Skip to content

Small-town radio

The second (Stanley) instalment of my exchange of Falklands War/1982 letters with Dominic Hilton in Argentina.

For The Critic

News At A Glance #3

More or less news more-or-less concerning Lord Salisbury, Quakers, and Chaldaean numerology.

For The Emigre

News At A Glance #2

On Tate McRae, Tonella McGowan, and the terror threat.

For The Emigre

No April fools

The opening salvo in a projected 10-week exchange of letters on/around the Falklands War, with Dominic Hilton in the Argentina capital.

For The Critic

News At A Glance (redivivus!)

On April Fool’s Day, The Emigre has the great good sense to pick up where/what so many others had previously left off!

For The Emigre

Pyramid schemes

The Red Sea Scrolls: How Ancient Papyri Reveal the Secrets of the Pyramids
Pierre Tallet and Mark Lehner
Thames & Hudson £30 319pp (1.216kg)

Because I once made the mistake of dabbling a bit in Egyptology, no less than every other week – in the year 2022 – some friend (‘…’) will schwack me with a meme, cartoon or article about people who still believe the pyramids were built by aliens.

FFS (I hear you cry). If only there were a handy single-volume book one could present to these loons, full of unarguable evidence putting this feeble business past all disputation.

Cry. no. longer.

In the final weeks of the 2013 season, excavators on the Gulf of Suez, in Egypt’s Eastern Desert, uncovered the world’s most ancient harbour installation at Wadi el-Jarf. In it, they unearthed a cache containing the world’s oldest extant inscribed papyrus (c. 2607-2605 BCE). And in that, they found a ‘unique and unprecedented testimony relating to one of the world’s most famous monuments’ – the Great Pyramid at Giza: inspiring and perplexing visitors, now, for almost five millennia.

The little-green-men/Atlantean/whatever stuff is simultaneously a failure and an over-use of the imagination. But the pyramids, of course, are fairly mind-boggling.

King Khufu’s quarrymen hand-sculpted over 6 hectares of rock to level the plateau and form a basic foundation, to legendary levels of accuracy with regard to both the earth and heavens. The block-hauling ramps alone are thought to have contained as much as 400,000 cubic metres of sand and rock… and perhaps only reached 1/5 of the way up the edifice. The masons dressed precisely ‘67,127 square metres of the outer surface of [the] pyramid casing with copper chisels the width of an index finger.’ The outer surface!

A ‘human disturbance on a geological scale’, the funerary complex of the Great Pyramid was so large that it incorporated other pyramids.

The building site also contained an entire administrative city – ‘a kind of Old Kingdom Egyptian equivalent of Versailles’ – complete with artificial inland port to take hydraulic advantage of the Nile flood.

Here, handwritten scribal records – the ‘oldest known explicitly dated Egyptian documents’ – pick up the story of the middle-ranking inspector Merer and his 40-man naval gang.

Merer was literally the captain of ‘Team Great’, an elite and adaptable outfit who transported the ‘grunt’ labour force and maintained the waterways round Giza, ferried limestone blocks up and down the Nile, provisioned and managed stores at the plateau, and undertook expeditions to Sinai and to Punt – lands of, if not quite milk and honey, then turquoise, myrrh, and much-needed copper for stone-working tools. ‘The builders of the gigantic pyramids of the 4th Dynasty must have amassed more copper… than was being accumulated anywhere else in the world.’

Interestingly, Pierre Tallet and Mark Lehrer argue that Merer and his men represent not vast slave-labour exploited by a biblical despot, but ‘the employment of a highly skilled, well-rewarded workforce.’ Team Great worked in proximity to power – including royal guard duties and religious rituals – and were part-paid in the quasi-currency of luxury cloth.

But it is also estimated that four teams like Merer’s might have spent 20 years transporting just the facing stone for the Great Pyramid.

This daily diary, then, reflects not only these ‘individuals in history’, but also an early, centralised ‘territorial national state’, which subjugated and resettled provincial peoples, ‘absorbed all the wealth and agricultural surplus of the country’, and kept excellent paperwork – ‘the earliest expression of the bureaucratic mindset’ that enabled such colossal building projects, and which subsequently (soon, in fact) outgrew that purpose and came to embody the whole pharaonic state.

