As a highlight of Stanfords’ annual Travel Lecture season, Bill Bryson visited London to talk about his writing life and latest travels in front of 2,500 fans. We are delighted to present a full transcript of his live interview, with Douglas Schatz firing the questions.
As the cliché goes, of course, our guest needs no introduction, but for the benefit of anyone who has just arrived from another planet and stumbled into the hall here tonight, I can confirm for the record that our speaker, Bill Bryson, is this planet’s favourite travel writer.
It is not only the staggering sales of his six travel books that have earned him this eminence, but also the fact that his books are so accessible, perceptive and most of all, of course, wondrously funny. He is to travel books what Delia Smith is to cookery, or J K Rowling to children’s books. In other words, he is the best.
The observant amongst you will have noticed that although we have billed this as a travel lecture, Bill is not standing at a lectern with a screen and a pointy stick. Rather our plan is that Bill and I are going to chat amongst ourselves for about an hour, and try and pretend that two thousand people aren’t listening in, and along the way I am also hoping to persuade Bill to read some extracts from his books so that I don’t have to keep talking. And finally we are going to take some time for you to ask all the questions that I have failed to ask him in the previous hour.
Bill Bryson: …and then I am going for a drink!
Bill promised me when I told him this plan that he would answer ‘yes and ‘no’ to everything I asked him, so you might have to help me out!
OK Bill, I am going to start at the beginning, the way Parkinson does, with your childhood in Des Moines, Iowa. Did you have a happy childhood?
I did as a matter of fact. I had a very happy childhood. I think a big part of it was growing up in the fifties. Growing up in America in the fifties was a kind of golden era. I was actually thinking the other day about what was special about that time, and partly it was this great feeling of optimism. The war was over, the economy was booming. Obviously in America we didn’t have anything like the recovery to make that people in European countries had to, so America left the war in an extremely strong position with all of its industry still intact. We just stopped making tanks and started making televisions and refrigerators. So it was really a great boom period in the States.
But also it was still quite a simple age. It was still an age of two lane highways. And I think attitudes were different. Certainly in Iowa, where I grew up, people joked in a way that they don’t any more, and valued it, in a way that I think the British do still. Wit and quips and things.
Why wouldn’t they now?
I think people have just got so intent on making money and on getting ahead in life, and being witty in the States has become kind of an impediment. For example I really do think that if you are working for a British company, they say “Oh Doug, he is quite a card. He’s a nice guy. He’s fun to go out for a pint with after work,” but in an American company it would be “I don’t know about Doug. I don’t know if he is with the programme. He is not quite serious enough.” I just think that is such a shame.
There was a lot more joking going on when I was a kid. My dad, for instance, specialised in puns and I remember once we were on vacation in California and we were driving along the San Andreas Fault and he threw a quarter out of the window into the Fault because he said “he had always wanted to be generous to a fault”.
So we see where you get it from then! Were there any signs in your childhood that you were going to be a travel writer? Did you vow, for example, in your high school year book that you were going to grow up to be the world’s favourite travel writer?
No, I never intended to become a travel writer at all and I still don’t really think of myself as one.
I am just some guy who writes books. I have always seen myself as a pen for hire, happy that people will pay me to write stuff. It just so happens that travel was the direction it went. I wrote The Lost Continent, which is technically a travel book, but really I saw it more as a memoir. It was about growing up in America. I certainly didn’t see it as the start of a series of travel books, but what happened was that it did pretty well and got good notices and the publishers encouraged me to go along in the same vein and to keep doing travel books. At the start though I was doing other kinds of books, like books on language as well. Those slowly got side-tracked, but I am hoping to get back to that.
Did you know that you wanted to be a writer of some kind early on?
I knew that I would probably end up working with words in some way. English was the only thing that I was ever any good at and in our family newspapers was the family business. Both of my parents worked for the local paper. My brother, who was nine years older than me and therefore a surrogate adult in my life, also worked for the local papers. So it was what was talked about at the dinner table and it never occurred to me to do anything else. I certainly was never going to be a nuclear physicist or a vet or anything like that. I just knew from my earliest moments that in some way I would be working with words.
The next question I had was how did you come to leave Des Moines? To quote from the famous opening lines of The Lost Continent:
“When you come from Des Moines you either except the fact without question and settle down with a girl called Bobby and get a job in the Firestone factory and live there forever and ever or you spend your adolescence moaning at length about what a dump it is and how you can’t wait to get out and then you settle down with a local girl named Bobby and get a job in the Firestone factory and live there forever and ever.”
