POPULAR writer Bill Bryson says his years as Durham University chancellor were the happiest of his life. On his first return since stepping down last year, he spared a few minutes to talk to Mark Tallentire.
BILL Bryson has written many millions of words during a hugely successful career as an author; his biggest hits including Notes from a Big Country, The Mother Tongue and A Short History of Nearly Everything.
But, it could be argued, he got the job as Durham University chancellor on the basis of just a handful; when, in Notes from a Small Island, he described Durham as a “perfect little city” and its Cathedral as “the best on Earth”.
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The US-born writer became the 11th ceremonial head in the 180-year history of the UK’s third oldest university in April 2005, succeeding Sir Peter Ustinov.
He announced he was to step down at the end of 2011in October 2010, saying he wanted to spend more time writing and with his family.
His departure was quiet and unheralded, presumably to avoid deflecting attention from the arrival of his successor, Seaham Harbour-born opera star Sir Thomas Allen.
But he returned for his first public appearance in his perfect little city for nearly a year late last month, to officially rename the University’s library in honour of himself.
The Bill Bryson Library, part of the University’s £60m Gateway project, has undergone an £11m expansion and now boasts 500 new study spaces, 30 study rooms and 11.5 miles of shelving across four floors.
After unveiling a plaque, Mr Bryson took a few minutes to chat to reporters and reflect on his six-and-a-half years at Durham.
“It was the best years of my life. It was the happiest years of my life,” he says, bouncing off his seat with enthusiasm at the opportunity to reminisce.
“It was the biggest responsibility I’ve ever taken on. As a writer I live a very solitary life. I have no corporate structure to my life.
“Belonging to a great big family, as part of an institution, is fabulous.”
“I met fascinating people,” he recalls.
“I don’t even know what that building is,” he says, pointing out a nearby window, “But if you go in and look around for five minutes, you’ll find somebody whose work is wonderful and could very well change the world.
“And there’ll be the same thing in the next building, and the next, and the next – wherever you go. That’s the great thing about a University – there’s so much going on.
“To be part of that, and in a senior role – treated with respect and called Doctor, was amazing.”
The bearded former journalist went way beyond the minimum expected of a chancellor, regularly visiting Durham to meet students and promote causes close to his heart.
He picked up litter with undergraduates, worked tirelessly to encourage students to sign up to the national organ donor register under the ‘My Friend Oli’ campaign and, famously, brought Hollywood leading man and Gladiator star Russell Crowe to the University to give an acting masterclass.
In March 2009, his contribution to Durham life was officially recognised, as he was awarded the freedom of the city.
But, asked what he achieved during his tenure, he replies modestly: “In a sense, nothing.
“I wasn’t involved in the formal governance of the University. Even if I’d wanted to do something, I wouldn’t really have been in the position.
“The chancellor’s supposed to be a little bit like the Queen Mother. You can always just be this jolly, happy person who doesn’t get involved in controversies.
“I don’t know if I achieved anything concrete. Things didn’t go well because of me. I just happened to be here.”
He is, however, proud of the My Friend Oli campaign – set up in honour of his friend Oli Lewington, of Milton Keynes, who underwent a double lung transplant in a bid to ease his living with cystic fibrosis.
It resulted in Durham having the highest number of students of any UK university on the organ donor register and, he admits without any sense of regret, shamed others into following suit.
So, nearly one year on from his departure, does he miss it?
“I miss the people,” he says.
“I made a lot of friends here. I would see them very regularly when I was coming up.
“I also miss Durham as a city. I miss looking out the window to the Cathedral.
“Durham’s not going to be a big part of my life anymore and that’s a great sadness to me.
“The North-East is the friendliest place in the world. It really is. You just have to step off the train and you sense it.”
Soaring tuition fees and the public spending squeeze mean the universities sector is going through a period of huge change. Durham has attracted criticism for some of the donations it has accepted.
But, asked whether its future is in safe hands, Mr Bryson replies: “Oh yes, absolutely.
“British universities don’t have a lot of financial input but they’re still top of the world. Ten per cent of all the best universities in the world are in Britain – a country that has one per cent of the population.
“Britain is still punching above its weight in higher education, without anything like the finance government and private donors ought to be giving.
“If we got to the point where you get government to give more money and alumni to give more money, you’d really be cooking.”
With that, our interview slot is over. Mr Bryson has lots to do and lots of friends to see. And, without taking anything away from his successor, Durham misses him now he’s gone.