Bill Bryson
Comments 27

We Were Happy People.

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.  

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27 Comments

  1. I’ve only read “A Walk in the Woods” of his, but this one sounds great. And you’re not alone about the 50s housewife-thing – my wife feels the same.

    • Haha very good to hear. This is a great book, I hope you read it someday! What I love about Bryson is his research and attention to detail. It’s like reading the world’s most interesting history books 🙂

  2. erickeys says

    I think this is amazing. Is it some kind of innocence that allowed them to be so happy? Or was it the last hurrah before our dreams of transcendence started to crash down around us in a way similar to a terminally ill patient sometimes seems like they are about to recover just before they die?

    • I think it definitely was a level of innocence, they honestly believed they were invincible! Also they were the first generation to be doing really well after WWII, the economy was booming, everything was shiny and new and all the money that had been spent on the war industry was now being spent on the domestic technology industry!

      • erickeys says

        Ah, domestic technology! And people say our obsession with gadgets is a new thing.

      • I suppose in a way we can thank that generation for our evolving obsession with shiny things! Although they were blown away by wonders such a fridges, microwaves, electric kettles and the like, things I think we can all agree it would be painful to live without 🙂 rather than our obsession with shiny gadgets which we could most certainly live without!

      • erickeys says

        Probably in a generation or two people will feel about smartphones the way we feel about fridges.

  3. love love love Bill Bryson! (By the way, I have always wanted life to be a 40’s-50’s MGM musical.)

  4. I liked the more intellectually-focused behavior of mid-twentieth century America. There was a push to think and talk more intelligently and with refinement. Talk shows had a certain sophistication while cultivating a romantic elegance in a haze of cigarette smoke. Civility was almost demanded when discussing politics, philosophy, and fine art. This may seem stuffy to some, but it’s intoxicating to me.

    • I totally agree. I think that has been truly lost in our society, bound up as we are in the race for our own improvement. Civility is something that has disappeared entirely when talking about politics, and philosophy and fine art have been pushed to one side along the way. It’s such a shame!

  5. I learned about the testing around Vegas! Environmentalist/Writer Terry Tempest talked about the effect on the women in her family (cancer, cancer, cancer), on NPR or one of those shows last yr. You can blip this comment: I wish I was a 1950′s housewife. I would say I wish I WERE….because it’s a subjunctive (expressing a nonreality). Just wanting to help. Xxxx Diana

    • I know, it’s quite unbelievable to think of whole groups of people exposing themselves willingly to radiation, knowing what we know now. Thanks for the editing suggestion 🙂 I think I said ‘was’ because I was referring to past tense, as in, ‘I wish I was a good girl growing up’. But your way works too!

      • Maybe it’s a different test we’re talking about, but no, it was the horrible mass subjugation to testing by the gov’t she spoke of. That’s an interesting sentence you bring up. It’d likely best go, “I wish I had been a good girl…” I hope I didn’t secretly annoy u. I’ll try to keep mum. =)

      • Oh ok we must be talking about different testing.

        No it’s fine I always appreciate helpful suggestions on my writing 🙂

  6. Not too sure about the golden part, Jayde, having been there. (grin) We were taught to hide under our desks and cover our eyes so the imploding glass from the bomb wouldn’t blind us. I also remember getting up at 4 am and watching light from the explosion. We lived in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains and the whole eastern sky lit up. That was interesting to a small boy. What was golden, however, was living in a small town and having the freedom to wander wherever we wanted.

    • Wow, that must have been an insane experience! I still can’t imagine it, even having read about it. Must have been very interesting for a young boy.

      Have you read this book? I’m really interested to hear firsthand how Bryson’s experiences match up against other people growing up in America in the 1950’s. As you say, it was a much freer time!

      • Have read and enjoy Bryson, Jayde, but not this book. I was down at the Nevada A-Bomb site near Las Vegas a couple of months ago, hoping to take some photos… and it was amazing how fast security showed up. 🙂 –Curt

      • Oh wow! Did you manage to get any photos at all? I would absolutely love to see some.

        That’s crazy isn’t it, considering people used to take picnics down there to watch! Goes to show how much our world has changed since that time.

      • It’s interesting Jayde… There are no signs anywhere on the highway announcing the area. You have to do a little research. We cut off the highway and came to a large sign and fence announcing no trespassing and no photos beyond that point. I had gotten out to take a photo of the sign when the security arrived. He was not friendly. (grin) –Curt

  7. I often think I was born at the perfect time. I was a toddler in the 50s and caught that age of innocence only to run slap bang into the 60s and 70s before I really did have to grow up. I would not want to be born today. I think I need to read this book but I must finish Lord Jim first!! Almost done.

    • I know, I often look in horror upon four year olds dexterously using iPhones and nine year olds updating their Facebook and twitter accounts! But then, I wonder if they will look back when they’re older and think, “I was born in such an innocent time!” Hard to imagine.

      What’s Lord Jim? Is this a new book I should read Andrew?

      • A very old book by Joseph Conrad. I have enjoyed it but I took a while to warm to it. Regarded as a classic.

      • Fantastic. I really enjoyed Heart of Darkness, despite having to read it a few times to fully comprehend it. I still have my school copy with my handwritten notes all over it!
        I might look into this one if you recommend it, I have wanted to try another Conrad for ages 🙂

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