How did you manage to escape that fate?
Well, I just left. And it was really strange because all through high school, as I think for most people at high school of that age, we were saying ‘God, I can’t wait to graduate and get out of here.’ And when it happened, off I went and I sort of thought everybody was coming with me and they all stayed and got a job in the Firestone factory.
I couldn’t wait to get out and it wasn’t because Des Moines was so horrible, but I just had this great intense sense all the time I was growing up that the real world was elsewhere. I was very much influenced by photographs in National Geographic, right from an early point in my childhood. Every place looked so good and so interesting and so much more lush and picturesque and people seemed to be leading more exciting lives and I wanted to go out and see some of that. So as soon as I had a chance to, I left and entirely by accident ended up here. In Britain.
Britain and America – Inside and Out
You worked in journalism here in Britain and then there was this key moment in your life when you gave up your job and moved to North Yorkshire with your four children, on the strength of a £3,000 commission to write a book, and you were going to support your children and travel back to write The Lost Continent. It sounds a bit scary?
It was terrifying to me and it was entirely to my wife’s credit that this happened to me. What happened was I was working in Fleet Street and had a very happy career as a sub-editor on newspapers. We went up to Yorkshire one summer on holiday and I think I must have been bitching even more than normal about commuting. I was so sick of driving in and out of London and also I did want to write. I did always want to make a living out of writing. I must have been complaining more than normal because when we got back to London, I went back to work and one day at work my wife phoned me, which was something she never normally did and she said ‘I just want you to know, I have just put the house on the market” and I said ‘you’ve what?!’ and she said ‘what’s more some people are coming tomorrow to look at it’. These people came the next day and bought the house at the asking price, so I was sort of forced into this thing. I was terrified because I had never been without a pay cheque since I had become an adult.
Your book idea was to go back to the states and journey around small-town America and the result was The Lost Continent. I have been fascinated by one of the recurring aspects of your travel writing which is that you seem often to be simultaneously both an outsider and an insider. In this case you were an American going back to write about America. Did you feel like an outsider when you came to write about home?
I think I always did to some extent. I really was more intent on getting out of Iowa than everybody else. I just felt I didn’t quite fit in exactly, the way other people did. Then I came here and discovered by living in Britain that being a foreigner is really a treat. It is such a great position to be in. When things are going well you can step forward and take part in the ceremonies and everything is great. And when things are not going well, being entirely hypothetical here, if for example your national football team got beat by Germany, you can stand back and say what a shame.
So when you came to write Notes from a Small Island after 20 years living in Britain, did you still feel an outsider in Britain?
I have always felt very comfortable here. This felt like home to me very quickly and I really did settle in and was very happy here, but being a foreigner is my defining quality. I am an American. I always was and it was my identifying mark and that was kind of nice. I really did enjoy that. It makes you somehow different or distinctive. It was a problem for me when I moved back to the states and suddenly I didn’t have this special quality anymore. What I was there was an American who didn’t quite fit in and had this funny voice and they didn’t really know quite how to peg me.
For Bill’s first reading, we have a piece from Notes from a Small Island, which perhaps only an outsider might have recognised.
This is simply about something which is a very special quality of the British, one of your charming eccentricities. This is about catching a train.
“The platform televisions weren’t working and I couldn’t understand the announcements…
… and taking stock of my possessions – a Daily Mirror and a Kit Kat, but unfortunately no gloves.”
Reading from Notes from a Small Island pages 136-137.
After Notes from a Small Island you moved back to the States and I know that wasn’t an easy cultural step for you. In fact you said that there are three things you can’t do in life: one, you can’t beat the phone company; two, you can’t get the eye of a waiter before he is ready to see you and three, you can’t go home again. So, could you go home again?
It was really hard. It was a lot harder than I expected it to be. I thought that I was just going back to this place that was very familiar but there were all kinds of problems. One was that I had lived away a long time, I had become anglicised in a lot of my habits and ways of thinking. So that was a real problem. And also America had changed a lot. And finally there was the fact that I had never lived in America as an adult; I had always been somebody’s kid. So all the things you do as a grown up – take out pensions, mortgages and everything, I had only done in Britain. In America, my father had done all that stuff. So I was kind of helpless in my own country. I didn’t know how to ask for things in the hardware store. I couldn’t remember what things were called. I would have these conversations that would literally be ‘ I need some of that goopy stuff that you fill holes in the walls with. My wife’s people call it ‘Polyfilla’, and they would say it is ‘Spackle’ here’. It was very odd to be in a place I knew intimately from childhood, but at the same time had become divorced from.
