Yesterday morning, the morning of Christmas Eve, my mother’s cousin died at home in Scotland.
Here is the closing passage from a book I almost wrote: the biography of an Italian archaeologist. There were personality problems. It may still get written…
“One of the most famous legends of Central Asia tells of a horseman,” he told me as we sat in his book-lined room in Rome. “The horseman is the standard-bearer of the great Khan. As the Khan’s army are entering a city after a glorious victory, the standard-bearer sees a dark lady looking at him. The dark lady has fearsome eyes, as if she is looking right inside him. He becomes scared that this woman is a witch and she has put the Evil Eye on him, so he goes to the great Khan and tells him his fears and says he wants to go to another city.
“Of course! says the great Khan. Give him the finest horse we have! Let him escape!
“So the standard-bearer takes the fastest horse in the Great Khan’s army, rides off across the desert and, in record time, arrives at the other city. Then he sees the dark lady standing by the city gates, waiting for him. She looks at him, smiles and says:
“I was so worried. I knew I was due to meet you here today but, when I saw you in that other city so very far away, I was worried that you would not reach here in time for our appointment.
“And the standard-bearer realises that the dark lady with the eyes that look right inside him is Death. I always feel I am running like the standard bearer, that there is never enough time and I know I will never complete what I should do.
“Another Central Asian legend tells of a horseman who rides alone across the desert but, when he looks at the shadow he casts, he sees that Death is riding behind him. The shadow of her long scythe is touching his shadow as she swings it backwards and forwards. At any time, she may strike the final fatal blow but, until then, he only sees the shadow.
“Since Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, we know that time and space cannot be separated: if you travel across physical space, you are travelling through time as well. When I was given that bouquet of flowers in Iran, the past caught up with me. I had been running, turned round and saw a shadow. I realised I had managed to destroy my life piece by piece. I destroyed almost everything. Lovers, career, options, the potential for wealth, peace of mind, success. I somehow managed to throw away all the possibilities. My failure at the Burnt City was too great to recover from. When I saw the site for the first time, remember I shit in my pants? When I sat in that tent and saw the sunlight coming through the flap and saw the desert, boundless and bare, stretching beyond. I couldn’t deal with it. I could feel the ground starting to go down and down in a spiral under my feet. I could see and feel Time sucking me in. But the irony is that, as an archaeologist, I don’t feel I’m dealing in dead and destroyed things. I feel the continuity and the importance of what has survived, lasted and developed. Archaeologists don’t uncover dead civilizations. They uncover the interplay between events and people.
“I know I was close to death in Kurdistan when the young boy shot me in the arm; I still bear the physical scar.
“I know I was closer to death when I was in Haiti and faced the Tonton Macoutes. That was really very close.
“But the effect of imminent physical death was much less on me than the effect of those events way back in my childhood. Those scars stay with you through time and they never heal. The first five years of your life are what is important because you are so receptive and the scale of importance given to each event is so gigantic. When I was about three, my father came and told me that, if I didn’t do some little unimportant thing he was going to beat me. I was three years old, looking up at this overwhelmingly strong adult who was looking down at me with a very serious face. I felt so helpless and in such immediate danger. But my father was just joking. Joking! The result was that all the insecurities started to take hold of my mind and, later in life, I wanted to either control my insecurities or run away from them or both. I never wanted to feel that helpless again. My father doesn’t even remember it happening. But I remember it vividly 51 years later. The scars have travelled through time like the bullet wound on my arm.
“Maybe you are even affected before you are born. The foetus is receptive to light and sound and voices and pressures and pains and chemical variations in the body of your mother…..and your individual mind – your unique neural map – is formed at the same time your brain is formed. By the time you are five years old, maybe 80%, 90% of your future is already within you?
“People tell me I have a good memory for dates, but even I am still surprised how vivid something that happened 51 years ago can be in my mind. Things that happened 10 years ago are as vivid as the present. I remember my days with Wendy the Wessex Bird so vividly. The feeling of her body; the first time I penetrated her. Just a week ago, I saw Ingrid crossing a street in Rome to avoid meeting me. She is now 48 and still looks lovely; I could vividly remember her coming through a door thirty years ago. As vivid as yesterday. The past is not the past; it is still living today, travelling with you in your memory.
“If I find a ruined building, I need to know what happened inside the building: the forces that co-operated to make it what it was. The energy and social inter-action. About 5,000 years ago, the Arabian civilization was created. But it is not a distant planet. Those ‘dead’ things and ‘dead’ people’s actions are alive because of the long-term effects of their existence and their actions. That is the psychology of archaeology. It is like a giant meteor falling on Earth; it creates all kinds of changes and has all kinds of after-effects. When you watch a stone thrown into a pool, the effects ripple out and eventually disappear but, with events in history everything is linked. In order to understand the Arabian civilization of 3,000 BC, you have to go back to what was happening between 5,000 BC and 4,000 BC. Ruins don’t talk; what talks is the actions of people and you can only judge people by their actions.
“At the end of the Don Juan story, as I remember it, he is having dinner with Doña Aminta who is a depressed, boring, unhappy woman. But he has also invited the Stone Guest to dinner – the ghost of Don Gonzalo, whom he killed. While Doña Aminta is praying, the hellish Stone Guest invites Don Juan to follow him to Hell. He is not dragged or kidnapped…he has a free choice between life with a depressive, unhappy woman and the road to Hell. And Don Juan chooses to go to Hell. That’s my choice too. I want to be engulfed in the flames.
“I don’t want any name on my grave, because I have never had a name of my own,” he told me. “I only want those two lines from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan.”
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
“Do you remember the four lines before that quote?” I asked.
“I forget,” he said unconvincingly.
“The full quote is better,” I suggested.
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
But, when he died at the very start of the 21st century, it was suddenly and violently and there was no tombstone because there was no body. He had gone to talk to an acquauintance in the New World. The acquaintance’s office was high atop a tower which looked down on the rest of the world as if from heaven. I checked which side of the building the office was on. He must have have stood high up in the financial district of New York early on that bright, clear September morning and seen the plane coming straight at the building. He was consumed in the flames when that first airliner hit the World Trade Center on Tuesday 11th September 2001.