Conversation with an Alien

My talk with Bill Davis — journalist, editor, radio and television host, speechwriter and jet-setter — on bilingualism, being cheeky with the Queen, rebelling in your 80s, and making a “lucky escape” from a future American president

A delightful memoir-sized autobiography, The Alien was published in 2014.

Bill Davis believes that parents should teach their children to be bilingual. But he will also tell you that he did not teach his own children to speak his heritage language.

Now 85, Bill has enjoyed a remarkable, celebrity-studded career. He was Britain’s Minister of Tourism. He was a director of Thomas Cook, Britain’s popular vacation planning company, and started a campaign for its employees to learn other languages.

He was editor of the quintessentially British satire magazine Punch, and the creator of British Airways’ in-flight magazine, High Life, one of the first of its kind.

Bill was summoned to meetings at 10 Downing Street more times than he can remember. He once had lunch — and a cheeky conversation — with the Queen.

An amazing Brit, don’t you think?

Except that, as he describes in his captivating autobiography, Bill was an alien.

Bill Davis, you see, started off in life as Gunter Keese.

“Haven’t you got another name?”

He was born in Germany in 1933, the year that Hitler rose to power and, as was required for all young Germans, wore the uniform of Hitler Youth. But because his mother married a British soldier in the occupying force, young Gunter soon immigrated with his mother and stepfather to London. He saw a London still limping with the open wounds of the bombings that his country had inflicted.

As a foreigner, Gunter had to register with the British authorities and report his whereabouts, but some English lads his age seemed more open-minded. They asked him if he didn’t have another name he could use — one they could pronounce.

So Gunter Keese became Bill Davis, and ultimately, a British citizen.

I had a chance to sit down with Bill this past summer in his home on the Côte d’Azur. My goal was to talk about his life as a bilingual, yet we talked about more than I bargained for. You can hear our conversation in Episode 32 of the America the Bilingual podcast, “Why a World War II Survivor Adopted the Enemy’s Language.”

Bill Davis today, at his home on the French Riviera

As often happens when you encounter a fascinating person with a story only he could tell, Bill’s points of view on bilingualism caused me to rethink some of my own. To give you one example: in Episode 31 of the America the Bilingual podcast, we reported on a new way of teaching global languages in the classroom that involves learning about the culture of a country as well as its language. That was exactly how Bill (then Gunter) came to learn and love the English language, thanks to a dedicated and courageous teacher in Germany in the early 1940s.

Everything old is new again.

The “lucky escape”

Bill also relayed what he described as a “lucky escape” he had. He was not referring to when, as a 10-year-old boy, he had to hide in the mountains from the bombs that England was dropping on Germany.

This was an escape he had when he was much older, a successful magazine publisher in the 1980s who thought nothing of hopping the Concorde in London for a same-day meeting in New York.

Spoiler alert: You’ll hear him recount the story on the podcast. His “lucky escape” was from Donald Trump.

You might think that, at age 85, Bill is content now to simply sit back and reminisce. He’s not. He’s currently working on his nineteenth book, which he and I also talked about, and which was inspired in part by Donald Trump’s presidency.

But he is reveling in the many freedoms that octogenarianism brings. As he writes in his autobiography, “You no longer have to set the alarm clock, commute, rush from one business meeting to the next, attend boring conferences, worry about which way hemlines are going, and pretend to like noisy rock stars and depressing movies. You can be a rebel again.”

“Again”? I think, my friend, you always were.