I had also got used to the idea that here you can make quips all the time and in America that can be very dangerous. I wrote about it in one of the books. Once I was going through customs and immigration in Boston, and the guy said as I went past ‘Any fruit or vegetables?’ and I said ‘Ok, I’ll have four pounds of potatoes if they are fresh’ and it was like he was going to take me off and pin me to the floor.
You’ve spoken often about the different sense of irony in America. I liked, for example, the story you told about your neighbour who was cutting down a tree in his garden and loading it on the roof of his car…
Yes, he had a little tree come down in a storm and I came out of the house one day and he was cutting the tree into smaller pieces and loading it on to the roof of his car to take it away for disposal. It was a bushy tree and it was all hanging down over the sides. So I said to him impulsively ‘I see you are camouflaging your car’ and he looked at me and said ‘no, I had a tree come down in the storm the other night’. And then it went on like that. It kept happening. I would find myself making these jokes with him. There was another time when I had this nightmare travel experience, missing plane connections and stuff, and he asked me ‘Who did you fly with’ and I said ‘ I don’t know, they were all strangers’ and this made him very uncomfortable.
It is five years since you moved back to America. What is your outsider view of Britain now? Do you keep in touch?
I come back six or seven times a year. As often as circumstances allow. We have a flat in London now, so we come over as a family quite a bit and I keep in touch. I still talk to a lot of people on the phone and hear what is happening. So, it has not become like a foreign country.
Is this a permanent decision of yours? What is it you like about America that Britain doesn’t do for you, for example?
The only thing that springs to mind is that I love baseball. I am very devoted to the Boston Red Sox. The great thing about baseball is that it goes on for nearly half the year. They play almost every day, so you have this bedrock thing that if there is nothing else to do in the evening you can put the television on and watch a baseball game. I love that.
One of the characteristic joys of your travel writing is the depiction of your travel companions. You spent a summer in your youth, for example, travelling with the infamous Katz, about which you said ‘The best thing about travelling abroad with Katz was it spared the rest of America from having to spend a summer with him’ and yet you voluntarily took him along on your valiant but foolhardy Walk in the Woods along the Appalachian Trail three years ago. Why?
Because I didn’t want to go on my own and he was the only person who would come with me. It is a simple as that. When I was on the brink of having to go and realised what I had committed myself to: I was going on this epic hike and that I was going to be away for weeks and weeks and out in the middle of nowhere, I really just thought I didn’t want the loneliness and the solitude. I didn’t realise how many people you would meet along the way. It is actually a fairly congenial exercise because there are so many other people out hiking. I didn’t know that at the time. So I was really desperate for somebody to come along. What I did was at Christmas time, I put notes in Christmas cards to anybody I thought might join me for at least part of the way, somebody who might take a week off and join me. I sent this to all of my friends and not one of them replied. Then Katz, out of the blue, calls me up sometime after I had written to him and he said rather hesitantly would it be alright if he came along for the whole thing. I was thrilled. I was overjoyed. I knew that he would be hard work. I didn’t know quite how hard until he came, but I was just so grateful to have someone with me. As I said in the book, as long as he had a pulse he was welcome company.
One of my other favourites from the same trip was Mary-Ellen, whom you did run into on the trail, although I don’t think you actually chose her did you?
Mary-Ellen actually latched on to us and drove us crazy for several days. She was a real person. Mary-Ellen was not her name, but in every other respect she is exactly as described in the book.
How true are these representations of real people?
It depends. Very often in life when you get given a gift character like Mary Ellen you can be very faithful. Other times I will exaggerate a little or just use different parts of people’s character. With Katz for example: I swear that walking with Katz was exactly as portrayed in the book, except that in real life there are other sides to him which I didn’t really focus on in the book. I mean he has a sensitive side. But in terms of him struggling so hard on the trail and being in a foul temper all the time and hating his pack, it was like that. I didn’t actually put it in the book because there is no way you can convey it, but I swear to you that we used to walk at different paces and I used to end up getting some distance ahead of him and then I would stop and wait for him to catch up with me and the way I knew he was drawing near was I would hear this voice in the distance going ‘fck, fck, fck…’
It had to be him. What about Mary Ellen. Have you got a little extract about the true Mary Ellen?