From Herodotus to the History Channel, the Giza pyramids have always been the focal point of Egyptology. And yet, somehow, there’s always more to learn about them.

A collaboration by two extremely senior hands-on Egyptologists, The Red Sea Scrolls is as rigorously detailed as a general-market hardback could afford to be. It also contains several once-in-a-lifetime archaeological discoveries (the loss of documentary record from the Old Kingdom is almost total: by extrapolation, there should be tens of thousands of these scrolls, just for the Great Pyramid), so it’s a shame the book, which does not even claim to know how 2.3 million huge blocks were put one on top of t’other, plays to the pyramidiots with talk of ‘secrets’.

Merer’s logbooks aren’t literature, either, and the authors acknowledge that administrative documents ‘may not make for fascinating reading at first glance…’ Some readers will find the chapters on the challenges of preservation to be dry work. Others will need do little more than skim the sections on the early pyramids for latest reasoning. But for the die-hard nerds there’s plenty of mapping, reconstructions and transliteration/translation to keep you busy – and a bibliography that would take a year to get through even if you skipped out all the German bits. The text is so abundantly illustrated that no thinking man or woman could conceivably gainsay the faintest aspect of either method or conclusions.

Nine years on, restorers are still readying the Wadi el-Jarf scrolls to be displayed. For everybody else, meanwhile, £30 is a bargain if it means you never again have to converse at length with someone who believes the pyramids cannot be rationally explained. Take this book everywhere you fear you might run into same. If all else fails, well, I guess you can always hit them with it.

For The Spectator


Or; some thoughts on being Ir-ish, on St Patrick’s Day.

For The Emigre.

On Commonwealth Day

… my diaries relate a (very positive) diplomatic incident from 15 years ago.

For The Emigre

Mary Curies

Review of Tracy Chevalier’s treatment of Mary Canning’s life, in Remarkable Creatures.

For Perspective

Insecurities fraud

Get Rich or Lie Trying: Ambition and Deceit in the New Influencer Economy
by Symeon Brown, Atlantic Books, £16.99

Born when we were born, and embarking on writing ‘careers’ (LOL) just as the web ripped the financial guts out of the paper industry, my idea of a good time is to phone my best mate every couple of months and bitch about how, ten years before us, even the lowliest hacks had an expense account, and, ten years afterwards, world-famous ‘media’ types make actual fortunes from unboxing videos.

I’m not on TikTok. I’d never heard of Clubhouse til last week. Hell, I don’t even have a LinkedIn account. Why would I? My idea of self-promotion is to post my articles on Facebook. Once. I would sooner shit myself in public than use an unironic hashtag.

Then, last October, said mate sent me a Wall Street Journal bit about a 21-year-old Texan ‘electronic music producer’ who, having amassed 52,000 followers on social media, dropped out of college to go full-time, and in the last two years has made… just under $70.

Damned if I didn’t feel an ounce of sympathy for the poor fellow.

Symeon Brown’s Get Rich or Lie Trying opens around the same time, 15-20 years ago, when hip-hop up-and-comer Soulja Boy used LimeWire, YouTube, and appropriated 50 Cent song titles to send his breakout ‘Crank That’ viral, and net himself $7m in the process. ‘By design or good fortune, [Soulja Boy] created a formula for viral success that is still being used today by artists, companies and social media influencers.’

Still, at least he was creating something.

That shift away from the dominance of the traditional media ‘generated a new global currency: influence.’ The current highest-earning influencer, Kylie Jenner, can make over a million dollars from just a single post on Instagram – most often in association with brands like Fashion Nova, ‘a market leader in ghetto chic and timeless hoochie wear’, which has paid rappers for shout-outs (i.e. product placements) in their songs, and signed up ex-reality TV superstars like Cardi B as employed brand ambassadors.

But the apparent glamour of Fashion Nova’s couture is somewhat at odds with the reality that it is hastily ripped off and poorly made in rat-infested wage-thieving sweatshops, and by and large even marketed for nothing on – literally – the backs of young women, many of whom have paid for kit decked out with slogans of female empowerment.

The majority of GRoLT‘s investigations into the corrosive influence of influencing are saturated with this and every other conceivable flavour of dishonesty.

