The NS Interview: Bill Bryson

“Have you ever seen Glenn Beck in operation? It’s terrifying”

Why the beard?
The beard was grown when I was at university and then working at the evening paper in Des Moines, Iowa. I had to be at the office at 5.30 every morning, having been up late drinking the night before. One of the casualties of that was grooming altogether. I've never rediscovered any of those skills.

What did working as a sub-editor on the Times teach you?
It is the best way to learn how to become a writer. Your focus is to get rid of flabbiness and try to compress things into the simplest, most direct way of expressing them.

Is British journalism in deep trouble?
So people tell me. A world without newspapers or a world where the newspapers are purely electronic and you read them on a screen is not
a very appealing world.

But it's not necessarily a world without journalism?
I think it does mean a world without quality journalism. Because in order to have quality journalism you need to have a good income stream, and no internet model has produced a way of generating income that would pay for good-quality investigative journalism.

You've described yourself as a "cheerleader for science". Does it need cheerleading?
Science has been quite embattled. It's the most important thing there is. An arts graduate is not going to fix global warming. They may do other valuable things, but they are not going to fix the planet, or cure cancer, or get rid of malaria.

Vince Cable says cuts to funding may help to "screen out mediocrity". Do you agree?
In any area of human endeavour there is going to be mediocrity. But this idea that there is a recognisable amount of fat that you can just lop off and it won't impact on the amount of quality research is a risky attitude.

Tuition fees are likely to go up, too. What's the financial solution for higher education?
One of the shocking things is how little alumni give to British universities. At Durham, we have the Chancellor's Appeal, which is very generously supported, but a lot of people are angry that I should be asking for money, because they believe it's up to the state.

How do you respond to that attitude?
I'm sorry, but that's just not realistic any longer. I agree that it is up to, and in the interest of, the state to fund education, but if you want to keep
it at a really high level, additional funding has got to come from somewhere.

Do you have nostalgia for the Britain of your book Notes from a Small Island?
Yes. There were quite a few things when I first came here that are gone now. Milk in bottles. Red phone boxes. They were everywhere and now they're a rarity.

Will the British pub become a rarity, too?
That would be a tragedy. When I first came to this country there were a lot of pubs. At about ten o'clock on a Friday night they were noisy, but otherwise they were all quiet. Now pubs are going out of business because they don't have a client base, but who was giving them that before? Our expectations of what a business provides have meant that people want to get rich from just one little business.

Baseball or cricket?
Baseball. I understand cricket - what's going on, the scoring - but I can't understand why.

Can you explain the appeal of the Tea Party?
I can't even begin to explain it. It's a complete mystery to me. Have you ever seen Glenn Beck in operation? It is the most terrifying thing. It's so bad that you think he's going to announce in a minute that it's all a great con. He makes Sarah Palin look reasonable and steady.

Do we ignore Beck and Palin at our peril?
I think so. They are serious and they've got money. I can understand why people might not agree with what President Obama is doing, but I cannot understand the level of hatred and fury. I have no idea to what extent racism or innate imbecility are factors, but it makes America feel like a foreign country to me.

Is there a plan?
There may be a greater being but He's clearly not running things. I think we have to take responsibility for what we do.

Do you vote?
Well, I can't vote here. I didn't vote in the last US election, to my slight shame, as it requires advance registration. The last time I voted was in New Hampshire, in 1996, for Clinton.

Is there anything you regret?
Trivial stuff, really. I'm a great believer that you had to do everything you've done to have got to where you are.

Are we all doomed?
No. I never cease to be surprised by human ingenuity in coming up with solutions

Defining Moments

1951 Born in Des Moines, Iowa
1977 Moves to Britain and works at the Times, then the Independent
1989 The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America is published
1995 Moves back to the United States
2003 Returns to Britain
2005 Is appointed chancellor of Durham University
2007 Appointed chairman of the Campaign to Protect Rural England

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

This article first appeared in the 25 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, What a carve up!

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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