A first-class ticket to a whole world of big ideas

The role of chancellor suits Bill Bryson's curiosity and popularising instinct. Melanie Newman writes

March 5, 2009

There is no academic reason why Bill Bryson, the bestselling author and chancellor of the University of Durham, has chosen to investigate how people live inside their homes for his latest book.

"I told my wife I'd do something that didn't involve travelling," he explained.

But the renowned travel writer has already proved unable to confine his analysis to the private lives of Britons. He and his wife recently drove to Italy and "saw some villas" and he has visited US homes. "But most of it fitted in with what we were already doing," he insisted.

The limitations on his investigations imposed by his domestic responsibilities may be more of a help than a burden to his new project: Mr Bryson gives the impression of a man under a constant battle to restrain the scope of his material.

On a recent visit to Durham's engineering department, he fell into a conversation about soil mechanics. "That opened up a whole new avenue of possibility: soil is such a big part of any property. It's particularly relevant to how long your house keeps standing."

The productivity of such encounters has created its own problem: his project keeps growing tentacles.

"I've reached the point where I'm trying to stop myself going to the library because every time I have a casual conversation it turns out to be relevant. A new road opens up and I want to follow it."

His own difficulties mean he has huge admiration for academics' ability to focus.

"I'd spend one afternoon at the Large Hadron Collider and if it didn't give me the result I wanted I'd leave... I couldn't look at one species of snail for ever and I'm full of admiration for the people who can."

Although Mr Bryson is best known for his travel writing (in Notes from a Small Island, which recounts a journey through the UK, he describes Durham as "a perfect little city"), he has also authored books on language, Shakespeare and science - his Short History of Nearly Everything won the 2004 Aventis Prize for best general science book. But he sees himself as a journalist rather than a scholar.

"When I sit down with academics at dinners and they start telling me about their work, my first thought is always: Why don't I know this already? My instinct is to popularise."

An 'exhilarating' effort to connect

Mr Bryson's involvement in the launch of Thinking about Almost Everything, a collection of one-page essays written by academics at Durham's multidisciplinary Institute of Advanced Study, could be seen as a mere marketing ploy by a university with a famous chancellor.

He admits that he had no involvement in the production of the book, which is aimed at a general audience and includes pieces on extreme pornography, plant genetics and Sharia. But his enthusiasm for the project is clearly genuine.

"On a personal level it's exhilarating to see all these familiar names together. On a more general level, (the book) is doing two things the academic world doesn't always do," he said. "It's bringing people from a range of disciplines together in a co-operative effort, and it's trying to connect with the outside world."

He sees inability to connect - to popularise - as a "global academic failing", although there are "huge numbers of exceptions".

With their complementary elements, Mr Bryson and an academic environment would appear to be a perfect fit. But when he was invited to become chancellor of Durham in 2005 he said he "thought I was the wrong choice".

"My view was that a chancellor should be someone very suave and smart; someone who can move comfortably in certain circles." But he accepted nevertheless and has grown into the role. "I absolutely love it."

Mr Bryson's experience of university was rather different from that of most Durham students. He took seven years to graduate with a bachelor of arts in international relations from Drake University in his home city of Des Moines, Iowa, dropping out several times along the way.

"I was a terrible student. I was really undermotivated. But I was lucky enough to have grown up at a time when it didn't matter what kind of degree you had. You could fool around and end up getting a decent job."

That a degree is now essential for a career such as he enjoyed (he was chief sub-editor on The Times' business section and deputy business news editor for The Independent) he sees as "wholly positive".

"The world feels much more competitive, which is bound up with unattractive qualities like greed and self-interest, but in terms of requiring students to knuckle down and achieve - that can only be a good thing."

Britain is "terrific" at balancing the need for "cerebral institutions" with a requirement to "turn out people who are sufficiently educated for the work you need done," he added.

"That's one of the things you do well in this country. I strongly believe in the idea of turning polytechnics into universities. A lot of people act as though it's pulling the whole system backwards, and I don't see that."

So what does the US do better? "One thing that's different is the cash." The disparity between the funds available to US and British universities is "pretty scary".

Mr Bryson points to the University of Virginia, which came 96th in the last Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings (Durham came in at 122). In 2006, Virginia launched a $3 billion (£2.09 billion) fundraising campaign.

"If Durham had that kind of money, you can't imagine what it could achieve," Mr Bryson said.

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com

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