How to mourn our lost worlds without getting tediously nostalgic about it

This book is much angrier than it lets on, but not with that milk-and-water grumpiness which is everywhere
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You remember that scene, after the death of Antony, when Cleopatra asks if there ever was or might be such a man as this she dreamt of, and Dolabella tells her that there wasn't, and Cleopatra replies, in language reminiscent of Coleridge on fancy and the imagination (that's if you can be reminiscent of a writer who hasn't written yet), "Nature wants stuff /To vie strange forms with fancy; yet t'imagine /An Antony were nature's piece 'gainst fancy, /Condemning shadows quite", which seems to mean that as a rule nature can't do what the imagination can, but that by creating an Antony nature has this time outdone imagination.

You remember that scene, after the death of Antony, when Cleopatra asks if there ever was or might be such a man as this she dreamt of, and Dolabella tells her that there wasn't, and Cleopatra replies, in language reminiscent of Coleridge on fancy and the imagination (that's if you can be reminiscent of a writer who hasn't written yet), "Nature wants stuff /To vie strange forms with fancy; yet t'imagine /An Antony were nature's piece 'gainst fancy, /Condemning shadows quite", which seems to mean that as a rule nature can't do what the imagination can, but that by creating an Antony nature has this time outdone imagination.

Well that's a bit how I feel about the American election. Not that Kerry was Antony, or nature's piece against anything very much, but that in our deluded hope for change we glimpsed the grandly possible, turned what wasn't into what was, and for a day or two mistook fancy for actuality. Hence the bitterness of our disappointment. Hence the bleakness in the air. We hang our heads as yet again nature resumes its sway.

That heartbreak would seem to become Kerry far more than ambition ever did is probably just residual imagination: our projecting our own heartbreak on to his. The miracle is that we go on hoping for prodigies and wonders, go on fancying Antonies, when we know they do not exist in nature, and that the change we long for never comes. We yearn for gain, but all we get is loss.

You can see what I've been reading. Michael Bywater's Lost Worlds: What Have We Lost, & Where Did It Go? Yes, I know that Michael Bywater writes for The Independent on Sunday and is therefore to be considered a colleague-in-law of mine. More than that, he warmly reviewed my new novel earlier this year. Best to have all this in the open before I am accused of the literary equivalent of Bush's siphoning Iraqi oil into Cheney's pockets. The truth is, in a busy life and with publishers bringing out a new book every 60 seconds, you are more likely to notice what emanates from your own milieu, and more likely to find congenial the work of someone who finds congeniality in you. This is not to be confused with the orthodoxies of like-mindedness which create literary fashion. Compared to that closing of ranks as practised by the militia of the received idea, a random act of acknowledged nepotism is small offence.

The which said, I commend Lost Worlds, a book much angrier than it lets on, but not of a kind with that milk-and-water grumpiness which is suddenly everywhere you look. It is not a study in tetchiness. It measures loss, not irritation. Nor - though it does provoke the sweetest of recollections of inconsequent objects and activities we had forgotten, such as Bayko, Jantzens, Ancient Greek, the Epilogue, fathers, seven-stone weaklings, etc etc - is it an exercise in idealising nostalgia. Indeed, what makes Bywater so good on Bayko is the exactitude with which he remembers its exasperations, how much we hated sliding those little bricks and windows between those infuriating rods even as we believed we were enjoying it, how we hated not finishing, how we hated losing bits, how tedious, how "desolatingly tedious" not just Bayko but the whole business of toys, the whole business of childhood, was. An acknowledgement which is itself a sort of loss. Not only has our childhood gone, it never was.

Were we ever children? Or did we just pretend that we were children to appease our parents who perhaps were never parents? Dangerous, this, once you start. Dangerous but alluring, or dangerous "because" alluring, for if we never truly were, then maybe Bush never truly was, in which case it is likely that he still truly isn't and there is nothing after all for us to worry about.

Bywater sucks us into this seductive whirlpool of evanescence at the outset, with a quotation from Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine, to the effect that all we have is but the shadow cast by what we've lost, a point Cleopatra would both take and not take, since loss is now her lot, but she will not settle for a shadow. I have never been a great fan of the late Douglas Adams myself and am inclined to blame his influence whenever Bywater waxes over-playful. But the book returns to him exquisitely at last, first as a valediction, then as an affirmation, seizing the good in what has gone.

For me, though I share the indignation that fuels this book, I like it most when it is classically funebrial. Call me a loser, but it's Bywater's intellectual grief that gets me every time, sorrow not simply for the passing of a thing but for the destruction of an idea.

"The University is a Paradise, Rivers of Knowledge are there, Arts and Sciences flow from thence..." wrote John Donne. "Not any more," laments Michael Bywater in the section "University, the Idea of the". Never mind when or even whether there was in actuality a paradisal place of learning through which rivers of knowledge freely flowed; as with Angels and Golden Ages, which also feature in this catalogue of loss, it is the imagining in the face of nature that counts, the aspiration to the ravishing idea. And thus, in a manner of speaking, does Bywater enact his own meaning; for this too is something that has passed - a man arguing for the Idea of the University, denying the legitimacy of Sports Studies and Leisure Management (I am only sorry he did not include Media Studies), refusing the concept of the University as "servant of the community", lambasting the assumption that a scholar is only as good as his publications, insisting on the absolute, unassociated good of thinking and knowing ... yet all the while acknowledging it's too late.

"Think you there was or might be...?" The dolorous Dolabella's right - "Gentle madam, no." But so is Cleopatra. Some things are past the size of dreaming.

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