The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson (1989) 293 p.
Bill Bryson left his hometown of Des Moines as soon as he was old enough, emigrating to the United Kingdom and settling down as a journalist. He returned to America some fifteen years later to make a grand tour of the country, avoiding major tourist attractions and grand sights and instead exploring small town American life.
As one would expect from any Bryson book, The Lost Continent is very readable and very funny – yet it’s also strikingly sad. The title refers to how much America had changed since Bryson left, and how it was lost to him – consumed by generic strip malls and franchise stores, and populated by people who liked it that way.
It was pretty well an ideal town – one of those rare American places where you wouldn’t need a car. From almost any house it would be a short and pleasant stroll to the library and post office and stores. My brother and his wife told me that a developer was about to build a big shopping mall outside town and most of the bigger merchants were going to move out there. People, it appeared, didn’t want to stroll to do their shopping. They actually wanted to get in their cars and drive to the edge of town, where they could then park and walk a similar distance across a flat, treeless parking lot. That is how America goes shopping and they wanted to be part of it. So now downtown Bloomsburg is likely to become semi-derelict and another nice little town will be lost. So the world progresses.
This struck a chord with me. What I loved about Seoul was that I could walk out my front door and be less than three hundred metres away from a grocery store, restaurant, bar, bank, pharmacy, fast food place and subway station, as opposed to my current home in an industrial Australian suburb where I have to get in my car and drive five kilometres to the shopping centre.
But Bryson isn’t just railing against the destruction wrought by car-driven urban planning and unchecked consumerism; he regularly cites statistics on crime and education which suggests America is beginning to decline. This book is from 1987. Had Bryson visited today he probably would have had a brain aneurysm.
The sentiment is not confined to America. Bryson regularly savages the notion, still in full force today, that cost-efficiency is more important than anything else.
I left Santa Fe and drove west along Interstate 40. This used to be Route 66. Everybody loved Route 66. People used to write songs about it. But it was only two lanes wide, not at all suitable for the space age, hopelessly inadequate for people in motor homes, and every fifty miles or so you would pass through a little town where you might encounter a stop sign or a traffic light – what a drag! – so they buried it under the desert and built a new superhighway which shoots across the landscape like a four-lane laser and doesn’t stop for anything, even mountains. So something else that was nice and pleasant is gone forever because it wasn’t practical – like passenger trains and milk in bottles and corner shops and Burma Shave signs. And now it’s happening in Britain, too. They are taking away all the nice things there because they are impractical, as if that were reason enough – the red phone-boxes, the pound note, those open London buses that you can leap on and off. There is almost no experience in life that makes you feel more suave than jumping on or off a moving London bus. But they aren’t practical. They require two men (one to drive and one to stop thugs from kicking the crap out of the Pakistani gentleman in the back) and that is uneconomical, so they will have to go. And before long there will be no more milk in bottles delivered to the doorsteps or sleepy rural pubs and the countryside will be mostly shopping centres and theme parks. Forgive me. I don’t mean to get upset. But yyou are taking my world away from me, piece by piece, and sometimes it just pisses me off. Sorry.
Part of this can no doubt be chalked up to an ageing man’s nostalgia, but I think it is true – in every country, not just America – that things aren’t what they used to be. As an example, all the old neighbourhoods of Melbourne are full of lovely laneways and colonial townhouses and European trees and shopping streets. Meanwhile the newer neighbourhoods, like the one I live in, are full of detached brick cubes and no trees and shopping centres enclosed by carparks. The really new ones, at the very edge of any city, are full of garish lavender and maroon McMansions, and these are the worst neighbourhoods of all. The newer a tram model is, the uglier it is. Federation Square (opened 2002) is the hideous counterpoint to Flinders Street Station (opened 1910). You can’t have campfires in summer anymore. Ferry routes all over the world are closing down because of budget airlines. The world is definitely losing itself.
The Lost Continent is a good book. It cops a lot of flak for being “cynical” or “negative,” which is rubbish. First of all, Bryson is honest, and is making an honest critique of modern America. Secondly, it is the job of a travel writer to have a bad time. Happy memories and good experiences generally aren’t interesting to read about – and they certainly are’t funny. Humour is Bryson’s stock in trade, and this would be a much less enjoyable book if he wasn’t constantly snarky and acidic.