According to Bill Bryson, 99.9 per cent of the world’s ills originated in America during the 1950s. Well, he doesn’t actually say that, as such, but in the course of his book he reveals some pretty grisly statistics concerning his homeland. Apparently, chemicals in food, endless nuclear-bomb testing, teenagers, intensive television- watching, American world domination, overeating and, most gruesome of all, Disney World, were all invented in the USA between 1950 and 1959.
The Frightful Fifties was the age when it was every American’s God-given right not only to own a car but also to live in one. ‘They dined at drive-in restaurants, passed their evenings at drive-in movies, did their banking at drive-in banks, dropped their clothes off at drive-in dry cleaners… By the end of the decade, America had almost 74 million cars on its roads, nearly double the number of ten years before.’ Aaagh!
The carless American was somewhat at a loss, as public transport was phased out to make way for hideous motorways, freeways and drive-in shopping-malls. Yet, bizarrely enough, Bryson seems to think all this was a Good Thing. ‘I can’t imagine there has ever been a more gratifying time or place to be alive than in America in the 1950s,’ he writes. Hmmm. Perhaps some Americans of that period, such as lynch-victim Emmet Till, might have disagreed, but I digress.
As Bryson’s autobiography reveals, Heaven certainly does lie about us in our infancy. His journalist parents gave him an idyllic childhood in Des Moines, a prosperous city in Middle America. Mom and Dad, he claims, neither chained him in a cellar nor called him ‘it’, yet his autobiography is none the worse for that. Happy childhood memoirs are every bit as fascinating to read as anguished ones if they are well written, and Bryson’s prose flows like maple syrup — sickly but pleasant if taken in small doses.
At the age of five he suddenly discovers he is not of Planet Earth during a trip to his basement in quest of ‘anything sharp or combustible that I hadn’t come across before’. He finds an old woollen jumper with a lightning streak emblazoned across its front. It was obviously the Sacred Jersey of Zap, left to him by King Volton, his late natural father, who had brought him to Planet Earth in a silver spaceship in Earth year 1951, Electron year 21,000,047,002. The jersey transforms young Bryson into The Thunderbolt Kid, endowing him with super-powers such as X-ray vision (which he uses on attractive women) and the ability to vaporise anyone who gets on his nerves.
We continue to follow this chirpy, imaginative child on a journey through his overwhelmingly happy boyhood. His friends and family are happy, too. No wonder. They are enchanted by their new-found 1950s wealth, which they spend on odd household appliances such as ice-crushers and waffle-irons. Everything was good for you in those days before health warnings were invented. Cigarettes calmed the nerves; feet were routinely X-rayed, which produced a magical glow, and coffee kept you purring productively.
The little Thunderbolt Kid spent his time watching movies such as The Incredible Shrinking Man and consuming great quantities of processed meats in booth-divided diners. School was wonderful, too. There wasn’t even any colour-prejudice around. The black kids, apart from being much better at sport than anyone else, were ‘just kids’.
The charm of the book resides solely in Bryson’s gentle, humorous descriptions of his real and imaginary childhood adventures. He has an exquisite comic turn of phrase which unfailingly produces a mild chuckle. Had he written a purely personal view of his youth and left out the bits explaining how 1950s America was the best country in the world, my chuckles might not so often have given way to groans of annoyance.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 30, 2006