Postcard from the British Museum

10 September 2020

Guy de la Bédoyère

My name is Boris Johnson, King of Kings

The other day I ventured forth to London for the first time since March. My visit was to the British Museum where I wanted to take some photographs. First stop was the ghost train from Grantham – surprisingly pleasant since it was so empty, but the enjoyment was dented by the frequent announcements about safeguarding and having to be stifled by a mask. No-one checked my ticket.

London itself seemed to be as busy as it had ever been. The main roads around Kings Cross were heaving with cars, vans and trucks. Entering the British Museum on my timed ticket meant the usual perfunctory bag search by staff hiding behind Perspex windows but with holes big enough for the bags, making the protection about as much use as a broken window in a submarine.

As I walked on and up into the Museum it really started to dawn on me what has happened to this country. There is now an army of people everywhere you go whose sole function is to gesticulate at you to walk this way, turn that corner, not go through that door, and so on. I remember a deceased telecommunications engineer friend who over 20 years ago bemoaned how Britain was becoming a country where the whole economy was based on people opening doors for each other. He’d have wept if he’d seen it now. It is staggering to see how many employees presently serve as totally non-productive functionaries. At Kings Cross there are plenty of them, standing there to block your way and direct you round circuitous routes that entail being closer to far more people and for longer than you might have been.

It’s no different in the Museum where you’re corralled into a queue to be sent into the galleries like cricket balls being fired down the nets in batting practice. It was fairly quick, but I was already starting to asphyxiate. The Museum is abysmally badly ventilated, and a couple of fans here and there make no difference. With the obligatory mask on I felt myself breaking out into a boiling sweat. This was made worse by the discovery that the Egyptian gallery seemed to be almost as busy as it has ever been but the corralling exacerbates the sense of congestion.

I was amazed at the number of tourists, mainly European and SE Asian. The latter in particular were especially hard to explain under current circumstances. Perhaps they just never went home? I met up with one of my oldest friends from university.

The lower Egyptian gallery, for those who don’t know it, fills one side of the whole west wing. It’s now divided in two which means if you want to move from the 18th Dynasty to the 19th you have to walk all the way down in the opposite direction, fight your way through the packed Mycenaean area and on up through Greek and Roman to turn your way back and now be on the other side of the barrier you started from. In other words, I had to pass vast numbers of additional people and frankly the density was so great any idea of ‘2 metres’ was a joke.

Having forgotten to photograph one of the earlier statues I just sneaked back through the barrier, thereby risking a major disease outbreak, took the picture and retreated.

At the end of the gallery I was about to go upstairs only to discover the upper galleries aren’t yet open. I never noticed that on the website. Disappointing. I went and had a cup of tea instead at the café which was fairly normal. At least we could take our masks off and talk properly to catch up. The ensuing toilet visit meant having to wait while a winsome young woman acted as gatekeeper.

The visit was a curious experience. It served my purpose but with a trip to Rome in two weeks I decided there and then I wouldn’t bother to book into any museums. It’s one thing to suffocate on the train, but at least one’s static. It’s quite another to suffocate while walking round a gallery. I won’t be heading back to the BM any time soon. Or London either. I’m not in the least bit scared of the virus; it’s a straightforward preference for not having to spend my life being corralled around like a sheep by blank-faced apparatchiks.

From there it was back to Kings Cross. I had no desire to stay in town and in any case later tickets home cost so much I was too tight-fisted to pay. Getting to departures at Kings Cross is another massive Covid job-creation scheme with a battalion of hapless zombies positioned around waving at you to walk as far as possible, and past as many people as possible, to get to the trains. Has anyone actually considered how inefficient this is? It manifestly doesn’t even serve the purpose it’s supposed to. Apparently walking straight past someone through an entrance is tantamount to distributing plague like alms but walking alongside a crowd of people going in the same direction through yards and yards of corridors is ‘safe’.

In the carriage the woman opposite had a large mask clamped to her face like the hideous monster in the movie Alien and sat there in a paralysed state of self-preservation. She seemed to be totally unaware that the woman behind her was rabbiting away into her mobile phone with her mask around her neck which means that according to some Government animations she was being showered by a hailstorm of virus particles.

I found myself musing in the train home how many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people face an employment future (if they’re employed at all) either serving as urban scarecrow signposts or labourers in Matt Hancock’s impending army of testers. Will there be anything left of Britain apart from these people? Who’s going to need Boris’s army of ‘Covid-secure marshals’ too? As far as I can see, organisations in the public sector and transport are already busy creating their own private armies quite happily on their own.

Or perhaps in reality this is all a secret weapon to annihilate the biblical plague of unemployment caused by the self-inflicted chaos? What I’d like to know is who checks up on the marshals and all the private armies? Shouldn’t we have a further tier of surveillance operators to keep them in order too? I’m 62 – I do hope there’ll be a Dad’s Army of marshals as well. I rather fancy marching around with a Lee Enfield and being on parade at the Walmington-on-Sea church hall, though I expect to be in charge so I can exempt myself from wearing a mask. Of course, anyone with any experience of any such organisations will know that the main pastime is bitter rivalry and fighting over jurisdiction patches.

Suddenly, the jeopardy of whether young people even need an education is starting to seem rather unimportant. Perhaps the hideous future many of them face, paying off student loans at the same time, is a lifetime on patrol. We are sliding into becoming Covid Nation where fear of the angry dragon disease is starting to define everything and anything. You can see how easily the Stasi in East Germany multiplied. And who, in God’s name, is going to pay for it all?

As for Ramesses II, gazing down the Egyptian gallery as he has done for two centuries, I wonder what he thinks. Those lines from Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, inspired by an even bigger statue from the same temple came to mind, suitably adapted:

My name is Boris Johnson, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

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