Leaf Arbuthnot

Bill Bryson: It’s impossible to be sick of England

The author on love, loss and the wonders of the human body

‘It’s remarkable that bad things don’t happen to us more often,’ notes Bill Bryson in his latest book, a look at the ‘warm wobble of flesh’ that is the human body. He wrote it long before coronavirus upset the world, but parts of it are particularly relevant now.

Viruses worth their salt know how to get around, writes Bryson. Researchers from the University of Arizona infected a door handle to an office and found it took just four hours for a virus to spread through the building, turning up on virtually every device inside and ‘infecting’ half the workers. Kissing, oddly, is among the least effective ways to spread germs. Ordinary touch is best. ‘A successful virus is one that doesn’t kill too well and can circulate widely.’

I meet Bryson, at his suggestion, in a crypt in central London. I arrive, disorientated by the sepulchral chill of the place, and look around, expecting to find a summery Father Christmas. Instead I find Bryson in an immaculate suit (he’s on his way to the Garrick), eating a sandwich in the crypt café as he studies the Economist. We don’t, of course, shake hands, but nod and smile and toot awkwardly, in an approximation of greeting.

Bryson is something of a rarity: a national treasure, whatever that means, with an American accent. I can’t name a writer who has made me laugh out loud more. The ‘boy from Des Moines’ blew into Britain in 1973 while backpacking through Europe. Footloose and exhilarated to be so far from home — he grew up pining to live somewhere glitzier, like Paris or Chicago — Bryson struck up a friendship with two women working at a psychiatric hospital in Virginia Water, and ‘just impetuously’ decided to get a job there. The whim changed his life.

He met a 20-year-old nurse called Cynthia and fell in love.

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