Sean O'Grady: Tales of the City

The Tutankhamun ties, caps, bears and chocs I could take or leave on my journey to the afterlife
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The Independent Culture

As you can probably tell from the photograph at the top of this column, I have nothing against tat, and am game for most things. However, the Tutankhamun exhibition at what we must now call "The O2" (you may know it better as the Millennium Dome) has tested my patience to the point of exhaustion.

The root of the annoyance is this: in most events of this kind, the joy of witnessing a thoughtfully-curated collection of works by Carravagio or Velázquez (two of the outstanding projects by the National Gallery over the past year or so), say, or the chance to see the first Qin Emperor's wonderful Terracotta Army (still standing to attention after 2,200 years, and presently on manoeuvres at the British Museum) outweighs the horrors of whatever marketing excesses you might encounter in the gift shop. Punters know that such exercises cost money, and appreciate that whatever can be recouped from the retail outlet is going to a good cause. You might even be tempted to buy a piece of tat simply to help. Not so at the Tut show.

The real disappointment of this gaudy exhibition is that the mummified boy king himself isn't there. Neither is his death mask, his great big sarcophagus, his throne, and most of the other main attractions. These were, I believe, on show in the British Museum's famous exhibition of 1972. I am just about old enough to remember that event, the 50th anniversary of the discovery of Tut's tomb by Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter. Though I was not one of the 1.7 million Britons queuing around the block to see it, my friends accompanying me to the Dome were but, alas, they never managed to get in to catch a glimpse of the real thing.

Now, 35 years on, they've been cheated again. We were treated to a collection of what might best be described as Pharoic nicknacks, as if someone had raided not so much his throne room as his mantelpiece. Indeed most of the bits and bobs weren't his but belonged to the boy king's less-celebrated forebears. It is, to be fair to the curators, true that Tutankhamun actually didn't matter that much. He was about nine years old when he became pharaoh, and died at 18, case unsolved. Maybe the mystery of Diana's death will last as long, in which case the Daily Express, circa AD5007, will still have something to plaster its front page with. Tut's inner tomb was only the one in the Valley of the Kings that was left undisturbed by grave robbers, rather as if the presidential library of Gerry Ford (1974-76) was the only one still standing three millennia from now, with Washington, Lincoln and FDR swept away into the sands.

So we know so much more about Tutankhamun. He died young and, so it is said, without explanation, so also nurturing our modern obsession with conspiracy theories. Maybe, on second thoughts, he's more of an ancient-times JFK than anything else.

The one thing little Tut did do however (as is clear from the exhibition) was to reverse the monotheistic reforms of Akhenaten, who relegated all the Egyptians' assorted holy cats and dogs in favour of one great big god, symbolised by the sun. Akhenaten gets more attention at the Dome, which isn't what the paying customers were expecting. It does not, in short, live up to the hype, or the 20 entrance fee.

Instead, returning to my picture at the top of this page, the visitor is more beguiled by the variety of tat in the Tut gift shop, the last vestibule on the tour. Entering the shop, I felt as Howard Carter did when he entered the Pharaoh's burial chamber; "As my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues and gold everywhere the glint of gold."

It would make Tut spin in his grave, if only he had one. My least favourite item was the Tutankhamun tissue box holder, a 29.95 box of plastic presumably destined for the back shelf of some Egyptophile mini-cab driver's Hyundai Sonata. You, sniffling on your way home from the curry house or airport, access your Kleenex via a hole where the boy King's nostrils should be, thus eerily replicating the procedure by which Tutankhamun's corpse had its brain removed during mummification. The Tutankhamun ties, scarab-motif baseball caps, Tutty Bears, chocs and Pharaoh fancy dress I could take or leave on my journey to the afterlife. My favourite was Tut dog collar, which is a reasonable facsimile of the one the King's mutts wore. It's 80 though, which seems a lot. Still, you can't take it with you, can you?



****

I bow to no one in my admiration of the revitalisation of St Pancras Station. However, on behalf of those who, like me, are proud of their roots in our great cities of the north, I hope that it won't take 3,000 years for someone to find a way to link Paris, via St Pancras, with Leicester, Doncaster and Sheffield, services which already terminate at St Pancras, as they have since the 1860s. It cannot be too difficult either to link St Pancras to Manchester and beyond.

Now, if you can get a train from St Pancras (and thus Paris) to Manchester, can it be much more to ask that a service from Liverpool to St Pancras (and thus Paris) could be engineered. In which case the Liverpool docks could get easy access to the Continent, regain the advantage long since ceded to Rotterdam and the regeneration of Merseyside could begin. What a tale from the city that would be.

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