The first time I encountered the name of Bill Bryson was from a friend in England. He’d read every one of Bryson’s books and was currently leading a cult filled with women in tents on the edge of Stonehenge where, nightly, they would all engage in some Celticly-deviant yet very fulfilling sex.
Only the first part of that sentence is true.
I was urged by my friend to Go Read Bryson Now.
Of course, like everyone takes a friend’s advice, I put it off.
Then Bryson came out with Notes from a Small Island, which was about his time living in England. England!! Land of Diana Rigg, Felicity Kendal, ITC, Gerry Anderson, Brian Clemens, double-decker buses, the underground Tube, and did I also mention Felicity Kendal?
So of course I read it and it was just as wonderful as that Brit friend of mine said it was (that evil overly-sexually-fulfilled cult-creating bastard).
I quickly followed it with I’m A Stranger Here Myself, Neither Here Nor There, and when it came out a few years later, In A Sunburned Country. (Yes, Bryson has other books too; I’ve not gotten to them yet. My Must-Read Queue is long — and its ordering is somewhat mercurial.)
In this, his latest book, Bryson recounts adventures from his childhood in the fifties with, towards the end, a bit about his teen years in the late 60s.
Oh what a world it was!
I can’t imagine there has ever been a more gratifying time or place to be alive than America in the 1950s. No country had ever known such prosperity. When the war ended the United States had $26 billion worth of factories that hadn’t existed before the war, $140 billion in savings and war bonds just waiting to be spent, no bomb damage, and practically no competition. All that American companies had to do was stop making tanks and battleships and start making Buicks and Frigidaires–and boy they did.
By 1951, when I came sliding down the chute, almost 90 percent of American families had refrigerators, and nearly three-quarters had washing machines, telephones, vacuum cleaners, and gas or electric stoves–things that most of the rest of the world could still only fantasize about. Americans owned 80 percent of the world’s electrical goods, controlled two-thirds of the world’s productive capacity, produced more than 40 percent of its electricty, 60 percent of its oil, and 66 percent of its steel. The 5 percent of people on Earth who were Americans had more wealth than the other 95 percent combined.
Remarkably, almost all of this wealth was American made. Of the 7.5 million new cars sold in America in 1954, for instance, 99.93 percent were made in America by Americans. We became the richest country in the world without needing the rest of the world. [pg. 5]
This country was a colossus!
People looked forward to the future, too, in ways they never would again. Soon, according to every magazine, we were going to have underwater cities off every coast, space colonies inside giant spheres of glass, atomic trains and airliners, personal jet packs, a gyrocopter in every driveway, cars that turned into boats or even submarines, moving sidewalks to whisk us effortlessly to schools and offices, [and] dome-roofed automobiles that drove themselves along sleek superhighways[.] […] [pgs. 5-6]
These were the kind of dreams dashed in the 1960s and which in the 1980s were then taken up by the Japanese (although in modified form; they have the Shinkansen: bullet trains). See some of it for yourself here.
The most striking difference between then and now was how many kids there were then. America had thirty-two million children aged twelve or under in the mid-1950s, and four million new babies were plopping onto the changing mats every year. So there were kids everywhere, all the time, in densities now unimaginable, but especially whenever anything interesting or unusual happened. […]
The other difference from those days was that kids were always outdoors–I knew kids who were pushed out the door at eight in the morning and not allowed back in until five unless they were on fire or actively bleeding–and they were always looking for something to do. If you stood on any corner with a bike–any corner anywhere–more than a hundred children, many of whom you had never seen before, would appear and ask you where you were going.[pg 36]
This is exactly right. In my neighborhood growing up there were kids everywhere. When I went back after being away ten years, it was desolate. No kids in the schoolyard playing ball. None on the street skating or playing stickball. No kids running like mad to hide for “Ditch.” No little girls doing jumprope. Might as well have been tumbleweeds for the lack of life there was.
And the toys!!
