Monday, August 8, 2011



“I do think one of the most adorable and admirable qualities of British people is their sense of humour,” says Bill Bryson. “It’s the best sense of humour in the world.” And as an American famous for his highly entertaining books, he should know.

“I think humour is just something I naturally do,” he explains in his measured, quiet voice. “We all have certain language skills that we do well and things we don’t do so well. I always struggle with descriptive passages or lyrical prose, but I seem to have more of a knack for seeing a joke and I learned to make a virtue of that.” He smiles. “Technically it’s a real challenge to write humour successfully but I find it’s very satisfying.”

Though of course Bill doesn’t just write humour – he has written books about travel, the English language, science, history, a memoir, his love of the English countryside, and about the home. “I’d gladly write another 25 books if I thought I was going to live long enough,” he continues. “I think from now onwards, I have to start getting more selective and for that reason I’m taking more care in committing to the next book. But I haven’t made a decision yet.”

Bill grew up surrounded by books. “We had floor to ceiling bookshelves and I used to go in and just take these books down - I had no idea what I was reading and discovered people like P.G. Wodehouse and Robert Benchley; all funny writers.” But it was Wodehouse that made an impression on the young American. “P.G. Wodehouse particularly seemed wildly exotic, describing life in England in a way that I had no personal connection to; it was just funny and engaging. That was very important to me - not just in writing in a way that made people laugh, but also being able to connect with people.”

Bill’s parents were both journalists so it was no surprise that he chose to become one.
“I wasn’t under pressure but it was just the natural progression, and English was the only thing I was ever any good at,” he explains. “I didn’t have any scientific or mathematical aptitude.” So Bill worked as a sub in Bournemouth, then went to London. “I worked for the Times, and then I worked on the Independent when it first started which was a very exciting period.” He smiles. “I’m proud to say I was one of the founding journalists (of the Independent) - though not a very important one,” he adds. “Then we moved to Yorkshire and I quit my job and was a freelance all the time.”

The move from journalism to writing books was a gradual one. “When I was working at the Evening Echo in Bournemouth, I started doing freelance articles to earn more money as I had a young family, and little by little I discovered it was something I enjoyed very much. I started writing books in my spare time and I thought this is what I would really like to do – not commute into London every day and fight the crowds and all of that, but live in a nice rural, idyllic spot and write for a living.” He pauses. “At the time I wrote articles and books – you know, anything that people would pay for – and that’s what I have done ever since.”

Bill’s writing day starts very early, before he’s properly awake. “I get up around 5-5.30 at this time of year and have one cup of coffee with my wife, and we have a brief chat about what we intend to achieve that day.” And his endearing honesty is one reason why his books are so incredibly popular. “Then I take my second cup of coffee and go to my desk and start writing before I have any time to reflect on how little I want to work - that’s the only way I can do it. If I went to check things in the greenhouse, I would never get back to my desk.”

When it comes to planning his books, Bill needs to know where they are going. “I don’t necessarily write them sequentially; I hop around a bit, but I do need a clear idea of what ground I’m going to cover and how to link all these things up.” He frowns. “Sometimes you discover things or stumble across devices as you work away on it, but at other times, in a weird way, what goes on in your head doesn’t actually seem to relate to what comes out of your fingertips.”

His current book, At Home, came about when his family returned from America to live in England in 2003 and it was time to come up with the idea for a new book. “I’d just written A Short History of Nearly Everything and took on the whole universe and I thought what’s left to do? I was sitting at the kitchen table and realized that a house is sort of a universe in its own right. The idea was that I would wander from room to room and write a history of the world from the perspective of each room, and how those rooms had been lived in throughout history. So the bedroom would be the history of sex and sleep, the bathroom of hygiene, the kitchen cooking and so on.”

For such a prolific writer, I was surprised when Bill announced that all his books have been “a nightmare” to write. But the hardest was A Walk in the Woods, about walking the Appalachian Trail. “Essentially we were just walking which is the hardest thing in the world to write about,” he explains. “I felt there was no material for a book and I felt quite gloomy about the whole thing. So when I finally managed to get a book out of this experience, I felt most pleased.” He pauses. “I realized of course that things did happen but I didn’t necessarily pay much attention to them at the time. This happens every time I write a travel book.”

It is clear that Bill is content with his life, although not so happy about getting older. “I turned 60 this year and it does make you realize that there is a finite period. But I very much enjoy writing and I don’t want to stop working: I feel lucky to be able to do it.” He gives another slow smile. “Writing to me is the greatest indulgence in the world because I can indulge a huge area of curiosity and make a living from it. I can’t think of a better wheeze than that!”

Although he concedes that life is tougher now. “It’s harder being freelance. One of the things that I used to be able to do was sell the same articles over and over. One to the Washington Post and then to the San Francisco Chronicle and the Chicago Tribune and you can’t do that any more because you sell it to the Washington Post and they put it online and they have world rights. So it’s become a lot harder to find markets for some things.”

But when it comes to new writers getting published, Bill is pragmatic. “It is difficult but it’s always been difficult, and a lot of aspiring writers think that it’s a question of being sprinkled with fairy dust, whereas it’s actually mostly hard work and application and the ability to withstand rejection and keep plugging away.” He pauses. “Just go into any big bookshop and look at all those books - every single one of those writers was unknown when they started out. Half a million books get published every year so it’s not that remarkable a thing – it’s a question of persevering. Though if you do fail again and again you do have to ask yourself is this the right line of work for me?

“You have to be able to take rejection without taking it personally,” he continues. At first it’s natural to feel slightly crushed and that the odds are stacked against you. But I don’t think publishing is stacked against you any more than life is generally. Assuming that you have some talent and a real story to tell then things will come good for you.”

At Home is published by Transworld, out now.

