Idle Eye 96 : The Gentle Art of Papiracy

Regrettable though it may be to be the harbinger of bad news, I must bring it to your attention that the ancient craft of Egyptian Papyrus Art is on its last legs. Having survived over four thousand years as the medium of choice for all of your literary, documentary and home furnishing needs, it has inevitably fallen victim to the tides of fashion, modern technology and lately, the Muslim Brotherhood. Here in Luxor, the venerable institutes that litter the highways and byways of the West Bank now lie neglected, forlorn and on the verge of extinction. But, like the Spartan 300, there still remain a plucky few that will not lie down.

Now, being English and of good character, I am happy to lend a hand to any beleaguered cottage industry I stumble across on my travels. Within reason. I do, however, expect something of inherent value in return, however menial. Trouble is, the product is utter pants, and I do not say this lightly: We’re talking Bridget Jones pants here. Imagine an irate Torremolinos donkey stamping on your straw hat until it is as flat as a pancake. As a substrate, it is then passed on to a team of artworkers with a nascent knowledge of tomb paintings, coupled with a selection of brightly-coloured pens and a honed understanding of exactly how much shit tourists can handle before bailing. And, in case there is any element of doubt, the 20% discount for my good friend should be enough to have you to reaching for the Amex before you’ve had time to do the math.

It takes a very special skill to sell something this garish to a market that really doesn’t want it. But, let us not forget, there is also a long line of Grand Tour idiots that came before us. Any visit to the Valley of the Kings or Queens is invariably preceded by a gauntlet run of young men in galabiyas attempting to sell concertinaed postcards, alabaster scarabs or offers of marriage, rejection of which does not seem to deter them one iota. But here you will not discover your purveyor of reedy goods, oh no. He is by far the sharpest knife in the drawer and sets his ceiling way higher than the vulgar smash and grab brigade. The potential punter is lured into his lair willingly, and after a brief history of the process (scythe down/hit with hammer/lay out in strips), the cut and thrust of African business acumen kicks in.

A naked realisation that you’ve been had is counterbalanced with a keen desire not to offend. This enables the vendor to sit back and relax as the hapless patron wrestles with his/her conscience, before opting for the second cheapest in the least available colours (plain, sadly, is not an option). A second, slightly smaller offering is added gratis at point of sale to show willing, much to the escalating distress of the client. But, inshallah, you’re nearly done. Only a few more backslaps and handshakes to go before you can retire to the comfort of your hotel and work out the most efficient method of disposal. I recommend Christmas, or failing that, it must be said that it adds a riot of colour to the small room. And due to its Herculean strength, it is indeed the gift that keeps on giving.

Idle Eye 94 : The Foreign Office

A week ago, as you may remember, I thrilled my minuscule readership with tales from the water closet. They were, for the most part, true and there is nothing that whets the winkle of the Great British Public more than the topic of bottoms and associated hardware thereof. This was, of course, reflected in the statistics and I thank you all for joining me in the virtual small room. My business is your business, as someone I can’t remember once succinctly put it.

I am happy to report that things have moved on a bit since then. These days you find me on the West Bank of Luxor, Egypt, thrashing it out on a laptop in the gaps between conserving the tomb of the last great Geordie pharaoh Neferrenpet. I know, I know. But, as you gear up back home for the onslaught of Daily Express reportage of the forthcoming worst winter since the last Daily Express reportage of the forthcoming worst winter ever, spare a thought for one more fortunate than yourselves: Being an Englishman abroad does present an alternate set of tribulations (as my risible grasp of Arabic will testify), none more telling than the not inconsiderable matter of appropriate attire in a climate as foreign as the language.

For example, this morning saw me down to my last clean t-shirt, the Bolongaro Trevor beauty so eloquently eulogised in IE47. A little too smart for workwear, but on reflection preferable to the lamentable series of insect-infested horrors currently residing inside my laundry bag. What’s more, it has a sepia-toned Union Jack on one side and an Ottoman effort with three crescent moons on the other, a stalwart example of hands across the water if ever I saw one. I did, however, fail to spot the Lancaster bomber shedding its toxic cargo over the pyramids and almost certainly extending a rather skewed message to the host nation.

On the subject of insects, the biting ones are another personal assault one must handle with the kind of decorum expected of the adequately-educated Westerner. Fortunately, my gargantuan quinine intake keeps all but the most hardy at bay, although last night I discovered a dormant mosquito buried deep inside the two-ply of my bathroom roll. What it was doing in there is anyone’s guess, and I was torn between saving the poor creature from a death more humiliating than I know how to put into words, or protecting my own tender cheeks from an equally heinous fate. The vegetarian in me prevailed and the little bastard flew off to lodgings elsewhere. Naturally, I made no mention of it at breakfast today because…well, you just don’t. There are rules.

I’ll put some work stuff in another time. It’s too huge to summarise in a 500 word bulletin built almost exclusively from the rocky foundations of lavatorial humour and self-deprication. So for now, I shall continue to do what you have come to know and love, from the gutter to the pavement. With no apologies…