Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Another by London Archaeologist.

What we only see out of the corner of the eye we needn't always automatically disbelieve. I have long felt that those who claim to know for sure that there are no gods, no ghosts, no telepathy, flying saucers, Martians, talking fish, or nearby end of the world have insufficient evidence to stop those who want to from hoping. I also long felt that they were right, that the rational is the banal, the banal the true.

It must have started as I emerged from childhood. Slowly avenues close without your realising it. You learn first of all that matter cannot be either created or destroyed, which at first seems interesting. You are then told that the sense of touch is produced by electrical charges extending from the outer body to the spine and thence to the brain. Life on earth is a random occurrence resulting from admixtures of chemical compounds, the people inside the television are only an image of people projected onto glass. The monsters are not monsters but things that look like monsters. It is compulsive, fascinating, apparently without end. You want to take in more and more of this information. And then you begin to feel that with every possibility opened, others, more interesting, close, that with every step another monster vanishes, another being is excluded from life, another animal rendered mute, matter inert.

At the beginning of my career as an archaeologist, my hope had been, in fact, that by helping to finally give a place to all the superstitions that society – my society, the European, English, perhaps, or British, all in the broadest, vaguest sense – had been prone to, tracking them to origins, throwing light on innovations, bringing them back to functions, an end should be put once and for all to the sort of airy, fuzzy thinking that people hide behind when they pull the wool over each other's eyes. Freedom, at last, from the irrational.

I remember one of the earliest times I gave expression to the opinion was with my then girlfriend, then wife, now estranged, though recently I'm not sure, but I still like the ring of the word ‘estranged’. In fact, not so much 'still' as now that I'm not sure it applies, that it is free to imply the sorts of things it perhaps should have done from the first. We were in front of a Chancery Lane jeweller's, she looking lustfully into the window, I absently at my watch. This was the last day of an exhibition – I don't remember what, but something Egyptian, ancient, at the British Museum. It was a Saturday, with no one about, the jeweller closed. 

I was ready, even happy to tie, as the quaint phrase has it, suggesting tantalizingly some lost ritual, the knot. Indeed, I wanted to, for the respectability, I suspected, would help me to progress better at work, to appear to my bosses more responsible than I was able by then entirely to feel. But I would not accept that the simple fact that we had just broached the subject, that the word 'wedding' had just been uttered between us in reference to our own for the first time, at the exact moment that it appeared on a sign to our right, boded either well, or indeed ill for the joint decision. Coincidences, in a capital, above all, so dense in information all around you, and in which you have grown up, abound, and to allow them to dictate the course of your life is not only sentimental, but perhaps dangerous. There was, opposite, a favourite café on these weekend walks to the museum, and if we did not quicken our pace, we would miss the opportunity. The waitress had spied us and we exchanged nods. Yes, yes, diamonds are lovely but emeralds pick out better your eyes, ruby can be beautiful and jet is intense but funereal. I looked at you then as you peered into the window, your reflection peering back out, rubbing foreheads. 

Among the many rituals the Egyptians passed down to us was the exchanging of rings. I would tell her that as we wandered around the exhibition. These visits were, I realise now, an innocent enough way of taking on a reassuringly gendered pair of roles – I the teacher, she the student. But I knew if I mentioned it then, and again she saw that as a sign, I would become irritated, and on that, above all, our first day engaged, the first minutes of the state, to be losing my patience would be to set things off on entirely the wrong foot. I turned fully to face the window with her then, and leant forward too. The coffee would be for another time. For now, if I could not give myself over to the moment with her, never perhaps to any would I have again the right to claim to.

So when she asked me - in fact in the Great Court, where we did eventually, the exhibition over, have time for the coffee not taken on Chancery Lane, whether I did not find it fantastic that we should, on that day of all, the day we saw one of the fist nuptial rings ever to have been produced, be living our own first ever day engaged, my answer followed the circumstances themselves. Some of the earliest Egyptologists, I said, saw in the work they did the opportunity to confirm the tenets of their own Christianity by what they saw as pre-reflections of it in the earlier pagans. What never occurred to them was that in fact, as should have been obvious, Christianity had picked these facets up from the earlier religions. Now, my job, that of all responsible archaeologists now, is to dispel just that sort of mythical thinking, to put things back in their places where we can all be clearer about what it is we want. The fact I want to marry you is not going to be influenced by any such obscurity as a set of coincidences on a given day, and if the marriage is going to work, and of course it’s going to work, it will be based on the same principle as my work: that it is only by knowing, clearly, and where we don’t know trying to discover, where we are, how we are what we are, where what we are comes from, that we will be able to put a guiding hand to what we’re to become.

When I lost my job, I was interested to discover that it was the result of an unpredictability within a system that I had believed to be of the firmest, so little did I understand it. It might seem a strange logic, but the abundance simply of terms that were entirely obscure to me – derivatives, hedge funds, futures markets, even - meant to me only collectively, that the world functioned according to named principles  which, though unknowable to me, by virtue of being named alone, manifestly made sense to others. One day, perhaps soon, the property market will pick up again, and I will find myself in work. I will pick up the trowel and brush, pull on the Wellies, and engross myself in the record underground.

But for now I cannot help wondering whether the things that are happening above ground are not in some way connected to the drying up of the work below, whether the same forces that they sought to contain previously in the images of their gods, heroes and monsters are not somehow coming back after me up here, hunting me from the corner of my eye, winking at me in this way, offering us back the secrets that we thought – I, at least, as the rationalist that I still like, with a smile in which there is possibly a hint of the wicked, to consider myself as being, thought – as just a simple part of the life of the city from day to day.

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