Snarky commentary on the disappearance of what used to be familiar in nature (the dodo), in the neighborhood (the “proper bank”) and in the cabinet behind the bathroom mirror (Brylcreem).
Bywater writes columns on such subjects for the British Independent on Sunday and, presumably, has assembled a selection here. But this is no standard anthology of a journalist’s pieces. Bywater has arranged his alphabetically (“Moon, World War II Bomber Found On,” etc.) and added some accoutrements of scholarship (footnotes, bibliography, index), most of which are playful. His index may be the most amusing of all in its literary history, and it merits reading as a comic set-piece (“jokes, lost, where do they go?”). Readers on the other side of The Pond may understand more readily than readers here many of the entries, such as the riffs on “poofs” (British slang for an effeminate man) and on the evanescent noun of address “old chap.” And readers here will either smile or wince at Bywater’s patent dislike of current President Bush and his policies. Under the listing for “Democracy,” for example, is a wry footnote about the prisoner-abuse scandal in Iraq. Other readers may object to the author’s flippant treatment of organized (and disorganized) religion. These caveats and cavils aside, it’s all very funny, very piercing and even very learned. He exposes the obsessive absurdities of Boy Scouts’ father Robert Baden-Powell; offers an amusing list of 1970s sillinesses; bemoans the loss of adult authority and gravitas (in parents, in schoolteachers); misses the cries of street vendors; blasts Disney and Microsoft; notes the passing of the unique smell of Paris and the fog of London; wonders what’s happened to Ronco gadgets and Jantzen swimsuits. And, over and over, he cracks wise, sometimes to hilarious effect. Today, he says, in our save-the-whales milieu, Moby-Dick could not be written. “[It] would,” he says, “be a novel about tofu.”
Usually funny, rarely fatuous—all in a layer of irony thick enough to insulate an iceberg.