I have a confession to make.
I have never told anyone this before, probably in fear of their disapproval or outright disgust. It’s quite shocking, after all…
Sometimes I wish I was a 1950’s housewife.
It’s true! It’s not just the clothes and the hair that attract me, although I do find them adorable. It’s more the whole package, the je ne sais quoi of these visions of loveliness who had nothing more to worry about than keeping their home and their husband in perfect order, vacuum in one hand, cocktail in the other.
I know, I know, I’m appalling. This flies in the face of fifty years of feminism and equality, women’s rights and liberty. I don’t care.
Before you judge me too harshly, it’s time to introduce you to my favourite travel writer. And what better way to introduce you than with his own autobiography, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am talking about Bill Bryson.
Although I do enjoy his many travel novels, it is this book that shot straight to the top of my list as soon as I had finished it. As soon as I had finished chapter one, in fact. I often struggle to read autobiography’s, as I find they can be cluttered with the minute of a person’s life which, to be frank, I find utterly boring. I actually care very little about where a person went to school, what they had in their lunchbox or what the name of their first love was, unless somehow these details had a significant and intriguing impact on the rest of their lives. If not, well…
Bryson’s ability to intertwine remarkable facts into the everyday detail is what makes this book such a phenomenal read. He is humble enough to realise that a blow-by-blow account of his entire life might not be endlessly compelling. As he states himself,
Growing up was easy. It required no thought or effort on my part. So what follows isn’t terribly eventful, I’m afraid.
And yet it is, at least to read about. He takes us through that remarkable period of existence that was America in the 1950’s. A time when people were deliriously happy and basically indestructible, where cars were nineteen feet long and having a fridge was cause for endless celebration. Where the nuclear bomb was a family attraction and mayonnaise came in a spray can, where children ran free and adult’s drank all day and a trip to Disneyland cost $4.90. It was an age of technological advancements and prosperity and hope, of colour television and drive in restaurants and Camel cigarettes.
Bryson entwines the history of America within his own, giving us an inside look at what it was to be a child growing up in such a joyous age. An age before computers, before mobile phones and iPod’s and video games and Facebook and Twitter and Instagram.
Long periods of the day were devoted to just seeing what would happen – what would happen if you pinched a match head while it was still hot or made a vile drink and took a sip of it or focused a white-hot beam of sunlight with a magnifying glass on your Uncle Dick’s bald spot while he was napping.
Bryson’s dry wit makes this an impossible book to put down. As the old saying goes, hindsight is a beautiful thing, and Bryson’s ability to look back on the 1950’s in hindsight is endlessly hilarious. As Bryson explains of the time:
I don’t know how they managed it, but the people responsible for the 1950’s made a world in which pretty much everything was good for you. Drinks before dinner? The more the better! Smoke? You bet!
Even more outstanding is his description of the nuclear testing near Las Vegas. This was at time when the severe health risks of radiation were unknown, and radioactive devices were used everywhere from shoe stores to public toilets. When testing began in the Nevada desert people would flock to the edge of the test site to watch the mighty explosions. The area became a major tourist attraction.
People were charmed and captivated – transfixed, really – by the broiling majesty and unnatural might of atomic bombs…most visitors went to the edge of the blast zone itself, often with picnic lunches, to watch the tests and enjoy the fallout afterwards. After some of the early tests, government technicians in white lab coats went through the city running Geiger counters over everything. People lined up to see how radioactive they were. What a joy it was to be indestructible.
Oh, to have lived in the 50’s. In a golden time where drinking was encouraged and cigarettes were good for you, where ignorance was truly bliss and to own a car was the defining moment of one’s existence. An age where humanity balanced on the cusp of perfection, a mere moment in time before it began racing downhill in the pursuit of money and technology and fame and more more more.
Sure, those blessed people had many a hardship and the years would not look too kindly on the bodily abuse that such innocence had wrought.
But who cares. I’d still live there.
Because according to Bryson:
Goodness me, but we were happy people in those days.