would later marry. “I ended up falling for her and falling for England simultaneously, and I’m pleased to say I’m still with both of them – my wife and I are still happily married and I’m still very fond of Britain.”

Despite spending so long in the UK, though, and even acknowledging that he is much more well-known over here (“I’ve never been recognised on the street in the US”), he still feels very much like an American abroad. “I will always be a foreigner, which is not a bad thing – the great part of having a second country is how much it enriches your experience. I still feel really, really lucky to be here.”

“I wish Durham was regularly in my life again – I berate myself constantly for not making time to come up more”

Bryson’s dual identity as an American-British author has been the source of much of his work, including Notes from a Small Island, Notes from a Big Country (1999), and The Road to Little Dribbling (2015). While he started out as a journalist before turning to travel writing, Bryson has since penned non-fiction books on history, language and science. “I start from a point where I know very little about a subject, and my challenge is to understand the subject and convey it to the reader in as interesting a way as I can. When I write these books, I can’t write from the perspective of an expert, so I try to make a virtue of ignorance – and one powerful advantage is my capacity to be amazed all the time.” His most recent book, The Body: A Guide for Occupants, reflects this: “I always felt bad that I don’t understand about how I work. We spend our whole existence in this package of tissues, and I thought that I ought to understand it better.”

Indeed, Bryson has based an entire career around a love of learning and researching: “Learning is exciting, and it should be stimulating – everything you do should be at least a little magical. It isn’t just a duty you have to fulfil.” His passion for accessible education and scholarship takes on a practical mode when he talks about Durham’s student body: “At Durham, you get the impression of a lot of relatively privileged white kids, and there ought to be space here for people who haven’t had those advantages to come here.

“The number of people who are really intelligent and could do amazing things, if institutions of higher learning would just identify them – if Durham were to contribute to that, it would be a noble use of its time and resources.”

His passion for higher education is obvious, but especially for what Durham offers outside of its academic rigour: “You’re all smart here – you’re all here because you’re very intelligent human beings, but I don’t particularly admire you for that. What I do admire is that, in addition to all the academic stuff you do, so many of you find time to belong to a choir, or do theatrical productions, or these wonderful fashion shows – everything is at a level which is essentially professional, and I haven’t even mentioned sport yet. It is quite an achievement that Durham does all these things so well.”

Of course, the name Bill Bryson has one very specific connotation among Durham University students. His late predecessor Peter Ustinov’s legacy lives on in Ustinov College; Bryson, meanwhile, has given his name to the Bill Bryson Library. “It’s the best honour that’s ever been paid to me. I would much rather have a library than a college – to me it is absolutely perfect. I love libraries. Long before they named it after me, I used to come up here on my visits and spend two or three days in there – it’s a great place to do research for my books and I was always treated very well. I do miss going into the library as a user.” He’s even fond of its affectionate nickname, the Billy B: “I think it’s very nice, I’m happy with that.”

“I would much rather have a library than a college – to me it is absolutely perfect”

Bryson’s enthusiasm for all things Durham is contagious, casting the university – and the city – in a refreshed light where everything is, quite simply, wonderful. He offers a few words of wisdom for the current Durham student body: “Really, really enjoy your time at Durham – it goes so quickly, and then you’ll be finished forever. This is one of the most magical periods of your whole life – you get to soak up as much information as you can and try anything that interests you, and there are whole armies of people willing to help you do it. In a few years from now you’ll be thrust into the world and have to get a job – it might be really stimulating and rewarding, but won’t be anything like as fun. Take a moment from time to time to reflect on how lucky you are to be here.”

Image: National Churches Trust via Flickr

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