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  • Review: Lost Worlds February 23, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback


    Beachcombing has, on several occasions, had the experience of justifying (or trying to justify) to a television or publishing company an idea. Essentially you the ‘artist’ are beholden to write on one side of A4, preferably in Times New Roman, a succinct pitch, explaining why the public will go into ecstasy on purchase or after a viewing.

    This is a sensible enough system that works for ninety percent of ‘products’. But many of our greatest modern hits from A Canterbury Tale (Powell and Pressburger) to The Wasteland would have come a nasty cropper with this system.

    What satisfaction then when, every so often, a creative gets a non-lineal, zany idea past the suits: e.g. Michael Bywater’s Lost Worlds: What Have We Lost and Where Did it Go? (Granta 2004)

    Essentially the book is one long alphabetical list describing the things that ‘our’ civilization (post war Britain) has seen vanish: from brylcreem (that Word’s spellcheck does not recognize – how’s that for lost?), to Greek in schools, to chivalry (speak for yourself Michael), to Mica, to Walrus Moustaches.

    It wouldn’t be true to say that MB is uniformly grumpy about these losses: though he very often resembles granddad in the upstairs room, banging his stick on the floor every time something irritates him on the telly.

    He is, however, uniformly lyrical and from time to time (this is necessarily more hit and miss) wise.

    Take MB on BO (no really).

    But was that smell? How did it seem to the people who smelt it? We know that, for example, pomanders were used in the sixteenth century, and judges at the assizes still carry ceremonial poses… One of the great questions of history is: what was it like then? And all too often we can’t answer it. Did the Romans clothes itch? What did the outflow of the baths look like? Did mediaeval people shrink from kissing because of their foul teeth? Did our ancestors make love despite what we would consider their appalling hygiene, or did they simply not notice, or notice and like it?… we have no way of telling.

    That last sentence is not quite true. Beachcombing can, for example, imagine a sixty page study on whether mediaeval-types (trust MW to spell it with an ‘a’) shrank from kissing: but it is not a study that most academics would countenance and as to finding a journal to publish it…

    Beachcombing has not finished Lost Worlds – is there any greater encomium for a book than writing a review before you’ve got to the end? – however, he is already marking the historical voces and will altruistically write them down here for Google’s omnipotent spiders: so there is a list of possible sites for Atlantis (a Beachcombian obsession), the flammability of books in periods past, quotes from Pliny (the elder), the hair care of Domitian, Justinian’s vanishing head, the shield of Minerva, Pan, Prester John, Ravel almost losing his Introduction and Allegro for Harp, Strings, Flute and Clarinet, Pop goes the Weasel and a long list of Lost Worlds to round off the collection.

    Oh and the footnotes are fun.

    Beachcombing is always on the look out for unusual books: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com. He is particularly grateful to Paschal for supplying him with this one.