Purveyor of Bollocks to the Crowned Heads of Europe
Monday, 23 May 2016
Since I was old enough to travel on my own, I would take the train from Woking to Waterloo and make straight for the British Museum. Once there, I would make straight for the Egyptian section, striding past many thousands more years of history on my way.
Once in the Egyptian section, I would stare and stare and stare, at the same time soaking up the essence of the place with my nose - living in and breathing up the Victorian atmosphere of ancient Egyptian archeology. I could smell the 3000 year-old resins.
It was fairground showmen who first brought the romantic notion of Egypt back to the foggy London of Sherlock Holmes, when they returned with genuine artefacts bought from the real grave-robbers for a few shillings.
I would visit The Joke Shop in Tottenham Court Road and come home with a plastic mummy which - with the artless flick of a hidden magnet - refused to lie peacefully in its sarcophagus.
Back in Woking, I would go to the cinema to watch Boris Karloff - his bulging muscles wrapped in pre-stained cotton strips - pick up a victim with one hand, when I knew that real mummies were so light that even at that age I could pick one up with one hand myself.
I joined the Theosophical Society in case they could let me in on any secrets. They couldn't, of course, so the mystery deepened and my delusions thankfully remained intact.
As with most things, I was a little late in catching up with the craze for all things Egyptian, but even that had its advantages - looking back on the 1920s obsession for Egyptiana was double nostalgia.
Sets of cups and saucers with pyramids, palms and camels; door-knockers in Pharoe-mask form; alabaster jackals with meaningless glyphs set on mantlepieces; writing desks when people still wrote; Hollywood thrillers in black and white - two elderly men with moustaches doing a sand-dance on the pavement for a queue of theatre-goers...
I bought a book called The Secrets of the Great Pyramid, which was a compilation of the hundreds of theories, facts and fallacies attached to the massive structure on the Giza plateaux - some based on science, some based on pure nonsense. I liked both. Here's one fact: The Great Pyramid of Cheops alone contains more stone than all the religious buildings of Europe put together. How? Because it is solid. Nonsensical theories tend to bounce off something as large as this, causing it no harm at all.
I had to get it out of my system, so I made the trip to Egypt (via Athens) on my own, aged about 28. I was not disappointed and it never left my system. Not the romance, not the science, and not the notion of the foggy London of Sherlock Holmes. Why would I deliberately diminish my enjoyment of life by not escaping reality now and then?
Catching the right bus from central Cairo to the pyramids of Giza is easy. The bus starts from outside the university and is number 888. The number 'Eight' in Arabic is an equilateral triangle, and three together read the same way from one side or the other. The bus has a little row of pyramids for the number.
You can only get a rough idea of how huge the Great Pyramid is from a distance of several miles. When you stand directly beneath it, its shape naturally diminishes as it rises, without the usual effects of fore-shortening. I have heard some fools who have visited it say how disappointingly small it is. I rode a horse out as far into the Sahara as Saqarah (during a rare and torrential thunderstorm) before turning round a looking again. It seemed to blot out half the horizon.
There is a great hall which rises to the King's Chamber (used for hoisting blocks the size of steam-trains, then later - before it was capped-off - as a telescope for a few years) and although it takes about fifteen minutes and a lot of sweating to climb, looks like a line drawn with a map-pen when depicted on a scaled drawing.
The King's Chamber is vast, and when I was there it was illuminated by one low-watt bulb hanging high on the ceiling. This too looks like a comparative speck on a drawing. You can sense the vast tonnage of stone all around you. It effects the very magnetism of the Earth.
I refused to leave with the group of tourists when asked to by the unofficial guide - "You must!" "I won't!" - so I listened to them huffing and puffing for a quarter of an hour on the way down, then was left alone for a half hour in utter silence.
I wandered around the chamber, and I climbed in to the 10-foot stone box (not a sarcophagus, but a unit of volume which relates to the very building-blocks of the universe) and I lay down and closed my eyes, hoping for the visitations that Napoleon had hinted at when he was left alone in the King's Chamber, but they never came.
Then the distant sounds of elderly Americans struggling to climb a 45 degree slope in the heat began to drift up, and I knew I would not be alone for much longer.
I am really glad that I never got Egypt out of my system.