[…] Most things that were supposed to be fun turned out not to be fun at all. Model making, for instance. Making models was reputed to be hugely enjoyable but it was really just a mysterious ordeal that you had to go through from time to time as part of the boyhood process. The model kits looked fun. The illustrations on the boxes portrayed beautifully detailed fighter planes belching red-and-yellow flames from their wing guns and engaged in lively dogfights. In the background there was always a stricken Messerschmitt spiraling to earth with a dismayed German in the cockpit, shouting bitter epithets through the windscreen. You couldn’t wait to recreate such lively scenes in three dimensions.
But when you got the kit home and opened the box the contents turned out to be of a uniform leaden gray or olive green, consisting of perhaps sixty thousand tiny parts, some no larger than a proton, all attached in some organic, inseparable way to plastic stalks like swizzle sticks. The tubes of glue by contrast were the size of large pastry tubes. No matter how gently you depressed them they would blurp out a pint or so of a clear viscous goo whose instinct was to attach itself to some foreign object–human finger, the living room drapes, the fur of a passing animal–and become an infinitely long string.
Any attempt to break the string resulted in the creation of more strings. Within moments you would be attached to hundreds of sagging strands, all connected to something that had nothing to do with model airplanes or World War II. The only thing the glue wouldn’t stick to, interestingly, was a piece of plastic model; then it just became a slippery lubricant that allowed any two pieces of model to glide endlessly over each other, never drying. The upshot was that after about forty minutes of intensive but troubled endeavor you and your immediate surroundings were covered in a glistening spiderweb of glue at the heart of which was a gray fuselage with one wing upside down and a pilot accidentally but irremediably attached by his flying cap to the cockpit ceiling. Happily by this point you were so high on the glue that you didn’t give a shit about the pilot, the model, or anything else. [pgs.98-99]
Bryson writes about everything with a two-fisted gusto and infectious enthusiasm. He makes readers even want to experience what seems like a certain night of hell:
The only heat the sleeping porch contained was that of any human being who happened to be out there. It couldn’t have been more than one or two degrees warmer than the world outside–and outside was perishing. So to sleep on the sleeping porch required preparation. First, you put on long underwear; pajamas, jeans, a sweatshirt, your grandfather’s old cardigan and bathrobe, two pairs of woolen socks on your feet and another on your hands, and a hat with earflaps tied beneath the chin. Then you climbed into bed and were immediately covered with a dozen bed blankets, a canvas tarpaulin, and a piece of old carpet. I’m not sure that they didn’t lay an old wardrobe on top of that, just to hold everything down. It was like sleeping under a dead horse. For the first minute or so it was unimaginable cold, shockingly cold, but gradually your body heat seeped in and you became warm and happy in a way you would not have believed possible only a minute or two before. It was bliss.
Or at least it was until you moved a muscle. The warmth, you discovered, extended only to the edge of your skin and not a micron farther: There wasn’t any possibility of shifting positions. If you so much as flexed a finger or bent a knee, it was like plunging them into liquid nitrogen. You had no choice but to stay totally immobilized. It was a strange and oddly wonderful experience–to be poised so delicately between rapture and torment. [pgs 184-185]
After reading this book, I immediately thought of another writer famous for mining his childhood: the late (and much-missed) Jean Shepherd. It made me wonder what it would be like to hear Bryson on the radio recounting this stuff. Wake up, NPR! I’m sure there’s ten years of Christmas Specials here. Even if Bill Bryson didn’t have ten great Christmases, he would have fifteen such happy memories ready before he signed a contract! (And Bill, if NPR doesn’t wake up, do a sponsored [p]odcast! You’ll retire rich!)
Reading Bryson is always a special joy. I give the same advice my Brit friend gave me: Go Read Bryson Now.
RealVideo of Bill Bryson is here.
[Excerpts Copyright © 2006 Bill Bryson. Excerpts used without explicit permission under the Fair Use provisions of Copyright law. CopyNazis can go fuck themselves.]