Posted by: Linda Proud | February 24, 2011

The Book of the Dead and the Beauty of Now

To clock up some miles on my walk across America, I walked from Baker Street to the British Museum on Tuesday, going through the back ways, enjoying the architecture. I got diverted in Marylebone by a shop called Divertimenti – full of kitchen stuff and cookware, none of which would improve my cooking, I suddenly realised after ten minutes of drooling – and ended up in a long  street parallel to Oxford Street which seemed not to know whether it was New Cavendish or Wimpole Street (the signs said the former, the latter was written on some of the buildings).

Suddenly there was a slight jarring sensation in the old memory box, a deja vu kind of thing. ‘Wasn’t Allison and Busby somewhere along this street? Oh yes, right over there!’ I checked the door number of the building opposite where I was standing – 64 – and then it came back to me, 64 New Cavendish Street, the address of my publisher. And there, in that reception room behind those brick-arched windows across the street, we’d launched my first novel, and the names of guests sprang to mind, only to burst like champagne bubbles. ‘Christine – but she’s dead now; and Janice – lost to a stroke; and Ursula! – gone to a nursing home; and Liz – in Scotland.’ (Not that I wish to imply that these states are equal, but it is a very remote part of Scotland my agent retired to.) Few remain from that party. The entire staff from A&B, including the boss, were gone by the following year when the company got bought up by a Spanish firm.

And like a ghost event, I could see the light and the colour and the happiness that were there thirteen years ago, in that office on New Cavendish Street. What did I think at the time? That it was the beginning of a new life? Well, it wasn’t. It was just the formation of a vivid memory. It was a one-off, and whether it is remembered or forgotten is entirely up to me.

When I got to the British Museum, I told my friend Darby about the ghost party. We were standing in the new court, and suddenly for both of us there were more ghosts, because the new court is on the site of the old British Library, and for both of us memories of that place are so vivid and poignant they want to suck you down into a bog of nostalgia.

But…

Last year David and I went to an exhibition of Renaissance drawings in what had been the old Reading Room. I was more interested in peeping through partitions than seeing Botticellis. For in the tiny gaps you could get tiny glimpses of the glass-fronted book cases, still there, the Wedgwood blue dome above, still there, and imagination supplied the blue leather desks and chairs arranged as radial spokes from the centre of the room which was the catalogue section.

Sorrow, grief, longing, all these spectres rose up for that which is gone, that which has been replaced by a brick bunker on the Euston Road, for the submission of this age to the forces of philistinism. It could bring me to my knees. But as we left, I got a talking-to from my higher self.

As I walked across the court with David, she said, ‘Did you ever, back then in the 80’s, believe you would one day be published?’ No, I didn’t! ‘Did you ever think you’d be married?’ No, I didn’t! ‘ Did you ever suppose that one day – this day – in the twenty-first century, you’d be on your way to give a talk on Botticelli to the Temenos Academy?’ No, I certainly did not! ‘So then,’ she said, and now in words from the Bhagavad Gita, ‘why do you grieve?’

As the Renaissance philosopher, Marsilio Ficino, was so fond of saying, ‘Rejoice in the Present.’

So, last Tuesday we went to get our tickets for the Egyptian Book of the Dead exhibition. That was what this trip was for,  for Darby and I to walk together in the Dwat. It never occurred for a moment that such an exhibition would be popular, so popular that all tickets were booked out. The girl at the desk was impervious to our pleas. ‘But we’ve come all the way from Timbuktoo, and no, we can’t come back on Thursday!’

Another thing we’d overlooked was that it was half term. The BM was heaving with children. My mind was veering crazily between two thoughts: ‘How wonderful that so many children are interested in the British Museum!’ and ‘Whoever thought to add penny whistles to the giftshop’s stock?’

We made our way through the squeals, pipes and whistles of flocks of bored children. We discovered there was another exhibition on, ‘Sacred Buddhist Texts’. As we’d hoped and expected, we had that gallery to ourselves.

Ganesha, in the Indian section of the BM, imposer and remover of obstacles

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Responses

  1. Oh I hope that you can go back on a school day to that exhibition on The Book of the Dead. I went in January with husband and friends. We made the error of going on a Saturday afternoon – but we had at least pre-booked the tickets.
    Despite the crowd it was wonderful. My friend had to phone me the following day so that we could talk about it some more. I’ve since discovered that my Philosophy tutor has visited and we have discussed it.

    On a different note, I have started that walk across America. It has already led me to some odd places – last week the rain diverted me onto the Romney Hythe and Dymchurch railway.

  2. Dear Pat or is it Trisha? – I’ve been to your website, you see, and most fascinating it is, too. I could do with some of your wisdom in my dowdy old age. Alas, the Egyptian exhibition ends this week, so that’s that, and another opportunity to surrender all desire. Have you read Jeremy Naydler’s ‘Temple of the Cosmos’? It’s the most revealing book on Egyptian religion. I doubt if the exhibition would have taught me anything that the book hadn’t, at least, that’s the thought I shall console myself with.

    If you have a philosophy tutor, are we in the same School?

    Where are you in America? Yesterday I was half a mile short of Mechanicsville, and there were actually signs of human habitation in the photo, but with the amount of paces I’ve done today in the horrible industrial estate where Godstow Press stores its books, I shall probably find myself on the other side of town tonight.

    What walking shoes do you recommend? I’ve got good hiking boots, but I need an urban equivalent, when I can end up in a cafe or even a museum and not feel ridiculous.

    Happy walking,
    Linda

  3. Thank you, Linda – this is wonderful.

  4. Thanks for popping in, Gloria. Very nice to see you here!

  5. Thanks for looking at the website. I’m trying to put a bit about the trans-America walk on the ‘walking’ page, and update every few weeks.
    I think that I have just passed Mechanicsville.
    If I’m walking some place where I want to look reasonable presentable I usually wear Ecco shoes. They are the best compromise I have found for an urban setting.
    I belong to a local Philosophy Group. We have hired a post-grad student to be our Tutor. At present we are reading Continental Philosophy.

    • I’ve just passed Mechanicsville, too. What’s your target per week? If it’s 50 miles, you’re on your own, but if like me it’s a mere 10, do you want to link up?

      As it happens, I saw some Ecco shoes in a shop window that looked more substantial than my Ecco lace-ups, half way to trainers but smart. I just need to save the dosh – they weren’t cheap.

      I do a course in practical philosophy (i.e. philosophy for living). Great stuff! I like what you’ve done, though, in hiring a tutor yourself. Cuts through all the red tape and expense of going the usual route.

  6. I’m yomping along at about 35 kilometers per week and have got 6.15 miles to get to Ashland. (Instead of mixed metaphors, I’ve just mixed measurements. You can tell I don’t have a built in edit mechanism.)
    Sorry, it would be fun to link up if we were going the same pace. I’m trying to post updates on the “waling” page of my website. I’ll watch out for your updates here.
    Pat.


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