This is the real Mary Ellen. People say to me ‘Did she really say all these things?’ and the answer is no, not exactly. But if you ask me what it was like to be with Mary Ellen for four days, believe me this is what she was like. This is early on in our experience:
On the fourth evening we made a friend…
… like the call of a freight train in the night.
Reading from A Walk in the Woods pages 64-67.
Your latest trip was to Australia, about which you have written in your new book Down Under [published in America as ‘In a Sunburned Country’]. What first attracted you to go to Australia with a view to writing about it?
Well, I didn’t ever think about Australia much. To me Australia had never been very interesting, it was just something that happened in the background. It was Neighbours and Crocodile Dundee movies and things that never really registered with me and I didn’t pay any attention to it at all. I went out there in 1992, as I was invited to the Melbourne Writers Festival, and I got there and realised almost immediately that this was a really really interesting country and I knew absolutely nothing about it. As I say in the book, the thing that really struck me was that they had this prime minister who disappeared in 1967, Harold Holt and I had never heard about this. I should perhaps tell you because a lot of other people haven’t either. In 1967 Harold Holt was prime minister and he was walking along a beach in Victoria just before Christmas and decided impulsively to go for a swim and dove into the water and swam about 100 feet out and vanished underneath the waves, presumably pulled under by the ferocious undertow or rips as they are called, that are a feature of so much of the Australian coastline. In any case, his body was never found. Two things about that amazed me. The first is that a country could just lose a prime minister – that struck me as a really quite special thing to do – and the second was that I had never heard of this. I could not recall ever having heard of this. I was sixteen years old in 1967. I should have known about it and I just realised that there were all these things about Australia that I had never heard about that were actually very very interesting. The more I looked into it, the more I realised that it is a fascinating place. The thing that really endeared Australia to me about Harold Holt’s disappearance was not his tragic drowning, but when I learned that about a year after he disappeared the City of Melbourne, his home town, decided to commemorate him in some appropriate way and named a municipal swimming pool after him. I just thought: this is a great country.
There is a sick streak in you, Bill. Going back to this fusion of America and Britain in you and your writing, you describe Australia as an alternative southern California – ‘Baywatch with cricket’. Did you see this mix of Britain and America in Australia?
Yes, I think that was part of the reason why I felt so instantly comfortable in Australia. Here am I, a person who has spent half his life in Britain and half his life in America and he is going to a country that is half of each. In many ways Australia seems very American to me. Certainly visually, cities such as Sydney, Adelaide and Perth look very much more North American than European, because they are full of skyscrapers and have grid plans for the streets and so on. Also Australian attitudes and their approach to life is very American. They are very gregarious people, comfortable with strangers and there is a certain dynamism, a can-do attitude, that is very reminiscent of America. But the foundation of their culture is all very very British. They drink tea, drive on the left and play cricket. Their sense of humour is very much more British and their education system and legal system and everything. So it is this really interesting mix.
How enduring are those British roots? Did you detect strong support for becoming a Republic, for example?
Well, the support for being a Republic wasn’t quite strong enough, alas. I think they have a very uncomfortable position with that in that for a long time they were a colony and under Britain’s knuckle, as it were, and they have been establishing a separate identity for 50 years or more and that takes time. It is hard to do and gradually they are getting there. I think the Olympics helped a lot. That was the last step that had to be taken to give them the sense of confidence as a really self-contained free standing society.
One of the enduring British features in Australia is cricket. There is a wonderful piece about listening to cricket on the radio in Down Under which I have persuaded Bill to read.
“Eventually the radio dial presented only an uninterrupted cat’s hiss of static… …And the thing is, it would be a much better game for it.”
Reading from Down Under pages 110-113.
One of the other threads through the book which you were clearly captivated by was the remarkable diversity of the biology and the wildlife of the continent of Australia born by its physical isolation. You record in the book the amazing number of different species that are not known anywhere else in the planet.
Yes, and new ones being found all the time. They don’t know what is out there. One of the things I think is so marvellous about Australia is that it really is an undiscovered country, even now. I can’t remember the numbers, but it is something like 100,000 species of insect are thought to be there but have never been examined by a scientist, never been catalogued, or named or recorded. The same thing for an awful lot of plant life – something like 50,000 types of flower and other growing things have never been logged. These are things that could cure cancer. The possibilities are unbelievable. Nobody really knows what is out there.
