Bill Bryson visits his utopia

Eulina Clairmont catches up with the travel writer at an OU graduation
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The Independent Online

The buzz and excitement around Open University graduation ceremonies is intoxicating. Family members fixing the hoods of the graduands' robes, children leaping and wriggling, graduands posing for photographs, chatter swirling through the foyers. In all the excitement do graduands pay any attention to the honorary graduates attending their ceremony?

Last month travel writer Bill Bryson made his way to the OU's Portsmouth graduation ceremony to receive an honorary degree. In his book Notes From A Small Island, he makes reference to the OU as one of his favourite things in Britain.

"I really love the Open University," he said as he sat waiting to be robed. "It is such a great thing, the idea of a university that anyone can go to is such a utopian ideal that I think it is just wonderful."

But Bill Bryson deserves his honour for more than his glowing opinion of the OU. Notes From A Small Island has sold almost a million copies and spent three years in The Sunday Times list of bestsellers. His humorous and razor-sharp observations on the eccentricities of life in Britain (Notes From A Small Island), Australia (Notes From Down Under) and America (Notes From a Big Country and Made in America) have evoked laughter worldwide.

At times he has left residents fuming. He dubbed Liverpool a "festival of litter", and said, "Bradford's role in life is to make every place else look better by comparison."

"If I go to your home town and I didn't have a good experience, people sometimes get upset about that – with some justification," he said.

What makes his work so brilliant is his ability to look at a country, person or a historical event from a completely different angle. Whether it's the adventures of Captain Cook, the decay of the Appalachian Mountains or the plight of the Pilgrim Fathers, he takes a subject and scrutinises it from above, below, and underneath.

"The world that I am writing about is completely different from the one I was taught about in school," he said. "Everything I was taught at school in the United States was painted as a pretty picture and was straightforward – but life is more complicated than that. Things didn't always go right for explorers and inventors and they didn't always have a happy outcome.

"This is certainly the case when the pilgrims went to America – there has never been a less prepared people. They were so hopeless. I would have paid more attention at school if I had known how much luck, blundering and bad decisions went into a lot of this stuff."

Was this what inspired him to become a writer, the need to portray a realistic picture of the world? "No," he said "what inspired me to become a writer was a mortgage and raising a small family."

Bill Bryson came to England from the United States for the first time in 1973. He worked as a sub-editor on a Bournemouth newspaper for two years before moving to London to work on The Times and later in his career The Independent. "My starting salary was £3,300, which was a meagre wage even in the Seventies. I started writing magazine articles just to generate a little extra earnings. I discovered that I really liked this and one of the great things about writing is that you can decide what you write about."

What advice does the great writer have for any OU graduate who fancies themselves topping the bestsellers' list?

"The thing about writing for pay is that you just have to write something that somebody wants to publish. That is the only trick. It either has to be so good or so different or the subject is so unusual. It has to have some feature that somebody somewhere will say, OK we're going to publish this and we will give you some money."

Isn't this easy to say when your entertaining perceptions and wit simply roll off the pen? What about the rest of us?

"It's not really a great miracle," he said modestly. "Every year something like 100,000 books are published, so it is not that hard to be one of 100,000.

"I am trying to write in a way that shares the travelling experience and I think people respond to that. When I first started writing travel books tended to be written by people who acted as if they knew everything. They never got lost and they never missed a train. Travel can be great but it can also be the most stressful thing we go through voluntarily. I just write about my experience, I try to think that I'm writing a letter to a friend or my brother."

So what is next for Bill Bryson? "I am doing a book that is not a travel book, I am trying to understand how the world works – how the earth got to be how it is."

I recommended the OU science course How the Earth Works; the prospectus is in the post. Maybe we will soon see Bill Bryson picking up another degree from the OU.

¿ Bill Bryson is among 36 high achievers in the fields of academia, publishing, science and industry receiving honorary degrees this year from the Open University. They include: Olympic rowing legend Sir Steve Redgrave, former Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam and Poet Laureate Andrew Motion. Former vice-chancellor Sir John Daniel becomes a Fellow of the University and political science professor David Potter and social sciences professor Ruth Finnegan each receive an emeritus professorship.