Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson’s very funny, very charming and highly critical account of Britain in the 1990s, made Britons look at themselves slightly differently. But what would he write if he took the same journey today?
Bill Bryson would be proud of me.
As a kind of an homage to middle England’s favourite travel writer, the master of the amusing anecdote and retailer of the shrewd insight, I have awoken far too late for our interview, which is to take place on a train bound for Manchester, and must make a frantic dash to Euston station through the teeming streets of London.
I run for the Underground, knotting tie with one hand, dropping toothbrush into wastepaper bin en route. I’ve forgotten my travelcard so I have to sneak through to the Underground, then, at the other end, run across a busy road without observing the Green Cross Code, a manoeuvre enlivened by falling in front of skidding Vauxhall Corsa. I make the platform with two minutes to spare,
sweat-glazed, panting like elderly 60-a-day man and deeply, deeply relieved. Wait till I tell Bill about my morning. Hell, it might even make an amusing anecdote for his next book, about, er, growing up in Iowa in the 1950s.
The second I see him, I know that he will not be too curious as to why I have apparently taken a shower with my clothes on and have lost the use of an arm. Bryson in person is not the man you may have pictured from his books: the adventurer who, in his first night in the UK in 1973, slept on a bench in Dover, covering his head with a pair of flannel boxer shorts; the storyteller who has given us such colourful characters as B&B proprietress
Mrs Smegma and Vince the journalist (“He would easily have been the world’s most terrifying human had he been but human.”) Instead, he is sitting, suited and booted, in a first-class carriage on one of those fancy new Virgin trains, preparing for a breakfast of salmon and scrambled eggs.
The man himself
Bryson is something of an establishment figure these days. He is on his way to Manchester for the Sustainable Communities Summit, where he has been invited by deputy prime minister John Prescott to take part in a panel debate. I’m keen to meet him because I want to know how the writer of Notes from a Small Island has got on as an English Heritage commissioner following his appointment two years ago in place of Loyd Grossman; to learn his opinions on England’s built environment; and to find out why Janet Street-Porter hates him so much.
I quite like the whole of the South Bank, but I’m never quite sure if you’re supposed to or not any more
The choice of Bryson for English Heritage was greeted with some surprise at the time, but was in fact logical. One of the pleasures of reading Notes was his running commentary on the architecture of England, a kind of Pevsner with jokes. I tell him how fascinated I was by his descriptions of Bournemouth in Notes, because I grew up there. My home town, he says, is the quintessential example of what went wrong in the 1970s and 1980s, when Britons simply did not seem to care about their built history: “Bad things happened then, not least in Bournemouth. There were wonderful Victorian houses on the West Cliff that were torn down.”
Like so many other things in the world of the softly spoken, light-accented Bryson, those wonderful Victorian houses were also “very nice”. A civil servant made a “very nice approach” to him to become one of EH’s commissioners just weeks after he returned to the UK in 2003 after spending eight years in the USA. It was an idea he relished: “As an American, coming from a country with a modest stockpile of heritage buildings, coming to Britain it was something like, this sense of agedness.”
He explains that it is not just the grand buildings, such as castles and cathedrals, that we should be looking to preserve, but also those small, quaint constructions, such as humpback bridges. Then, he goes on a gentle rant about the replacement of red telephone boxes by British Telecom.
I ask Bryson what on earth he can bring to EH - after all, a funny writer doesn’t necessarily make for a good judge of heritage. He bristles ever so slightly, but politely makes his case:
“I am very much the lay person. It would be a pretty dangerous situation if I was the only commissioner, but there are 15 others who are specialists. My part is the consumer end of things. I’ve been a professional tourist for a long time, so I think I can add something.”
Janet Street-Porter doesn’t think so. Obviously, invective is Street-Porter’s stock in trade, but why did she use her Independent on Sunday column to spray vitriol at the most courteous person in the UK? She wrote: “I find him about as entertaining as Michael Palin, and twice as patronising … Why can’t he start sorting out eyesores in his native country … never mind moaning about cameras and litter bins on Oxford Street.”
Bryson cheers himself by reminding me that she has been much harsher about Griff Rhys-Jones, but does have a dig back: “It’s just silly, isn’t it? She’s completely out of touch on how people feel. Most people salute historic restoration. Then again, it’s not inconsistent with someone who would appear on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here.”
If you’d told me 10 years ago that there was the possibility I’d be pleased to go to Manchester, I’d have been amazed
Street-Porter aside, Bryson admits that most of his first 16 or so months as a commissioner have been a learning process. He’d had no experience of sitting in committees and found the team’s penchant for talking in acronyms, such as ODPM and CPRE, difficult to get used to. After the best part of a decade out of the country, he simply didn’t know what some of them meant – DEFRA (the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) didn’t exist when he left these shores in 1998.
“I’ve learned a lot,” he declares. Yes Bill, but what have you achieved? “I don’t know,” he says, presumably feigning humility. The press officer chips in to remind him what he’s done. This includes leading the “Save our Streets” campaign, in which EH has teamed up with the Women’s Institute to improve towns and villages by getting rid of litter and ugly signage. Bryson, who once described arriving in Liverpool “at the start of the litter festival”, feels strongly about this. He says the campaign has been good for EH, as people have always looked at the body as being about preserving the past, whereas tidying up Britain’s streets has a more immediate focus.
Bryson’s most famous book is still Notes. It is filled with references to the built environment, frequently defining and defending the beautiful – such as red telephone boxes, obviously – and attacking the ugly – Centre Point, the NatWest Tower and anything else
by Richard Seifert. But it’s a decade since he wrote it; what would he change if he wrote it today? “A lot. All kinds have things have changed. I was really critical of Manchester, and rightly so, I think. But if you’d told me 10 years ago that there was the possibility I’d be pleased to go to Manchester, I’d have been amazed.”
He praises the city for reusing major old buildings, such as the Printworks, and its sexy new architecture, such as Urbis. Birmingham and Oxford are also much improved, thanks partly to Future Systems’ Selfridges building in the former and the high quality of recent architecture in the latter. However, Oxford could still do better: “Oxford is globally important. We have the right to expect greater quality – it’s not like a Basildon or Bracknell.”
I feel it’s time to let one of the EH officers have her first-class seat back. I bought a standard, and we have swapped seats. Another success story.
I’m left with the impression that Bryson believes the British have finally started to appreciate what he saw on that slatted bench in Dover – that our heritage, as embodied in the built environment, is something unique, irreplaceable and extremely vulnerable. And I’m sure that he finds that very nice.
Bill Bryson on …
The Thames Gateway I’m interested to learn more. So far all I’ve seen are words. I don’t have any sense of what they mean, but places like Rochester and Gravesend have the potential to be really nice
Prince Charles I have admiration to his devotion to the built environment. He’s deserving of support. He was a lone voice for a long time
His favourite architecture That’s a big thing to commit to. The new City Hall by the Tower of London fits in quite well. I like the London Eye a lot. I quite like the whole of the South Bank, but I’m never quite sure if you’re supposed to or not any more
The best country at preserving its heritage Germany does it very well. It’s that Germanic precision that’s often striking. Even back in the 1970s and 1980s they were good at making buildings sensitive to their surroundings
His favourite drink I just drink lager. I’ve always tried and tried to become a real ale man, but I can’t