And the country hasn’t even been mapped entirely.
Hardly at all. The kind of mapping that has been done in Australia is the sort that is done when aeroplanes make low passes over landscape, but at actual ground level there are huge vast areas of it unmapped. You are talking about a place as big as the continent of the United States, the lower 48 US states, with only the population of Metropolitan New York City. So much of it is totally empty. You can be in places in Australia where you are standing on a roadside and you look north and it could be 1,500 miles that you would have to walk before you came to another bit of pavement. I just find that amazing.
I love the tales of the early explorers in the outback. What was the story about drinking your own urine, or was it someone else’s?
Not my own!
What happened was that explorers would go to Australia and because they mostly came from Britain and Ireland, temperate soft gentle countries, they had no real concept of what they were getting into, either in terms of size or in terms of the harshness of the environment. Nothing in their lives had prepared them for this. So they set off with these grand plans to cross the continent, which even now in a motorised vehicle is quite an undertaking, but in the 19th century with just a few pack animals it was just incredibly hard and they almost always without exception came a cropper and ended up, more often than not, so desperately thirsty that they would drink their own or their horse’s urine. Which is actually counter productive if you ever find yourself in that circumstance, because the salts in urine evidently make you thirstier – so I have read – I haven’t tested this.
You had a companion briefly – your friend Alan – who came out to join you, and who you enjoyed scaring with stories about all of the beasties that he might come across in Australia. Would you read us the passage with Alan in Queensland?
Just to explain the background of this passage. I am in Queensland in the Northern tropics walking along a beach with this old English pal of mine, a guy named Alan Sherwin who has flown out to join me for a few days. By this stage in the trip I had been in Australia for many weeks and I was pretty well acquainted with the fact that although its animals are theoretically very dangerous, in reality they are not, but Alan did not know this and all this was new to him, and I have to confess I rather took advantage of his ignorance. You also need to know that this was just at the height of Box Jellyfish season in Queensland. Box Jellyfish come into the inshore waters to breed at certain times of the year and it is the most poisonous toxic creature on earth.
“‘So you are telling me’, said Alan, for whom all this was new ‘ that if I waded into the water now I would die?’ …
…’Oh, it’s a wonderful country, Alan.’ ‘Yeah, right.'”
Reading from Down Under pages 218-221.
You have described Australia as a lucky country, but one bit that doesn’t fit the image of a successful open country is the plight of the aborigines. The statistics that you quoted on how relatively poorly they fair in modern society are devastating and it seems that the superficial answer is that modern twentieth century civilisation and the aborigines don’t mix. One of the saddest pieces in the book, I thought, was when you described the social engineering policy designed to bridge this gap between the two worlds. Can you just tell us a bit about what that experiment was and what happened to those so-called ‘stolen generations’?
That is what it is known as, the stolen generations, and it is certainly very well known in Australia and an episode of considerable regret to nearly everyone now. It was an exercise in social engineering, as you say, in which earlier in the century and on up until quite recent times, the sixties, I believe, aboriginal children were taken from their parents, with the best intentions, and taken away either to state schools – kind of state orphanages – or fostered out to white European families living in cities with the intention of breaking this cycle as it was seen of poverty and ignorance. It was seen as salvation for these people who were basically savages, to take them away from this impoverished upbringing and give them more attention in a better environment. But the thing was that it ruptured families. It just totally destroyed families. How would you feel as a parent if you were at home one day and a state van pulled up and they said ‘Excuse me, but we are taking your four kids. We are taking them away from you. You have absolutely no redress over this.’ Aborigines did not even have custody over their children. An aborigine who gave birth was not the legal guardian of his or her own child, the state was. The state had the legal power to take the child. This didn’t even have to go to a tribunal or court or anything like that. The state could take custody of its ‘own’ children, as the law at that time had it. They would take the children away. Imagine what it did to the kids. Imagine what it did to the parents. This went on in some cases for many years. Sometimes, the four children would end up in four completely different parts of the country. So you had families that were ruptured. You had laid the groundwork for all sorts of problems, such as suicide and alcoholism for the parents who were deprived of their children. And then you had all these adjustment problems for the children who were deeply traumatised – sometimes being taken at the age of four and five.
