Central Station in Glasgow used to be much bigger, or perhaps I was just much smaller. You also used to have to pay to go on the platform to see loved ones off on their journey and that’s what my mother and I did one evening in 1972. My elder brother had joined the army and was setting off on the London train to a new billet and a new life. As we said goodbye, my mother was secretive about her tears and although I was also sad it was for an entirely different reason. I clutched my platform ticket willing it to transform into one that would let me get on the train too and go with my brother. Not for his company, but because in London that year there was something I desperately wanted to see.
The week before, the British Museum had opened its doors to the exhibition of the decade—a boy king in gold had arrived in London and his death mask was there to be seen at the Tutankhamun show. The media coverage and its opening by the Queen had ensured it was the hottest ticket in town and queues were around the block. A friend from school, whom I now hated, was going the following week— he had enlightened parents or perhaps just ones that could afford the fare. But, I had neither, or so I thought at the time. I was in Glasgow and Tut was in London. Had he been in Cairo, where he usually lived, I could have coped, but London—that was tantalisingly close; only a train ride away.
Twenty-five years later, I finally met Tut, but I did have to go to Cairo to do so. I had been invited to speak at a conference—I don’t remember which one or what it was about, but as soon as the invitation arrived I leapt on it for this was the chance I had been waiting for. As part of the jamboree that surrounds conferences there were of course tours and visits to be had and one was to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. Our guide there was a stocky young man who had learned his English in America and he shared his extensive knowledge of the antiquities in an oddly out of place accent.
After seeing an array of the best that Ancient Egypt had to offer we entered the Tutankhamun rooms and our guide, somewhat forlornly, announced that normally he would have to shout to be heard in these rooms but these days tourism had dwindled to the point that our group was the only one there. The reason for this was the relatively recent massacre in Luxor, which had persuaded tourists to stay at home. Their loss, I thought, and definitively our gain. I stood transfixed by the exhibits. I particularly loved Tut’s throne, where he is depicted with his young bride sharing a pair of sandals, doubtless in some deeply meaningful religious symbolism, but which seemed to me like the playfulness of any young newlyweds. I saw his chariots and his statuary; the urns and grave goods. Case after case brimmed with the treasures from his tomb in the Valley of the Kings.
One of the disadvantages of travelling alone, as I was, is that you have no one with whom to share your wonder. I said to one Englishwoman in the group that I was finding it all overwhelmingly beautiful. She agreed, but said she had seen some of it before when she went to the British Museum in the 70s. I told her of my longing as a child to see that exhibition and that perhaps the reason I was finding all this so emotional was the wait. She quickly replied that the wait was worth it. Her memory of the exhibition in London was queuing for many hours only to be confronted with a few of the lesser items now before us. ‘The only thing worth seeing then was his death mask and, that’s over there through the glass doors.’ ‘No this is a very different and much better experience,’ she assured me. ‘Enjoy,’ she whispered, as she moved away and left me to it.
The glass doors beckoned and I entered a separate area devoted to Tutankhamun’s gold. Here were the golden coffins that Howard Carter had discovered along with Tut’s death mask. I’m not sure how it happened but I found myself in this golden enclave all alone. Just me, the boy king and history. I spoke to him and apologised for missing him when he was in London all those years before and offered my respects. He looked at me through enamelled eyes, unblinking and royal. I suspect he had heard it all before in many languages, but I think he understood.
The realisation of your dreams can be a disconcerting experience, and the discovery of them in your memories is oddly emotional. Standing alone before the face of the king I was still that 10-year old, disappointed on a chilly station platform clutching my ticket to nowhere. Twenty-five years of clutching had turned it into a golden ticket and I had made it. A wish come true is often disappointing for reality has a hard job stacking up against our imaginations. But, Tutankhamun did not disappoint. He had waited more patiently than I for our meeting and his glittering presence was as dazzling as the day he had been ceremoniously laid to rest some 3,300 years before. What I realised as I stood there, however, was that although I was still a child, so was he. The boy king had been staring through teenage eyes for eternity, frozen in his time, a child forever.
To discover the child in yourself is perhaps one of the most significant discoveries we can make. He or she is there if you look and I’m not sure about everyone else but my child is just below the surface. I look through the same eyes as I did as a child and often find myself thinking the same thoughts. Yes, there are wrinkles and the weariness of disappointment brought on by the passage of time, but there is also the wonder and the thrill of it all. There is the ache of need and the excitement of the new. There is also a way of seeing the world that is to be treasured and not simply set aside with other childish things.
Discovery begins within. To contribute to the accumulation of human knowledge we must certainly discover the new, but perhaps we must first rediscover the old. We must look inside and rediscover the childish wonder we once had in abundance, that when coupled with the energy and passion of youth makes discovery at any age possible.
© Allan Gaw 2013
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