Bill Bryson: 'I'm American, but I cheer for England now in the World Cup until they get kicked out'
Some 20 years after Bill Bryson wrote his best-selling travel book, Notes From A Small Island, he takes a fresh look at the UK and tells Hannah Stephenson he loves the country so much he became a British citizen
It was a surreal moment for best-selling author Bill Bryson, when Hollywood star Robert Redford sat next to him at the premiere of the recent film adaptation of his book, A Walk In The Woods.
Redford plays Bryson in the movie, which charts the story of his attempts to connect with his American homeland by hiking the Appalachian Trail with one of his oldest friends (played by Nick Nolte).
"Watching it was very strange for the first couple of minutes, when the movie started and Robert Redford was answering to my name. But I liked the film," the unassuming author recalls.
"He's an extremely charming man, very intelligent and very interesting. I was happy to hand over the film rights, knowing that he makes intelligent films."
Bryson (63) isn't planning any more 2,000-mile treks. These days, his hikes tend to last a couple of days, rather than weeks. His most recent journey has been in Britain on what he calls "the Bryson Line", from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath in the Scottish Highlands, as he set out to rediscover the country that he thought he knew but doesn't altogether recognise any more.
His experiences and observations of our "wondrously beautiful, magnificently eccentric" land are charted in The Road To Little Dribbling, a follow-up to Notes From A Small Island, published 20 years ago, which celebrated his adopted country and was voted the book which most represents Britain.
Little Dribbling does not exist, but it's a name which conjures images of the quaint, quintessentially British villages or towns you might come across.
It's a highly amusing read, which begins with Bryson having to take a knowledge test to become a British citizen last year, where you have to answer questions like, "In what year was the maximum length of a working day for women and children reduced to 10 hours?" (1847). He now enjoys dual citizenship - American and British.
"It used to be a hugely complicated process, but I kind of felt this is my home. It allows me to vote and I can go to the same queue at passport control as my wife now," he says.
He still returns to the US at least twice a year to see his mother, who is now 102, and his son - who has settled there - and for work, but feels strangely disconnected from his birthplace.
"I'm plugged into certain things in America, like baseball, but I don't recognise a lot of the celebrities. There's a lot of anger in US politics and a lot of people demonise the other side. Some groups think Barack Obama is the devil incarnate. You don't get that here. Basically, everyone wants stability.
"I'm American, but in the same way I'm left-handed. It's what I was born with, it's the basic part of my being. But I cheer for England now in the World Cup, until they get kicked out."
While he details some changes to the UK in his latest book - the increase in litter, the decimation of village centres tarnished by modern, ugly housing, the traffic jams, the internet - he still loves it.
"The best part about Britain is that things haven't really changed. It's still a decent, pretty sane and reasonably compassionate and well-meaning place. It's somewhere you can be quite pleased and proud of," he reflects.
Several critics - most notably Janet Street-Porter - have said the book is grumpier in tone than his previous one.
Dubbing him "Britain's Grumpiest Human Being" and likening him to Victor Meldrew in a recent article, Street-Porter fumes of his latest take on Britain: "Once regarded as charming and eccentric, we're now accused of being mean, stupid, oafish and messy. He moans about dog mess and litter, bad manners and reality telly stars ... Lighten up, for goodness' sake."
Reading the book, the sarcasm is perhaps a little heavy at times, but Bryson surely doesn't deserve such a barrage of criticism in what is essentially a feel-good read.
He argues that his writing is primarily done for laughs, and not because Britain has become a worse place or that he's become grumpier with age.
"It's quite natural for people to become more curmudgeonly as they get older. I did try hard for that not to overwhelm me. But a lot of it is jokes and not meant to be taken seriously.
"She (Street-Porter) hadn't read the book. She just made a decision about what sort of person I am. I don't think she would have liked anything I wrote."
Criticism, he says, no longer bothers him, although he sounds a little miffed at Street-Porter's outpourings. She's not the first to criticise his work. When Notes From A Small Island first received huge public acclaim, some travel writers had the knives out, accusing him of not taking the genre as seriously as he ought to.
The public evidently disagrees. He's now sold nearly nine million books. It's clear who's having the last laugh. Brought up in Des Moines, Iowa, the son of journalists, Bryson arrived in England as a backpacker in 1973 after dropping out of college, fell in love with the country and with Cynthia Billen, a nurse he met when he landed a job at a psychiatric hospital in Surrey. They've been married 40 years and have four children and nine grandchildren.
He worked for many years as a journalist, for the Bournemouth Evening Echo and later The Times, eventually settling in Yorkshire before returning to the US for a few years, so his children could experience life in another country.
Bryson now lives in Hampshire and has a flat in London, more money than he will ever need and relative anonymity when he's out and about.
He hopes to cut down on his workload next year to spend more time with his wife, without whom he couldn't have enjoyed such success, as she patiently brought up their children while he was busy forging his career, working late shifts and then grabbing a few hours in the morning to work on his books.
Now they have more time, Bryson is enjoying the grandchildren. "Being a grandparent is wonderful," he says. "It's terrific - you get to enjoy them and can then give them back. I'm somehow more enchanted with them as babies as I've more time to appreciate that. When my own children were small, I was very busy with my career. If I was home at weekends, I was trying to get books written.
"Now, I'm definitely hoping to slow down. I want to spend more time with my wife. She didn't travel with me when I was writing Little Dribbling, but now she comes with me a lot more often and we're going to make the most of our time together," says Bryson.
"I want to go to new places and not necessarily have to write about them."
The Road To Little Dribbling: More Notes From A Small Island by Bill Bryson is published by Doubleday, £20