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.