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25 October 2010

The NS Interview: Bill Bryson

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

By Jon Bernstein

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.

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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