Interview: Bill Bryson

In an exclusive Tab interview, best-selling author BILL BRYSON tells KATIE FORSTER about his enjoyable experiences with weed, why he will never use Twitter and how Mitt Romney very nearly won him over.

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Testament to Bill Bryson’s popularity is the length of the excited queue that stretches up the stairs following his talk at the Union. The best-selling transatlantic author has promised to sign copies of his books about travel, science and the English language – after a quick chat with The Tab, of course.

Despite the chaotic buzz around his presence at the Union, Bryson is gentle, smiley and very polite. I turn on my phone to record the interview and he looks at it as if it’s a small animal he’s never encountered before.

“Phones do that now?” he asks in quiet wonder. “My family won’t let me have a decent phone because I lose them as soon as I get them.”

Born in small town Iowa, Bryson first came to Britain after leaving university to travel around Europe, and liked it so much he decided to stay. His witty observations on the peculiarities of British culture were published in the hugely successful Notes from a Small Island.

Does he regret dropping out of university? “That’s a tough one. I was a terrible student, completely under-motivated at every possible level, because I wanted to go out and live in the real world.

“I ended up having a better life than if I’d followed a conventional educational course. But I was lucky – I came from a generation when you could get a job on a good newspaper without having a degree.”

There’s no denying that Bryson is an adventurous spirit. In his talk he described close scrapes with grizzly bears in the American wilderness and near-death experiences on light aircraft in Africa. Does he think that globalisation has made travel less exciting?

“It’s now much easier to get from place to place, which has taken some of the magic out of it. When I first came to Europe there wasn’t a single McDonald’s or Pizza Hut, so you had to rely on your own resources and eat locally. Each country was more individual which made the world a more interesting place.

“We did a lot of hitchhiking. It never occurred to me that it might be dangerous. One striking thing was that we got picked up by a lot of women. I’m not sure if that would happen now.”

Bryson is well-known for his comical critiques of fat, stupid Americans who do not understand sarcasm. He returned to live in the States with his family for eight years and has written about his relationship to America in The Lost Continent , A Walk in the Woods and Notes from a Big Country.

He is happy about the results of the US election and describes Obama as “a remarkable human being”. Yet he admits that he recently found himself in a tricky situation concerning his political allegiance.

“I come from a long line of democrats but just before the election Mitt Romney was asked his favourite books and he said one of mine, which made it tough. So I like Romney better than I used to, but I still didn’t want him to be president.”

He declares himself “completely in favour” of the legalization of cannabis in Colorado and Washington. “I haven’t smoked marijuana in a very long time myself but I’m very happy for other people to do so, because I really enjoyed it when I did it.

“I don’t see any reason why people shouldn’t be allowed to do it. I have a friend from California who has it on prescription for insomnia, and it makes a world of difference for him.”

As someone with a good knowledge of both countries, would he rather be president of the USA, or Prime Minister of Britain? “Neither!” he cries, wide-eyed. “I would hate doing all the stuff they have to do to get elected.

“There has to be almost something slightly wrong with you to be able to put up with all that, especially in America where the campaign literally goes on for years. Britain is pretty bad but America is just insane. I couldn’t shake hands with and be pleasant to that many people.”

Bryson has now settled in Norfolk with his family. He thinks that there’s a “kind of cosiness” in the fact that Britain’s high streets are all pretty much identical, pointing out that chains such as WH Smith and Boots were already around when he arrived.

He calls the Olympic opening ceremony “a genuinely joyous occasion, one of the best experiences I’ve had in this country” and says he will never succumb to Twitter as “it’s really not in my nature to want to engage in any kind of relationship with lots of strangers.”

There is only time for one more question before he is whisked off to sign some books. Does he consider himself a hippy? “Yes, in spirit!” he giggles. “I suppose everyone from my generation still does, on a lot of levels.”

Peace out, Bill…