Was there no contact between them once they were taken away?
No, because it was felt that that would be retrograde and a regressive step. It was done in the spirit of charity. It was just the execution was so completely hapless. The nation is still paying for that now because this whole business drove a wedge between the aborigines and their feelings towards the state and also it destroyed a lot of families and it started this horrible cycle of alcoholism.
So what is the feeling you have now about integration policy?
Obviously, all the things they do now are very much more enlightened. It is still a real problem. In any index of social deprivation in Australia aborigines always come bottom. If you look at rates of imprisonment, drug abuse, general poverty, healthcare, infant mortality: they are always at the bottom. Clearly more has to be done to give them better lives. A big part of the problem is that a high proportion of them live in very remote places. So they don’t have the opportunities of things like employment and higher education that they would have if they lived in the cities. It is a real problem and nobody has really come up with a solution.
The Olympics. You were at the Olympics writing for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Times newspapers. In fact, I saw a piece in The Times in which you covered some of the less popular sports like fencing and table tennis. I gather there were some people at table tennis that were a bit better than you are?
I went round to all these minority sports and I couldn’t really appreciate them. Fencing, for example, is just ‘click, click, click’ and it is over. Then they retire. Then they go again ‘On guard – click, click, click’ and it is over again. You just think, ‘what is this sport?’ I thought this is really boring and then I went to Judo and it was just the same thing. These two guys just endlessly circling each other, acting as if what they are trying to do is take the others shirt off without him realising this is what they are trying to do. I just thought ‘what is this? I don’t understand this at all’. Then I went to table tennis, which obviously I could identify with because I had played it myself – not quite at Olympic standard – but I could understand it. It suddenly became clear to me that these people really are so far beyond anything I could ever dream of becoming. I felt really terrible because I hadn’t appreciated the fencers. The reason I couldn’t follow them was because they were so damn good. Their hands were so quick that I couldn’t see what was going on.
You had some ideas about how to make fencing more popular…
Yes, I had some suggestions. I thought that you could encourage surprise attacks. I thought that would be very good. I kind of liked the idea of arming one guy with a conventional sword but giving the other a pikestaff. My favourite was the idea of blindfolding one of the competitors or blindfolding them both and spinning them around a bit so they were a little bit unstable and then just pushing them towards each other. It would make each match go on a bit longer.
Serious sports journalism!
The disappointments of travel
I was intrigued by a remark you made in Down Under when you said rather pessimistically that a large part of travel these days is to see things while you still can. What is disappearing?
The world is clearly becoming one place everywhere you go, and I find that discouraging. In the States now in most cities if you want a coffee, you get a Starbucks cup of coffee and that kind of thing is happening everywhere. The McDonalds-isation of the world. It just seems to be happening more and more. It is not just an American phenomenon – The Body Shop and other institutions are contributing to this as well but, as with most things in the commercial world, America is the guiding spirit. It is very discouraging. I really felt disappointed when I got to Alice Springs. I drove from Darwin to Alice Springs, a thousand miles across completely empty desert. I checked into the motel room, go upstairs and throw open the curtains and there is a K-Mart just across the road. You just think, I didn’t come this far to see a K-Mart.
Alice Springs you describe as a community once famous for being remote, that now attracts thousands of visitors who come to see how remote it no longer is. It is one of the paradoxes of modern travel, that you seek out a special place, which is partly special because it is a long way away and it requires a lot of effort to get to, and you feel that you are going to be special because you have made that effort to get there and when you arrive the place is swarming with millions of people with exactly the same idea, and not only that, the place has been expecting you. It is in fact all set up to welcome you. When you get to a place like Alice Springs for example and find multitudes of other people there for the same reason, does that disappoint you?
Sorry, Can I interrupt? Will we be going for a drink at some point?
Five minutes! Answer the question!
I was disappointed. I couldn’t help it. I had very high expectations. Alice Springs is one of those Timbuktu type places. Most people from outside, me certainly, don’t know anything much about it, so you build up these images in your mind. I thought it was going to be a dusty little cow town and there would be horses tethered to posts and things. And I got there and it is this perfectly modern town and I could have been in a suburb of Melbourne or something. So, in that sense it was disappointing. It was actually very nice. There is nothing wrong with Alice Springs. It just wasn’t as exotic as I thought it would be.
