All else being equal, if I was a few years older I would have got my degree from Bill Bryson. He was the Chancellor at Durham until the year I got there. If I was even older it would have been Sir Peter Ustinov. In the end I got an opera singer who seemed a bit proud of himself.
That’s a little harsh. I’m sure the singer man is lovely. I’m only bitter because Bryson is a family favourite. He’s one of the first people whose printed words made me laugh, and I specifically remember being fascinated at a young age by a mysterious tome that purported to be a short history of nearly everything.
Bryson’s connection to Durham goes back to his 1995 bestseller Notes from a Small Island. He only intended to have a “quick look round” he tells me, with Newcastle his intended target, but he “fell in love with the place” and drenched it in praise.
“I had a slightly distorted view because I wasn’t ever a student there and I was always treated like a prince whenever I went up,” he says earnestly. He’s right – I don’t think you could find anyone in Durham, resident or student, with a bad word to say of the man. He’s Durham’s champion, its patron saint – but what about Oxford? “For a long time, through the 60s and 70s, it seemed like every new building that was put up in Oxford was just hideous,” he says somewhat tactfully. Though he’s been tough on it before, he’s convinced that “Oxford is the most improved city in Britain. I think there’s nothing more wonderful than a new building beside an old one where they enhance each other. It’s a really hard trick and it’s easy to screw it up, but when they get it right it’s just fantastic. Oxford’s been getting it right again and again.”
He threw himself into the role of Chancellor, a job that others treat purely ceremonially. He throws himself into a lot of things in fact. He’s been the President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England and a commissioner for English Heritage, converting observation into participation. While Chancellor at Durham, he led a push to increase awareness around organ donation, attempting to make it the most signed-up university in the land.
“It was all because I met a student whose brother had had a heart transplant. She also had heart problems and was likely to need a heart transplant as well at some point in the future.” Inspired by her story, he discovered that huge numbers of people never get the organs they need.
“There’s a critical shortage of organs, particularly from young people. When young people die they tend to leave behind really good, fit, strong bodies and yet they’re the ones least likely to sign up, because of course young people don’t think of themselves as being mortal.” The frustrating fact is that, “overwhelmingly, most people are happy to have a new use found for their organs after they no longer need them.” I think it’s a very poignant lovely idea, posthumously saving another. “I’d be thrilled,” he concurs, “though I’m not sure there’s too much left of me that anybody could make use of.”
This is an example of where a little information can go a long way. In that case it was relatively simple, but other issues require more intellectual agility. In the field of popular science books, A Short History of Nearly Everything takes some beating, winning the prestigious Aventis prize from the Royal Society in 2005. His new book, The Body: A Guide for Occupants trains his intellectually voracious eye on the body.
I ask if the skill of writing popular science is more important than ever, mindful of flat-earthers, the anti-vaccination movement and climate change deniers. “I think it’s really important that people should have a better understanding of science and a better appreciation of what science does for us,” he says. “I grew up in a world where anyone in a white lab coat was just automatically trusted and believed. Now we live in a world where it’s become almost exactly the opposite. A lot of people are very distrustful of what scientists tell them, particularly if it conflicts with their political belief.” This might not be such a problem in the case of flat-earthers, but others, “I’m thinking particularly the anti-vaccination movement. These people have the potential to do a lot of harm to themselves and society generally, and it’s all because they’ve been misled in some way.”
It’s that political aspect that is most dangerous. Though scientists could be making a more concerted effort to push back, we live in an age where the nature of truth itself seems up for debate; where fake news and ‘alternative facts’ abound. With it a pernicious alliance seems to be forming between anti-elitism and anti-scientism, “Donald Trump being the most outstanding example of that and almost everything else that’s bad in the world. Also here you had Michael Gove saying that we’d had enough of experts.”
It’s all quite apocalyptic isn’t it; the only thing worse than succumbing to something you can’t explain is perishing in a storm we all knew was coming. Sometimes a swipe across news and social media leaves you with no choice but to conclude that we’ll all die of measles in a forest fire. How do we retain a modicum of optimism? “I think the one saving grace of humanity is that, though we’re terrible at preparing for a crisis, when one hits we’re pretty good at figuring out a way through it … ultimately, whatever challenges we make for ourselves, we will find a way through it.”