Last week I visited this exhibition at the British Museum. It covers a period of twelve centuries from 30 BC, when Egypt became part of the Roman Empire, to AD 1171 and tells the story of the shift from the traditional worship of many gods to the monotheism. When Constantine was converted to Christianity, Christianity gradually became the dominant religion, only to be displaced by the Islamic invasion of the seventh century. There was also a Jewish community.
There is a lot to take on board from the informative panels and I found this fascinating, but of course the objects are the stars of the show: textiles, coins, manuscripts, jewellery, pottery. It wasn’t always the most precious or the showiest objects that have stuck in my mind. Egypt’s hot, dry climate allowed things to be preserved that in other cultures have vanished. It was touching to see a stripy child’s sock, a toy horse, and a mummy portrait of a little girl, who had died aged seven.
Although there was occasional tension and violence between the different communities, there were long periods when the communities lived peacefully side by side and were influenced by each other in their arts and crafts.
I came out of the exhibition thinking of the words of the Quaker, William Penn, written in 1693, ‘The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion: and when death has taken off the mask they will know one another, though the divers liveries they wear here makes them strangers.’ At the week-end after the events in Paris, it was good to hold on to this thought. The exhibition is a timely one and I recommend it. It runs until the 7 February.
I’ve been reading Simenon’s Maigret novels. In some cases it’s re-reading, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t read them for the plots, which are slender and not very memorable. No, I read them for the character of Maigret and the opportunity to spend a little time on the streets of Paris. Julian Symons describes Maigret as ‘one of the most completely realised characters in all modern fiction.’ I agree. Maigret isn’t a maverick detective, he’s not an alcoholic loner. He’s real, he’s solid and he’s bourgeois. He is happily married to Madame Maigret, another of the most appealing characters in fiction. Not that we are told a lot about this marriage, but the way Madame Maigret appears on the fringes, playing a greater or lesser part, is one of the pleasures of the novels.
I’ve been wondering why the novels are so good: they are short and spare, almost minimalist, but every detail counts. Simenon is particularly good at describing the weather and has a marvellous sense of place. Occasionally Maigret leaves Paris to pursue a case in some other part of France, or even once in England, where he is disconcerted by the Mr Pyke, his punctilious English counterpart, but for my money the best novels are set in the capital. It is like slipping into a warm bath to open the pages and find myself following Maigret as he tracks some criminal through the streets of Paris, stopping now and then for a glass of beer or white wine and his favourite andouillette. I once ordered this in Rouen in homage and it turned out to be an earthy and pungent tripe sausage. Salut!