Having said that, far from being discouraged to travel, I got the impression at the end of Down Under that you were really keen to go back. That there was a lot that you hadn’t seen. I am being disingenuous really by saying were you disappointed because actually when I got to the end of Down Under, I was really inspired to go to Australia, to the places you had been and even others had been. So I would recommend unashamedly Down Under as the best kind of travel writing because it is entertaining, it is educational, but it is also simply inspiring us to travel. I will leave the last word on Down Under to Bill.
This is simply my conclusion about Australia, just as I am leaving the country and I realise my trip is over and I have run out of time and I have to go home now and write the book.
It seemed a particularly melancholy notion to me that life would go on in Australia and I would hear almost nothing of it. I would never know who would end up with the Hancock millions …
… so you see Australia is an interesting place, it truly is, and that really is all I am saying.
Reading from Down Under page 315.
Questions from the audience
When I win the lottery, my friend Neil and I will be going round the United States on the tour that you did. Our wives have said it is perfectly acceptable to do that providing they can go to all the shopping malls in the towns that we visit. How does Cynthia allow you to go round America or Australia?
Cynthia is very very good and very very understanding. It is the one real downside to what I do, that we have to spend a lot of time apart. I am away from my family much too much. I cannot do what I do for a living and be at home most of the time. But she also recognises that this is what pays the mortgage and it is just something that we have grown used to. It is not something that is any worse for us than it is for families where one of the members is an airline pilot or flight attendant. There are a lot of people in the world who have to spend a lot of time away from home. It is hard but we try to make up for it. The upside of it is that we get an awful lot of very happy reunions in our life.
I was wondering whether you had heard anything back from the North Korean Meat Wholesalers about your prospective house swap?
No is the short answer to your question, but I better explain. In the book, a friend Alan and I ended up in an Outback pub in a place called Daily Waters and apparently, he says, in the course of this very lively evening we spent there I offered to do a house swap with a family from Korea. We weren’t sure whether they were from North Korea or South Korea.
Bill, if you had to recommend one thing to see in Australia apart from Ayers Rock and the obvious things, what would it be?
Actually, I think it would be the obvious things. Ayers Rock for instance, or Uluru as you are properly meant to call it now, was just the most amazing thing. By the time you get there, because it is so far from anywhere – we drove a thousand miles from Darwin to Alice Springs and then it is another 300 miles or so to the rock itself – you feel you have almost already seen it. You have seen it portrayed so many times on postcards and souvenirs books and posters and you are thinking how interesting can a rock be? It is a rock? How interesting can any large inert object be? So, I went there more or less out of a sense of duty and I was just stunned by it. First of all, it is incredibly beautiful. It is exactly what you expect it to be. It fulfils your expectations perfectly and there is something more than that which I cannot describe which other people have agreed with me about. There is something which is literally captivating, as if it has some special cosmic significance. It makes you feel like in the Steven Spielberg movie Close Encounters. It is that kind of feeling. I don’t know what it is but it is just fabulous. So that is the place that I would go. That or the Great Barrier Reef which is also a very clichéd destination but quite special.
We were wondering what your method is for keeping notes whilst you are travelling?
It depends very much on what I am doing in terms of keeping notes. It depends on the subject of the book and so on. For instance when I did A Walk in the Woods, when I was walking the Appalachian Trail, I took almost no notes. For two reasons, first of all there was nothing to take note of, at the end of the day all I could have written was: spent day walking and eventually stopped, but also at the end of the day we were just too knackered. I was too tired to write anything down or have any original thoughts. So at the end of that trip, I really was in the position of looking at my notebook that had very little in it and thinking ‘I don’t know how I am going to get a book out of this?’ But what happens is that you start working and realise that actually things did happen and you didn’t think there were very significant at the time or whatever. So in that case I didn’t take very copious notes.
In Australia, where I was travelling in much more comfortable circumstances and I wasn’t carrying everything on my back – it was mostly in hire cars and travelling by public transport and so on – I took much more copious notes. I also took notes because everything was new to me and I was doggedly trying to accumulate information. So I was taking notes and tearing articles out of newspapers and all of that kind of thing. So I accumulated a lot more actual printed information in Australia than for any of my other books.
In Britain, I didn’t have to take many notes here, because I had spent twenty years here and I knew the country. I didn’t have to remind myself who Margaret Thatcher was or anything like that. So it varies from book to book.
