A wonderful world

Gary Day finds a Santa lookalike in Egypt, bigotry in Kansas, sublime jazz and rapidly melting Arctic ice

December 23, 2008

If you ever wanted to know what Santa does for the rest of the year, I can tell you. He is an Egyptologist. He still has the beard and the “ho ho hos”, but not the outfit. Well, it is hot there. His name is Bob Bianchi and in Secrets of Egypt (Five, Thursday 8.00pm) he told us that Cleopatra “encouraged research and scholarship on a purely ideal and intellectual level”. Would that she were alive today.

Pascal famously stated that if Cleopatra’s nose had been shorter, the face of the world would have been different. He obviously had not seen her image on coins. She looks fairly ordinary. More like Gail Platt from Coronation Street than the woman who made kingdoms seem clay.

The last of the Ptolemies, the Macedonian dynasty that ruled Egypt for nearly 300 years, Cleopatra was also the first to learn the language of her subjects. It was one of ten in which she could conduct the business of rule.

History has portrayed her as a scheming temptress but, as Bob explained, she was so much more. Politician, propagandist and leader. She may have depended on Caesar in the civil war against her brother, but she presented the alliance as the union of two Egyptian gods, with herself as Hathor, the higher one. The way that Bob’s eyes went misty showed that, more than 2,000 years later, this legendary queen has lost none of her charm.

This is not a word that can be applied to the Phelps clan, who make up most of the 71-strong congregation of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas. According to the title of Louis Theroux’s documentary, they are The Most Hated Family in America (BBC Two, Thursday 11.20pm).

Full credit to them. It’s thoroughly deserved. Most families, when they go out for a day, will go to the park, but the Phelpses like to picket the funerals of American soldiers killed in Iraq. They wave placards at the mourners with slogans like “You’re going to Hell” and “Thank God for 9/11”. And if that isn’t enough to make you strike them off your Christmas card list, they are also lawyers.

They are prepared to spend in excess of $200,000 a year not to offer consolation to the bereaved. Which is very generous of them. And they don’t expect grieving parents to reimburse them, just to accept that their children have been killed because they fought for a country that tolerates, to use their phrase, “taking it up the tailpipe”. If Jesus were here, announces one of them, he would be holding one of their placards aloft.

Fred Phelps is the leader of this dedicated little group. He has, according to one of his followers, “more knowledge of the Bible” than anyone who has ever lived, including God. But he was not happy to share it with Louis. “I don’t even want to talk to you,” he snarled. In fact, “Gramps”, as he is affectionately known, doesn’t want to talk to anyone. Many people would feel happier if his disciples felt the same. It’s not their bigotry that chills. It’s their smiling.

When the last trumpet sounds, I hope it’s Louis Armstrong. I learnt to play in the hope that one day someone would say “Take it away, Gaz” but, adrift among philistines, all I ever heard was “will you stop making that racket.”

BBC Four devoted an evening to the Picasso of jazz. The final programme, Louis Armstrong – Good Evening Ev’rybody (Thursday 11.00pm), showed concert footage from the 1970 Newport Jazz Festival. Dizzy Gillespie was one of many trumpeters who paid tribute to the great Satchmo. When Dizzy blew his horn, his cheeks puffed out so wide you could hide the entire Westboro Baptist Church in them.

Louis’ surprise arrival on stage was greeted with joy. Too old to take his trumpet to places they used to go, Satchmo could still give songs back their youth. His voice bubbles like honey in gravel. When he sang Blueberry Hill everyone in the audience walked up it with someone hand in hand. That sunny afternoon, 38 years ago, may be the nearest the audience ever got to heaven.

We are all a lot closer to the celestial plains as the planet continues to hot up. The last in the series Oceans (BBC Two, Friday 9.00pm) looked at what was happening to the Arctic, the smallest of the five great seas. Over the past 30 years, 1.5 million square miles of ice has disappeared. The result? Less sunlight is reflected back into space and so more ice melts. Santa may have to stay in Egypt all year.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English, De Montfort University.

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