NOTES FROM A BIG CITY; Bill Bryson Is the Most Successful Travel Writer Today. Chief Feature Writer Dennis Ellam Asks the Itinerant from Iowa about the Joys of Birmingham
Ellam, Dennis, The Birmingham Post (England)
In his role as the VIP who makes the speech, cuts the scarlet ribbon and declares a bookshop's new upstairs department well and truly open, Bill Bryson beams throughout the gracious little ceremony.
"Well, that's something new, the first time in my whole life I ever did that," he says, to polite applause, and he seems really very pleased at his expertise in working the scissors without taking off his thumb.
His own books portray this constant struggle waged by the bemused: Bryson versus technology, Bryson versus new-fangled gadgetry, Bryson versus phone companies and airline clerks and real estate agents, Bryson versus the world, in fact, a great deal of wh ich he has already visited.
Everywhere he goes, he lands in the deep end, it was once said of him. That is his trick. It is a gift which he uses well - combined with his talent as the funniest writer in the contemporary English language.
So this morning in Birmingham he is flanked by a girl from his publisher's, anxious about the time, and a manager from the bookshop, anxious about the queue of customers, and the fans who are here to get their volumes signed discover he is exactly the so rt of person they had expected, from his writing - an amiably calm man, in the midst of all this commercial anxiety.
"Do I enjoy this? Sure I enjoy this, because it is the chance for me to meet the people who actually pay me for my work, which can be very isolating and solitary, and my only reget is that I don't get the time just to walk around somewhere, look to see w hat's around the next corner, see if the reality fits the pre-conceptions."
All right, step into High Street, Birmingham, for a moment, Bill, and give us an instant impression of what you see around you.
"Concrete," Bill says, and then, looking for somewhere out of the wind where he can light his pipe, he steps into the kind of shopping mall which could just as easily be in his hometown of Des Moines, Iowa.
That was how Bill started his first book: "I come from Des Moines, Iowa - someone had to". Since then he has sold nearly a million, crafting an exquisite kind of humour out of this relationship between the wide-eyed American country boy and the big wide world beyond.
In particular, his Notes From A Small Island, written near the end of his 20-year residence in Britain, became a permanent fixture in the book charts (and will be reinvented in the new year as a TV series, fronted by Bryson).
His latest, Notes From A Big Country, which will be this Christmas market's big seller in hardback, is a collection of his columns for a British Sunday newspaper, mostly wry, and sometimes acidic, observations of the lifestyle he has observed since movin g back, this time to New Hampshire, with his British-born wife Cynthia and their four children (a range from eight to 20).
So, Bill, do you like Americans?
"Well of course I do. I think Americans are wonderful. I was born one.
"The trouble with America is not the people, but just the way the country operates a lot of the time.
"When I first went back to the States, I suppose I was in a hyper-critical mode, because anyone who comes to a country tends to want to find it rather like the country they just left.
"It's an instinctive reaction to complain. Why don't they do this, why don't they do that?
"I suppose if I have the choice - and we keep a flat now in London, so this might be an option one day - I would spend, like, eight months here and four months there."
But isn't it true, Bill, that you were getting just the teensiest exasperated with the British way of doing things - how they serve hamburgers, for instance?
"Whoa, no, no, not at all, and I'm sorry if you got that impression. I mean, I'm easily exasperated, and wherever I am that would probably be a factor, but really I have never been in a place that suited me better than Britain. …