I spent some time in southern Australia and I noticed that the people there made some curious remarks about the Tasmanians. I wondered if you ever heard any of these remarks yourself and whilst you were there didn’t happen to visit Tasmania?
I did hear the remarks all the time about the Tasmanians. I don’t know how to put it – it was suggested that there was a genetic interconnectedness amongst some of the people – much as we regard some of our own people in the hill country of the southern United States. I can’t actually comment on the validity of that – I rather think it is exaggerated.
This is really a continuation of the question about notes. On a good day when you are putting a book together, how many words do you expect to write?
It is really hard to say. Nowadays when everything is done on computers and you can constantly revise, it is almost impossible to tell how much work you have done at the end of the day, because I move around, go back to earlier chapters, get a thought about how to turn something around. But I suppose, I allow myself an average of about a thousand words a day, which would mean something in the region of a hundred days to write a book. In fact, in reality, it takes more like 200 or 250 days to write a book. Very seldom would I do more than a thousand words a day. I am basing that less on writing books than the column I did for the Mail on Sunday, which was a thousand words, and it was a pretty good day’s work when I did a column in one day.
If you had to move to Australia for the next 10 years, where would you live and why?
Well, why is because you just ordered me to go! Where? I don’t know. It is tough. I think it would have to be a toss up between Sydney and Melbourne. I like both of those cities very very much and for different reasons. Sydney is just such a beauty and if somebody gave me a house on the harbour or with a good view overlooking the harbour, I would have to go for that because it is just so sensational. On the other hand Melbourne I really really like too. I have always found it for me a more fun place. Eating and drinking and socialising for me have always been more fun there and I think it is because almost all of the relatively small number of my close Australian friends are in Melbourne, so I have always had a good time there. I think it is a great city and I think even most Sydney-siders would tell you that Melbourne has still got the edge in terms of being a place to eat and drink and enjoy yourself.’
Are you now put off driving, if not walking, long distances after your discovery of a K-mart store in Alice Springs?
Well I certainly didn’t walk to Alice Springs. I don’t like driving. I have never enjoyed it. I had to do quite a lot of driving in Australia because that is just the nature of things there. I don’t enjoy it. In the States I don’t drive at all. We have been back five years and I still haven’t got around to getting a driver’s licence because we live in the town and I can walk into town if I need to go to the library or bank or whatever. It is all within a nice easy walk.
They must think you are mad!
They think I am completely crazy. When you walk to town at least three times on any walk into town people will pull over and ask if your car has broken down and if you want a ride. It is just quite amazing because people in Hanover are not lazy. They exercise. They go out for power walks. They take little bar bells with them.
I was with my brother not too long ago; he was going to one of these little convenience stores to get a quart of milk and then he was going to the bank machine. These places were side by side, two different properties, two different lots. He got the milk and then we were going to the bank machine and I started to walk over and he just looked at me and got in the car. We drove out on the Highway, drove twenty feet down the Highway, and turned into another driveway. It is just insane. People have lost all touch with reality.
What are you going to do next?
It is hard to explain, but essentially my idea is to do a book about how the world works.
The physical forces of the earth. My starting point is, remember those illustrations in all school textbooks when you were in primary school, the cut away diagram of the earth which showed the core of the earth as a bright silver coloured ball? It used to really bother me when I saw that because I used to think ‘How do they know?’ It could be nougat. Who knows what is in the centre of the earth? Anyway, that is just the starting point, then it occurred to me more and more that this is the only existence I am ever going to experience and I haven’t the faintest idea how most of it works and I think most people are in the same boat. I was thinking about the wind. I understand vaguely why we have wind but I don’t understand why sometimes it is completely calm and other times it is really blowy and when it is really blowy and the wind blows past you, where is it going? It doesn’t run out of petrol, so when it stops what makes it stop? What happens? If you stand out there long enough will it go round again and hit you a second time? These are questions that I think need to be answered.
Finally, and this is the serious bit, I must thank our guest. There is a phrase in Down Under that seems to encapsulate Bill’s enthusiasm and perspective on travelling. When he arrives in Australia he says,
“It was as if I had discovered life on another planet or a parallel universe where life was at once recognisably similar but entirely different. I can’t tell you how exciting it was.”
This seems a fitting description of Bill’s travel writing. We might all say that he creates for us a parallel universe where life is at once recognisably similar but entirely different. I am sure we would also say, I can’t tell you how exciting it is. Ladies and Gentlemen, Bill Bryson.