A good long time ago, before I ever heard of the internet, I was a member of the Egypt Exploration Society (EES). This society was founded in Victorian times in order to raise funds for archaeology in Egypt, and to promote interest in the country.
Every year I used to receive a thick, uninviting-looking copy of The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, bound in some dull coarse paper wrapper, and containing a variety of technical articles of no real interest to the ordinary person. It was my first encounter with an academic journal; and although I dutifully worked through it, I learned nothing. Someone eventually realised the madness of this proceeding; for the society in my later years issued instead a glossy magazine full of accessible articles. My copies of the JEA have long since gone to the landfill.
The EES also ran lectures. I remember going to one at the Egyptian Embassy, which was held in a room that stank of unwashed curtains – a familiar smell to anyone who has visited Egypt! – and being looked down on by some of the smartly dressed embassy staff, for I was just a young man and dressed informally, and they evidently thought me of no importance. Of course they were right, and I was too humble to take offence, but it seemed a curious way to promote the country to people who might grow up to be important. I asked them what to read for news about Egypt; and they mentioned al-Ahram. In those days, of course, there was no way to access that paper, and I never saw a copy until the web came along.
Another lecture was advertised “for the public”, to be given one Saturday at a university building by no less a person than I. E. S. Edwards, author of The Pyramids of Egypt, a widely read popular volume. In fact I saw it a few moments ago, in the Penguin paperback, on my shelf, which sparked these old memories.
All the EES lectures that I ever attended were in London. So that Saturday I took the train down and made my way across the city, and sat in a lecture theatre just like those from college.
The lecture itself was disappointing. There were lots of references to other lectures in a series, which of course I had not heard. And, although quite well informed on Egyptology, for a layman, it was pretty dense and dry. I reached the end, somewhat dissatisfied.
But I did have a question about pyramids. I knew that there were structures around the step-pyramid at Saqqara – the “south tomb” for instance – of which I knew nothing. Perhaps Dr Edwards could point me in the right direction so that I could read more?
So I went down to the front at the end, and waited to talk to him. There was a gang of young folk already talking to him; and of course I didn’t grudge them this. So I waited … and waited … and waited. Much of the talk seemed inconsequential, which was odd at a public lecture. Finally one girl yawned and said to Dr E., “See you next Tuesday” and off they went. Plainly these were his students! I wondered at the time whether they could not have found some other opportunity to talk to their supervisor, than at a lecture open to the public.
At last I got my chance. But I was disappointed to find that Edwards simply wanted to get out of there. My words were brushed aside brusquely. I was made to feel a nuisance. Persisting, my enquiry was met with “Perhaps in Lower?” which meant nothing to me (I realised later that it was a reference to J.-P. Lauer, the French excavator – nothing that a member of the public could do anything with). And off he went, leaving a sour impression behind.
I was a member of the public, and of the EES, in whose name this lecture had been given. I had travelled a considerable distance at some expense to do so. And … I felt rather cheated. Of course I didn’t complain to the EES – I was far too humble to do what I would do today.
In retrospect, it seems clear what had happened. Edwards had long since ceased to deliver that “public lecture”. Instead he had used the time as part of his ordinary course of lectures to his students. Nobody from the public was expected or wanted, and nothing was done for them.
Did the EES pay him an honorarium to deliver that lecture? I would be surprised if it was not so. For I can think of no reason why a man would choose to mislabel a lecture otherwise. No doubt he had come to consider it a perk, requiring no special work on his part.
It’s a shame. He’s dead now, and he certainly did some good in his time. All the same, I do wish that he had found five minutes for that harmless youth, all those years ago. I think I will put his book where I don’t see it so easily. It’s a good book. But looking at it, I find the memory leaves a funny taste behind.
We must never be rude to the youthful amateur enquirer. You never know who they will grow up to be. They will, without doubt, be those who write our obituaries.