Turkish cosmetic surgeons offering ‘aggressive discounts’ to surgery obsessives (some of the least alluring paragraphs you’ll ever read) who then proceed to advertise on their behalf. Meme-humour accounts built up and sold on with their followings (one offered me a dildo just the other day). Borderline-non-existent dropshipping ‘businesses’ that at best sell cheap Chinese crap, and at worst take your money and then simply evaporate. ‘Traders’ who flat-out fabricate high-flying lives, recruiting – for cold, hard monetary gain – ‘fellow investors’ to finance their own dreams, while it turns out they are living with their mothers.

Inexorably, of course, we come to cryptocurrency: ‘A culture where nothing needs to be intrinsically valuable or true about a commodity…’

Many of Brown’s targets are little more than good old-fashioned ‘direct selling’ pyramid schemes – ‘the default business model of the social media age’ – get-rich-quick wannabes duped into paying fees and subscriptions for supposedly elite training/goods/access privileges. In one instance, students signing up to market nutrition drinks (as an avowed alternative to mountainous post-college debt!) found that ‘97% of them would have made more in a minimum-wage job.’ Another company – in a nicely circular bit of legal logic – had to pay out $4.75m in a consumer (sic) protection suit brought by its own ‘staff’.

And in almost every situation, from breast-implants to bitcoin, ‘the challenge was to make as much money as possible before the game was up.’

In this eye-watering environment of chicanery and cynicism, the abuse of language is, naturally, endemic. ‘Platinum 150’ is the lowest rung of one particular Ponzi scheme. ‘Boss Babes’ routinely turn out to be ‘young women, single mothers and housewives short of money.’ When a fly-by-night plastic surgery outfit is eventually embarrassed online they respond, ‘Clinichub pays great attention to BODY AWARENESS and BODY POSITIVITY.’

So: where there’s bullshit there’s brass. But at least social media enables us to come together for the most-obvious (and least-monetisable) causes such as social justice, right?

Wrong. ‘The infighting between the most prominent figures attached to #BlackLivesMatter has become a lesson in how social media incentivises competition and disincentivises collectivism.’ One leading light became a brand ambassador for Twitter itself. Another amassed a private million-dollar property portfolio ‘while publicly proclaiming socialist values.’

Dreams can be a dreadful poison, and ‘the addictive rewards of accruing followers by any means necessary are warping human behaviour both on- and off-line.’ Influencers get their teeth, tits, and everything else done to mimic Insta filters. A modish (and highly marketable) preference for the ‘racially ambiguous’ has even caused a few to ‘fake their ethnicity’ (cue hatestorm). Funnily enough, there are some mental health issues arising from this need to ‘live a life of performance disguised as authenticity.’

So what possesses anyone to compete in these ‘attention hunger games’?

A late-millennial black man from a Tottenham school that gave out more free meals than it did GCSEs, Symeon Brown is well placed to empathise with the ‘immeasurable pressure to be rich, especially among young men and working class racial minorities.’

Boosted by mantras of Blair-era ‘aspiration’ (‘the internet’s most exploitable economy’), his generation grew up at the roiling convergence of celebrity culture, high fashion, hip-hop, and the technology explosion, and went to work between the 2008 financial crash and Covid, in a world of instant gratification where ‘modern apprenticeships barely pay and rarely lead to job progression’. Many of them have, if anything, gone backwards since. It is perhaps forgivable that they would be receptive to any message (Brown notes some striking echoes of the evangelical church) which says the meek are on the fast track with regard to earth-inheritance.

It’s nonetheless noticeable that few of GRoLT’s chaotically-failed influencers ever conclude that they should get a ‘proper’ job. But then why would they? In the context of the current, desperate, gigging economy, a Cameroonian immigrant paid to be racially abused by livestreamers says it is ‘child’s play’ compared to being homeless. Besides, the ‘hustle’ ethos, epitomised by rap musicians and the likes of fraudster Jordan Belfort, is now ‘so pervasive that even having a well-paid job is regularly derided as selling yourself short.’

‘We are all influencers now,’ Symeon Brown declares. Well, no. But Get Rich or Lie Trying is nevertheless a depressingly instructive read – and the nightmare of the influencer (and ‘influenced’) economy is probably still only halfway through getting started. So if, as Brown asserts, social media is now ‘where the first draft of history is written and where the discourse that informs our civic institutions is set,’ please take this opportunity to look up ‘Influencers in the Wild’, and see just how much trouble we’re all really in.

For The Critic