OX speaks to Bill Bryson
World-famous travel writer, English language aficionado, adopted national hero and all-round lovely human being Bill Bryson was a judge for this year’s Mogford Prize, the £10,000 award set up by local hotelier and restaurateur Jeremy Mogford for writers who have penned a short story centred around the subject of food and drink.
Shortly before the winner of the 2018 prize, ‘The Glass Kitchen’ by Witney-based writer Jane Cammack, was announced at a glamorous ceremony at Quod, Jack Rayner was lucky enough to catch up with Bill to talk serendipity, Oxford’s new lease of life and his admiration of descriptive prose.
You wrote in The Road to Little Dribbling that Oxford is 'the most improved city in Britain'. Which part of your visit surprised you the most?
I think what's happened is Oxford has rediscovered architecture. You have to go back to the things that were wrong with it before. It always used to really bother me that you had all of these fantastic medieval buildings, and then a lot of worn 1970s architecture stuck around. My issue with Oxford wasn't that the bad buildings were especially bad, it's just that they were in a place that should've been beautiful end-to-end. I couldn't understand how an architect could look at a place like Oxford and then build something really ugly in between. I'm not saying that there should only be old buildings, but when I see a new building, I think it should be striking, artistic or imaginative. Oxford has really done that - there's been a real return to investing wisely in quality buildings.
Do you have a favourite view or area of Oxford?
Not particularly - it's just fundamentally a very agreeable place to wander round. Today, my wife and I had some spare time, so we wandered through all the old neighbourhoods in north Oxford. We both thought "I could live here" - there's a very nice, neighbourly feel.
You write a lot about serendipity and the happy accidents that make life worth living. Do you still have the same sense of adventure that you did in your younger years?
Absolutely. It kind of amazes me that I do, because travelling gets hard; getting to the airport, flying, catching transport around... none of that has got easier with age, and everything has become far more crowded and stressful. I am surprised that I haven't got a bit tired of it all, but what I really love is what we did today in Oxford: exploring and heading away from the crowds.
On a related note, you make quite a point of taking the bus, staying in B&Bs and so on, not using the wherewithal at your disposal to have a more luxurious time. What do you think that adds to the experience?
I think it's absolutely vital. For me, the best way of exploring a place is on foot, no question, but the next best way is via public transport. It's not any more virtuous or anything like that, but it's a lot more productive. If I was in some kind of limousine being driven around, I wouldn't have any of the conversations or small experiences that I do have. I think the experience becomes generally a lot richer. What I couldn't do, however, is get on a tour bus with people and follow that kind of rigid schedule. That's not for me. I like to be exposed to the world.
When you're judging this prize, for example, what are you looking for in the writing of others?
One of the things I admire is when the writer can describe scenes and settings really well, because I spent a lot of my life trying to describe what things look like, and it's very hard. It's difficult, for example, to write a description of a landscape that doesn't sound like every postcard you've ever seen. I always want to say things like 'the view was stupendous', you know? 'It was really gorgeous'. When you're writing you need to be far more original. Because I know how hard that is, I greatly admire it when I find it. There's a book called 'Old Glory' by Jonathan Raban where he travelled down the Mississippi, and what I admired about that book is how he wrote about the texture of the water in lots of different kinds of light and weather. Page after page of description. I couldn't come up with that. If I got one or two of them I'd be really pleased, but I think I'd have to have a lie down afterwards. It's like anything, I think: you admire in others what you cannot do yourself.
You became a British citizen fairly recently. Is there a symbolic importance in that change? Do you feel any different?
At the beginning of the process, I was just getting my papers in order. I was already here, already emotionally attached to Britain, my wife is British, my kids are British. I was just getting a passport to make it easier for me to go through immigration. But then, when I went to the ceremony, I had to swear loyalty to Her Majesty, and I was really quite choked up. It hadn't really registered up until that point. What made it even more powerful is that for all of the others in the room, it was a very big step. It was like the United Nations, with all different nationalities and skin tones, and it was obviously a very proud moment for all of them. They were really making a massive change in their lives, and it made me realise that, so was I too.
Do you have a favourite place in Britain?
Malhamdale, where I lived in the Yorkshire Dales, is to me the quintessential England. If I had to go to Mars or something and I could only have one more look at planet Earth, that's the last view I'd want to take away with me.
What have you got planned for the future? Where do the Notes come from next?
I'm writing a book on the human body - I'm finally trying to understand how my body is put together. I feel slightly embarrassed that I've got to this age and I don't really know what goes on inside me. My son is a doctor, so I've learned about his training over the years from going to the pub and catching up with him, and talking about the things that he was learning made me realise how little I knew and how important it is. Everything in the body is really interesting - who knew?