No one can fault his timing. Bill Bryson, the much-loved and arguably the most successful travel writer there’s ever been, is hanging up his pen just as it’s become impossible to travel anywhere.
At least, almost impossible. I’m not sure Bryson would go a bundle on swabs being shoved up his nose 72 hours before departure or self-isolating for 14 days on returning from a faraway land such as France.
Even so, to retire at 68 when you’re still on top of your game seems a little unfair on those of us who have long come out as die-hard Bryson fans and who have always been prepared to man the ramparts to repel any literary snobs tempted to dismiss his musings as light-weight popularism.
No one can fault his timing. Bill Bryson, the much-loved and arguably the most successful travel writer there’s ever been, is hanging up his pen just as it’s become impossible to travel anywhere
There are quite a few of us in Bryson’s barmy army. More than 10 million of his books have been sold since 1995, generating some £81 million (Bryson’s net worth is estimated at £8 million) and they’ve been translated into 30 languages.
Not bad for an unassuming and not exactly gregarious man who grew up in Des Moines, Iowa — ‘somebody had to,’ as he put it in The Lost Continent, his 1989 book about America.
But part of Bryson’s appeal has long been his low-key, down-to-earth persona (once asked where he regarded as home he said, sweetly, ‘wherever my wife is’) that’s appealed to the British public in spectacular fashion.
He has garnered no fewer than 11 honorary doctorates, served as Chancellor of Durham University and president of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, been awarded an honorary OBE (surely a knighthood beckons). Heck, he’s even been played by Robert Redford in a film based on his Appalachian Trail memoir, A Walk In The Woods.
And, yet, when announcing his retirement he gets away with what would be seen as cheesy platitudes if proffered by others. ‘You only get one life,’ he said yesterday. ‘I would quite like to spend the part that is left to me . . . doing all the things I’ve not been able to do like enjoying my family.’
So the question is: how has this bearded, spectacled figure with a passing resemblance to Father Christmas become so revered? The answer, in part, is because his prolific output goes way beyond the world of travel.
Part of Bryson’s appeal has long been his low-key, down-to-earth persona (once asked where he regarded as home he said, sweetly, ‘wherever my wife is’) that’s appealed to the British public in spectacular fashion
The tome which, in his words ‘did the best internationally and been the book that has made me most financially secure’ is A Short History Of Nearly Everything, published in 2003, which explains in layman’s terms the key achievements of science from the beginning of time.
And his latest and presumably final book, released last year, is an exploration of the human body from the top of our heads to the soles of our feet.
One of my favourites is Shakespeare: The World As Stage, which came out in 2007 and is perfect for those of us who should have read high-minded biographies of the Bard but never quite got round to it. In 199 pages, Bryson discusses various theories and myths about Shakespeare’s life in an easily accessible way, with just the right number of memorable nuggets to impress at a dinner party.
But, the real reason Bryson has become a national treasure is because, in his wildly popular book about this country, Notes From A Small Island, he reminded us of who we British are. Or who, on a good day, we would like to be. Somehow, he has got the measure of us in all our strange, paradoxical ways.
His latest and presumably final book, released last year, is an exploration of the human body from the top of our heads to the soles of our feet
And even when making caustic comments — he accused Sir Herbert Manzoni, Birmingham’s chief engineer from 1935 to 1963, of filling the city with ugly ringroads, dank subways and brutalist tower blocks that had made the city ‘as horrible a place as you could find’ — he does so with thinly-disguised affection.
And humour. Not many people — especially one born in America — could get away with saying that the best thing about Stonehenge was ‘the smart new gift shop and coffee bar’.
Before adding: ‘This is, after all, merely the most important prehistoric monument in Europe and one of the dozen most visited tourist attractions in England, so clearly there is no point in spending foolish sums making it interesting and instructive.’
Bryson’s books do what poetry is supposed to do — make us think again. They ask us to dwell on what we take for granted, or choose to ignore. And good poetry helps us see ourselves and the world around us with fresh eyes.
One of the best chapters in Notes From A Small Island — which has sold more than two million copies since it was published in 1995 — devotes several pages to place names. All Bryson, who now lives in Hampshire, needs to do is list some of them according to what images they summon and immediately we get the point. He is both poking fun and filled with admiration.
For ‘lazy summer afternoons and butterflies darting in meadows’ he gives us Weston Lullingfields, Theddlethorpe All Saints, Little Missenden. For villages that ‘have an attitude problem’ he offers Seething, Mockbeggar and Wrangle and for those that ‘are just endearingly inane’ — Prittlewell, Little Rollright, Chew Magna, Titsey, Woodstock Slop, Lickey End, Nether Wallop, Thornton-le-Beans.
Bryson loves the things that only we British truly can appreciate — and we love him in return. He lists a few of them: Sooty, HP sauce, salt cellars with a single large hole, allotments, the ‘belief that household wiring is an interesting topic for conversation’ and ‘thinking that going to choose wallpaper with your mate constitutes a reasonably good day out’.
Oh, and (Why, pray, are you there if you need a windbreak?) ‘erecting windbreaks on a beach’.
Bryson first came to Britain in 1973 while back-packing around Europe. He found employment in a psychiatric hospital where he met his English wife, Cynthia, a nurse, with whom he has four children and ten grandchildren.
He then got a job as a sub-editor at the Bournemouth Evening Echo before joining The Times in London.
The Britain Bryson writes about in Notes From A Small Island — which has been voted the best book of all time in chronicling the national character — may have changed dramatically and not always to his liking (especially the litter), but he became a British citizen in 2015. He would have done it sooner but said at the time he was frightened of not passing the Citizen Test.
There was surely no chance of that. All the officials needed to do was look at the last chapter of Notes from a Small Island where Bryson drives up to Kirkby Fell in Yorkshire and realises what it is he loves about Britain. He comes up with another list, which includes beans on toast, Ordnance Survey maps, crumpets, people saying ‘mustn’t grumble’ when they’re miserable, and drizzly Sundays.
In fact, the penultimate paragraph of the book could easily be a rallying cry for today.
After asking which other country in the world would compel the Lord Chancellor to sit on the Woolsack, give us pork pies, Gardeners’ Question Time, Windsor Great Park and the chocolate digestive, he writes: ‘How easily we lose sight of all this. ‘What an enigma Britain will seem to historians . . . here is a country that fought and won a noble war, dismantled a mighty empire in a generally benign and enlightened way, created a far-seeing welfare state — in short, did everything right — and then spent the rest of the century looking on itself as a chronic failure.
‘This is still the best place in the world for most things — to post a letter, go for a walk, watch television, buy a book . . . get lost, seek help or stand on a hillside and take in a view. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I like it here. I like it more than I can tell you.’
And he hasn’t done a bad job in telling us.
Bryson’s books do what poetry is supposed to do — make us think again. They ask us to dwell on what we take for granted, or choose to ignore. And good poetry helps us see ourselves and the world around us with fresh eyes