Miles Kington: A Welsh wizard takes on the riddle of the Sphinx

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The Independent Online

"I read a story in the paper the other day that I could hardly believe," said the man with the dog, as he prepared to drink his first pint of the evening, while his poor dog prepared to slide under the table for a long period of tedium.

"You must try harder," said the Major. "Anyone can believe any story in any paper if they try hard enough. The chaps who write the stories obviously believe them. We must have faith in them."

"What was it about?" said the lady with the purple hairdo, more kindly. (She is back on the sloe gin, by the way, hence the matching coiffure. "I coiffe as I quaff," she once said, and has never let us forget it.)

"Egypt," said the man with the dog. "Apparently the cultural top honcho in Egypt is being driven bonkers because everyone uses the Pyramids and the Sphinx and even King Tut as pictorial sources, and all for free! Nobody pays Egypt a bean for this heritage service. So he wants to copyright them visually. Then, if someone puts a pyramid on so much as a biscuit tin, or the Sphinx on a new board game, he can claim royalties."

"I can believe that," said the purple lady. "It's loony. But it's possible. Like all the best newspaper stories."

"I read that story," said the resident Welshman in his little corner table. "But I got the impression it was about more than biscuit tins, and thatched cottages and the Tower of London on an assortment of afternoon tea biccies. It was actually about the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas."

"Explain that to us, O Welsh man of mystery," said the Major.

"I have never been to Ancient Egypt," said the Welsh sage, "but I gather that at Luxor there is a vast pyramid in the shape of... of..."

"A pyramid?"

"Well put. Now, in Las Vegas, in the hot gambling belt of America, they have built a Luxor Hotel which is not only a replica of the shape of the old Egyptian structure, but also has been attracting twice as many visitors as go to Luxor in Egypt, who all spend a lot more money in Las Vegas. No wonder the Egyptians are hopping mad."

"Most unreasonable," said the Major. "Given the choice, I'd go to Las Vegas first time any time. Nice bed for the night. Civilised set-up. Room service. What d'you get in Egypt? Pile of old stones. Dodgy guides. A bad go of the Egyptian two-step, too, knowing my luck."

"Yes, but what seems to be really annoying the Egyptians," said the Welshman, "is that the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas has now announced that their visitor figures are declining. So they are going to de-Egyptianise the pyramid hotel and give it some other motif. Keep the pyramid shape, but revamp the innards. Get the punters in with something medieval or cyberspacey or Hawaiian or... or..."

"How can you do that?" said the Major."How can you de-Egyptianise a pyramid? It's not possible! A pyramid will always look Egyptian! That's what pyramids do!"

"Excuse me, but I think you're wrong," said the purple lady, almost trembling with excitement at being able to contradict the Major, to whom she had so often deferred. "I have seen the great glass pyramid at the Louvre in Paris, and it doesn't look Egyptian at all! It just looks like a pyramid. Which is after all one of the basic geometric shapes, like a cube, or a globe..."

The Major, who had not seen the glass Louvre pyramid, halted in his tracks. The purple lady, who had seen it and not liked it, suddenly decided she liked it a lot after all. The Welshman decided to try to wrest back the advantage.

"But how can the modern Egyptian government have any copyright at all over an ancient design which just happens to be in their country? Should the British have the right to get a cut from all reproductions of Stonehenge...?"

More of this vital cultural exchange tomorrow, I think

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