Miles Kington: Of pharaohs, pyramids and English phone boxes...

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The Independent Online

"How can you copyright Stonehenge?" said our resident Welshman. "It doesn't make sense."

We were in the village pub, discussing Egypt. (I don't know what they were doing in Egypt meanwhile. Not discussing our village pub, I bet.)

Specifically, we were discussing Egyptian government plans to copyright pictorial representations of the Pyramids and the Sphinx, not to mention King Tut, so that the Egyptians could make a bob or two out of their culture, and someone had wondered out loud if it might be possible for us British to make money out of our heritage.

"Red phone boxes," said the man with the dog. "Double decker buses. Seaside rock..."

"Wake up, man!" said the Major. "It's too late! There aren't any left! They're all gone! Statistically, there are more working Pyramids left in Egypt than there are working Routemasters in London!"

"Good God," said the man with the dog, going into a brief coma.

"Getting back to the subject of Stonehenge," said the Welshman, "that great structure which was of course, now that I come to think of it, made out of best quality Welsh rock, and imported from Wales to England at a time when you would not expect the Welsh export drive to be going such great guns..."

"Have you noticed," said the Major, "how many things become Welsh, given half a chance? Including Stonehenge? Take Norman castles, for example. After the Battle of Hastings, the Normans spent hundreds of years and vast fortunes in constructing great Norman castles to suppress the ever-rebellious Welsh. Yet now, when the Welsh Tourist Board wants to attract foreign visitors to their green and rainy land, those castles have suddenly become Welsh castles! Come and see the castles of Wales! Revisit our Welsh coalmines! See the heritage of the Welsh slate quarries! But these were the symbols and the instruments of your oppression by the outsider, old boy!"

Strange dark clouds of memory and history seemed to scud rapidly across the Welshman's face. Then with an effort he threw them off and said:-

"Anyway, getting back to the subject of Stonehenge, I fail to see how we British, even as a whole, can claim this monument as our own, being built at a time when there were no such people as the British."

"I fail to see how we can claim it as a monument at all," said the purple-haired lady. "What's it for? Nobody knows. Prehistoric shopping mall? Private residential development that ran out of money? Visitor centre...?"

"Visitor centre for what?" said the man with the dog, suddenly re-emerging from his coma. "Silbury Hill?"

"No," said the purple lady. "But maybe Stonehenge was the visitor centre for whatever they were trying to keep the crowds away from in those days, and we have kept the visitor centre and forgotten entirely what they were being kept away from."

"If I've got you right," said the Welshman, "you are saying that all history is the gradual replacement of the increasingly shoddy and worn-out real thing by the superior replica version. Aren't you?"

"Am I?" said the purple lady. "Goodness, perhaps I am."

"By a very interesting coincidence," said the Major," if you travel a little way down the road from Stonehenge, you come to Highclere Castle, seat of the Earl of Carnarvon. It was one of his forebears who went to Egypt to force his way into King Tutankhamun's Tomb and start the craze for all things Egyptian which is still plaguing us today. Would it not have been ironic if, at the same time, some dodgy Egyptian explorer had been making his way to Wiltshire to plunder the stones of Stonehenge and take some of the bigger ones back to his own country for the admiration of the natives?"

"Genuine top-quality Welsh stone," muttered the Welshman under his breath. "Send for our new catalogue now..."

At which point we all spontaneously changed the subject and tried to work out which night was Twelfth Night.

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