Lost Worlds by Michael Bywater
Occupying a space somewhere between Dickensian Bleak-House ambience and observational humour any stand-up comedian would be proud to call his own, Lost Worlds is an ode to the things the modern world and the progression of time have robbed us of. The book begins as a rant cried from the rooftops by a manic-depressive desperate to call himself: “the boy in the belfry.” Stick with it through the opening pages and you’ll discover gems of observations about the state of our society. The placement of the topics discussed appears random in nature and one suspects from the outset that much of this book’s material has been cannibalised in one form or another from Mr Bywater’s Sunday newspaper columns. Yet, instead of bathing in the shadow of the wagging finger of the grandfather, the reader is treated to a lavish dinner party with Mr Bywater as the guest speaker. You are cordially invited to proceedings where Mr Bywater’s wit and comic temperament will prove most sharp, satirical and selective.
Bywater refers to “offence” as an infantile response without a judgement. He muses that so many people are simply “offended” by things without offering any explanation for their reaction to the material or an alternative viewpoint to the one expressed. The mob rules the roost and those who have been offended stamp their feet and bay for blood- forcing theatre productions to close, television to be censored and comedy to be pinned to the wall by political correctness. True, you do need to be of a certain age and to read a certain, select group of newspapers and magazines to fully enjoy this book. Bywater jerks the tears from your eyes with his musings. “Most people, by their middle years,” Bywater writes, “have known someone close to them who has died.” How true. I sit here, not yet in a position to touch the beginnings of my muddle years and, already, there are empty spaces in my life where there used to be people. We drove through thick snow to greet the departure of my Grandmother. I was young, sat in the back of the car, unable to put my thoughts into expressions let alone words. This is the touch of loss of which Bywater speaks. This is the touch of loss that his book cradles and, brilliant as his offering to literature is, Bywater is wrong.
Bywater speaks of the inevitability of physics. He speaks of the predestined end our universe and we will one day meet. Everything, he muses, is inevitable. Why worry? Stephen King discussed the same topic through fiction in the short story collection Everything’s Eventual. Yet, everything is not as it seems. When science is altruistic, it is beautiful. When science saves lives, it is rightly worshipped. But when science is arrogant, it firmly closes its eyes and refuses to see beyond its own, self-imposed boundaries. The rules of physics can and are contradicted. The understanding is not yet complete. We don’t have all the answers. We are in a constant state of flux. There is passion in order and order in the furthest reaches of chaos. I walk in a young body now. But I know I will one day loose my hair or else watch it turn into a tawny tinged grey colouration. I know I shall one day stoop in order to shake hands and one-day lust after my long forgotten youth. I look forward to it. What Mr Bywater largely ignores, is that- sometimes- we loose things for a reason.
Apartheid is dead. The Nazis now sit as a warning from history and even something to laugh about- rightly or wrongly- in videogames and badly conceived comic strips. Independent nations have sprung from oppressive regimes. Children may no longer respect their elders like they used to, but at least they are no longer beaten in school as a punishment for disobeying the rules. The future is a rain of possibilities. The past has a lot to teach us. But we need not always listen to it. We inhabit the present and the present alone. While Bywater is a comic genius, he is- perhaps- too clever for his own good and a number of passages in the book need to be read with a dictionary close to hand. Bywater is more in love with footnotes and endnotes than Umberto Eco and the reader must constantly make an conscious effort to glance down at the bottom of the page to discover precisely what a certain paragraph is talking about.
Beware the patter of the pessimist. The Golden Age they speak of only ever existed inside their heads. It might surprise Mr Bywater and his ilk to learn that, in actuality, we haven’t lost that much at all. Much of 21st Century British society is structured as if we still walked with Queen Victoria in the afternoons. Criminals are set free or given leaner punishments if they happen to be a “Gentlemen” of social pedigree. Women are still paid less than men for doing exactly the same job. Politicians still lie through clenched teeth and send other people to fight their battles. Enjoy it while it lasts. Or you might soon be joining Mr Bywater in a puddle of tears at the side of the road as each and every droplet of moisture falling from your eyes symbolises another fact, figure, event, suggestion, attitude or feeling that has been lost, thrown-away, discarded and disregarded. Enjoy it while it lasts. For the travelling circus of British society closes in half an hour.