Essays: Back to Rameses |
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Back to Rameses

PUTTING two weeks of sun and surf between himself and the Olympic Games was the smartest move your reporter ever made. While David Coleman and the rest of our squad were performing strongly in the stadium, I was performing weakly in the surf. Very small waves came in with yours truly standing briefly on top of them.

My surfboard was the size and weight of an armoured car. I could stand up in it like Rommel. Small children dancing in the spume were mown down as I charged the beach. Thousands of beautiful French girls removed much of their clothing as a tribute to the hot sun and the green Atlantic. It occurred to me that in some previous incarnation I had been closely related to Poseidon on my mother’s side. The possibility that this suspicion might not be without substance was underlined by one of the first programmes I saw when I got back, a speculative round-up called I Have Seen Yesterday (BBC1).

The show was full of people convinced that the life they were currently leading was only one of many lives which had featured their own wonderful personalities as the central attraction. Christmas Humphreys was the most substantial name involved. He was a big noise back in the 1950s, unless I am getting him mixed up with Humphrey Bogart or Father Christmas. Somewhere back around then he wrote a Pelican about Buddha, or it might have been a Buddha about pelicans. On his reckoning he might well have written it at the time of Alfred the Great, or Rameses II, especially the latter. For those Westerners who believe in reincarnation, ancient Egypt exerts a magnetic attraction. Presumably Easterners gravitate towards a more Oriental epicentre, shaded by a small, gnarled tree under which Buddha once sat.

‘There is no death.’ Flutes, tom-toms. ‘For some reason Egypt often occurs in people’s memories from the past.’ Perhaps it is because they have all seen the same Hammer movies, in which Peter Cushing braves the Curse of the Arab Scarab only to be hounded to his doom by a lurching mummy earning Equity’s standard rate for a non-speaking appearance. But one of the programme’s star witnesses, a pop flautist, was convinced that his complex being had its roots in the hot sand of long ago. ‘You went into the pyramid?’ ‘I went into the pyramid, yes.’

He went into the pyramid because he had heard there was a ‘great sound’ in there, meaning that his flute would make an even more bewitching noise than it did in, say, Abbey Road. But inside the vast pointed structure he gradually found himself absorbed by the past. ‘You were sitting in there in the dark playing a flute?’ ‘In a sarcophagus, yes.’

Back in England, the flautist met a Hungarian girl called Karina who was similarly convinced that her own startling psychological make-up could only be explained by reference to the Valley of the Kings. Certainly her eye make-up needed some such justification: either she had been daubing the mince pies with kohl and myrrh or else she had been mugged.

‘Karina’s interest in the occult led her to investigate her previous lives.’ Inspired by Karina, the flautist has incorporated the Egyptian theme into his stage act. While guitarists dressed as mummies twang mysterious Egyptian chords, the flautist shouts appropriate lyrics into a defenceless microphone. ‘I am the Lord of Light! Bestowing life on earthly matter solely by my ... sight!’

Next on was a lady who had once been James IV of Scotland. The vanished monarch had thoughtfully bequeathed her his costume, which featured lace cuffs and some rather fetching velvet sleeves. Presumably the gold nail polish had likewise once formed part of the regal ensemble.

What the past was really like formed the theme of Montaillou (BBC2), the name of a small French town near the Pyrenees. Nowadays the town’s population is being thinned by industrialism. In the old days the town’s population was thinned by the Inquisition, which used to root out heresy by raising its suspected proponents to high temperatures. The local people, peasant folk in the main, were oppressed simultaneously by five separate power-structures: the Count, the King, the Church, the fire brigade and the VAT inspector. Of all these the Church was the toughest, torturing people at the drop of a pointed hat, usually because they had called the Church the instrument of the devil.

The Church disabused them of this notion by toasting them over a low flame. But first the Bishop extracted confessions. What makes Montaillou remarkable is that this register of confessions still exists, providing a sobering record of that Organic Society to which Dr Leavis, among others, was always so fondly harking back.

We have it on the Bishop’s own authority that one of his own priests deflowered virgins. A lady called Beatrice mixed cocktails of menstrual blood and amassed an impressive collection of umbilical cords. By the time all these stories had been collated it was obvious that the only thing to do was adopt a root and branch attitude to the whole problem.

The few villagers left alive were then successively subjected to the Black Death and a particularly disgusting invasion by the English. Today there are only twenty-five people left. Wandering among these in a nifty cap, Robert Robinson looked chipper but thoughtful. A clever man, he was obviously pondering the fine membrane of time that separates us from an age even more unimaginably violent than the one we live in now.

As if to remind you that the present is no picnic either, that excellent series Women of Courage (Yorkshire) gave us Sigrid Lund, a Norwegian pacifist who saved Jewish children from the Nazis. Sigrid met her first Nazis at Bayreuth, long before Hitler came to power. She immediately identified their race theories as sheer poison. Later on she got a bunch of children out of Prague and took them to Norway.

To get there they had to go through Berlin, where grown-up people spat on the children. When the children asked Sigrid why this was happening, she said it was because the people had a cold. All the children were billeted with Norwegian families, but after Norway was invaded one of the families turned out to be Nazi. With great regret this family handed their child over to the Gestapo. They had grown to love the child but wanted to do the right thing. The child died in Auschwitz.

Inside Story (BBC2) pronounced itself concerned about prostitution. ‘This has been a very difficult film to make,’ intoned the director, popping up before the camera to hammer home the subject’s unusual significance. ‘By its very nature a lot of what goes on goes on in the dark.’ Holland, Hamburg and the United States were all visited in search of a solution. Only New York turned out to be worse than Soho, but the dialogue from all sources was cleaned up for our tender ears. ‘I think you’re a (beep) (beep) you (beep) (beep) (beep), so why don’t you (beep) (beep) with a (beep) (beep)?’

An American proprietor of a legal brothel called the Chicken Ranch irrefutably pointed out that the only way to make prostitution benign is to legalise brothels. Since this argument contains the monopoly of common sense on the subject there was nothing else to say except (beep) (beep).

The Observer, 10th August 1980
[ This piece also appears in Glued to the Box ]