Lost Worlds by Michael Bywater

The answer is: 404
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The Independent Culture


A fair review of this book? Fat chance. Michael Bywater writes his Lost Worlds column in The Independent on Sunday and has the computer skills to insert a gremlin into any sarky comments about this compendium of regrets. Also, I have to declare a personal interest involving a lost world that is clearly too painful a memory for inclusion in Lost Worlds.

When I was a minor functionary on the long-gone magazine Punch, Bywater rang me up out of the blue to suggest a piece on something gritty like "Great Sweet Shops I have Known". It was brilliant, as was everything else shooting out of his fertile word-processor. He joined the staff, soon attracting encomiums such as "creative, outstanding, unbelievable". And that was just his expenses.

These may or may not have led to Punch's collapse into a financial black hole; fortunately, Bywater himself survived to pop up in that part of the space-time continuum known as the back of The Independent on Sunday review. Here he carried on his rearguard action against anything in the universe that takes, or rather doesn't take, his fancy: no niggle is too big or too small.

The battle continues, now in book form. He regrets the disappearance of snuff, Fry's Five Boys chocolate, cries of old London and the smell of the real Paris. At the other end of the spiritual spectrum, he devotes a page to the disappearance of "Gods, The" and "God". Naturally, this encyclopaedia of loss includes an entry on "Age, Golden, The". His point is not that the Golden Age is long departed but that it never arrived. At the other end of the alphabet is "Zone, the Dead", a three-page mini-essay recounting a near-death experience enjoyed, if that's the word, while driving with Douglas Adams.

Bywater concludes that what we have lost "sheds its light on what remains [which] glows more brightly still". This positive approach to life and death shows that he is no why-oh-why reactionary - at least, not all the time. He embraces new technology. He certainly embraced my technology, once removing from my office desk a laser printer on the grounds that he needed it to write a novel. Well, where is it? The novel, not the printer.

Computer-speak has given him the number that to him sums up our age: 404. This figure, which until now baffled me completely when it appeared on the screen of the computer he was kind enough not to nick from my desk, is cyber-speak for: "Not found. A blank. You disappear beyond the reach even of Google."

One day we will all be 404-ed, which is where Lost Worlds comes into its own. The last remaindered copy should be buried in a time-capsule so that archaeologists of the distant future, rummaging through the radioactive landscape, can dip into the learning that its author wears so lightly and wittily: The Emperor's Vanishing Head; Joan the Wad; the Book of Common Prayer; Meccano; the nasal membrane of the rhinoceros; Brylcreem.

And the future archaeologists will say to each other, "What the hell was all that about?" This intellectually capacious volume includes not just lost souls and bygone artefacts but also existing concepts whose real meaning has disappeared without trace. The "centre" of call centres, for example: they are not central at all, but are based in the suburbs of New Delhi.

My only criticism is about the author himself. It seems that while summoning up the spirit of Beelzebub, he... [Gremlin Alert! Gremlin Alert! Error message 404!]

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