Writers' Forum August 2011

Par Walk

Airing our hangovers with “foreign” friends from over the Tamar

I originally met John and Annie as they lived in the same village as my mum. Over the last few years we've had holidays together: my husband did the cooking, while John and Annie and I explored before settling down to enjoy Pip’s cooking. Last time, John had a bad back so we decided on a shortish circular walk starting off at Par Beach to air our hangovers.

From Fowey, we took the main St Austell road (A3082), turning left just before the railway bridge at the bottom of Polmear Hill, past the Ship pub. Continuing along this road for several hundred yards, we parked in the car park on the left, near Par Beach, which is free in winter.

We walked back towards the Ship pub with a row of almshouses next door: these were built in 1650 by the Rashleigh family and converted into modern houses in 1977/8. By Chapel Cottage there is a Saints Way sign and a yellow waymark leading uphill to a very steep path, populated by holly trees with rich red berries and festooned with particularly vicious nettles which weren't good for myself and John, both wearing shorts. We struggled and panted up the path which led to a large field at the top of the hill populated by five very lovely horses.

John was route master for this walk, and directed us across the field where a faint path could be seen through the grass heading towards the trees on the skyline. Looking down over the huge Par Beach is a fabulous sight: St Austell Bay stretched out in the distance, while the china clay chimneys smouldered around Par Harbour, and we could see a huge pool, next door to the caravan park.

John found some mushrooms here but discarded them as not being good enough – having picked them since he was a child he is something of a connoisseur. We turned right here, parallel to the hedge, heading inland until we reached another stile on the right, with a rotted waymark sign lying forlornly on the ground. We walked diagonally left until we reached a double wooden and granite stile in the corner of the field which led us to the busy, fast road heading down Polmear Hill.

Hurrying over the road we reached the pavement on the opposite side and headed uphill. Ahead was a road sign to Polkerris Beach and Menabilly on the right and we took that, past the sign to Trill Horse Trail and walked along, passed a lone letterbox. Turning right again down to Polkerris, the clouds parted and we walked down the narrow and steep hill with high banks on either side smelling of warm wet earth from the recent rain, fresh autumn air, and a sudden blast of white sunshine gleaming off glossy ivy leaves. Blackbirds sang on either side as we passed underneath the remains of a footbridge, with dense, ivy clad woods on either side.

We walked past a cottage draped in Virginia Creeper and a couple of blue tits feeding in the garden and continued down to Polkerris which consists of several pretty whitewashed cottages with beautiful fuchsias growing in abundance outside. Until the end of the 19th century, Polkerris had one of the largest fish cellars in Cornwall, which still dominate the beach, and a huge fleet of seine boats.

At the bottom of the hill is the Rashleigh Arms, which was orginally in what is now the car park: the present pub building was once a boat shed. The granite wall of the harbour curved like a strong protective arm, and John pointed out several canons tipped up to act as bollards. This pier was built by the Rashleigh family around 1730 and what is now Sam's cafe was the old lifeboat house. John disappeared into the pub to get coffee for our hangovers, while Annie and Mollie and I sat outside in the garden admiring the view over St Austell Bay with the stunningly placed golf course off to the right.

“Don't get too comfortable,” John said a few minutes later. “They don't open till 12.” As it was only 10.30, we headed up the hill in front of a couple of cottages with gardens on either side, planted on an almost sheer cliff face. Fishing nets had been used as bird cages to tend the late raspberries, and Evening Primrose towered on either side of us, nodding lemon yellow heads as we climbed.

At the top we found a bench where we sat and digested the view as we sipped our bottles of water. Far below us a very young father with baby strapped to his body, wandered from the beach to the cafe, back into the car park. “He's probably been awake all night and is frantic for caffeine,” said Annie.

Heading back along the coastal path, we were greeted by the last of the blackberries, devoured by Annie, gradually acquiring a black mouth. Bright red and orange berries glistened in the hedges next to big fat sloes, making us think of sloe gin, and winter log fires. Old Man's Beard grew in abundance next to hawthorn bushes covered in grey-green fingers of lichen.

A cacophony of crows gathered and screeched above us, warned off by seagulls. “What's the collective noun for a group of crows?” asked John. “A congregation?” None of us knew, but having looked it up it is “a murder”: very apt, thinking of The Birds, and this being du Maurier country.

The sun was shining silver on the water far out to sea so we stopped and stared in admiration, while the tip of Gribben Head was just visible over the tops of the far hills. As we looked back, the young father appeared, baby still strapped to his stomach, and suddenly a skein of Canada geese flew over head, honking loudly. To our left, over the sea, flew a bunch of oyster catchers with their eerie scream as we turned the corner and a beautiful hill rose up on our right, in smooth emerald green. The path wound round back to where we started at Par beach, and we noticed the Canada Geese coming in to land on the pond at Par.

As we walked the last of the footpath, the ground was splattered with dark blackberry juice and we climbed down steep steps, over a little bridge and back to where we'd parked the car. Climbing onto the sand dunes, we looked out over Par Sands, where a couple of collies played tag in the lazy waves rippling on the edge of the sea. The sand was studded with silvery reflections and the sun beat down like a blessing. We sighed happily, hangovers gone. What could be better?

OS Explorer Map 107 St Austell and Liskeard
Grading: a few steep hills, paths can be very muddy after rain. Varied views, landscape and wildlife.
Walk: 2.5 miles
Length: just under 1.5 hours
Dogs are allowed on Par Beach all year round.
Car park at Par Beach £2.10 all day at time of writing. Car park also at Polkerris.
Public toilets at Polkerris
Refreshments: Ship Inn at Par, Rashleigh Arms and Sam's cafe, Polkerris cafe at Polkerris

Cornwall Today 2011