As I grow older, I delight more in the beauty of young men. I am sensitive, and this is a gift for me; I would so love that it was a gift for others as well.
The British Museum has a grand plaza in front of its grand colonnade. Walking through it should be a delight and preparation, anticipating the wonders within. It is mine, a place of beauty and learning, of all the cultures of the Earth over five thousand years, to expand the mind, developing empathy as well as understanding. Even though much of it is plunder, and much of it is Orientalist, and that grandeur is a bit Imperial for me, it is still mine, for the liberals and not for the Authoritarians.
Unfortunately there is a suppurating sore at the south west corner of that plaza, the tent where we have our bags searched. The Tates make do with a desk inside the doorways, where two guards wave their useless wands over the bags, but the BM has a marquee, too permanent-looking for my taste, and we are made to walk down a path between moveable barriers. Other barriers are placed across this path so that we slalom gently as we walk there. It is ridiculous as well as humiliating, everything undignified is. I hated the searches at first, but now thought I was reconciled to it. Yesterday in the Tate I said good morning to the hapless searcher, and my bag was unzipped ready.
Outside the tent hieroglyphs instruct no photography or recording, and inside there is another zig-zag where we shuffle towards the two searchers. It is dim and unpleasant, but I would be glad of it were it raining. There are spaces for more behind a long bench, but only two searchers are on duty this morning. “Next Please!” they shout, commandingly, as soon as their last fellow-victim steps away. Behind me, as I approach them, is a young man whose short hair might be aiming for the Army lieutenant look, though he is a security guard. “Be ready for the bag check! Have your bags open!” he shouts, for all the world as if none of us were tourists.
Is there anything sharp in here? “No,” I lie, and they do not spot my Swiss army knife. No handbag should be without a Swiss army knife. I think I am done, but a woman directs me to the second of four booths at the north end of the tent. In it, a young woman behind a pane of glass or plastic recites a script about how the British Museum depends on donations from the public. She has a slight foreign accent. She could be pretty but instead looks worn down. “No,” I say, shortly, and exit.
That young man was beautiful.
Outside in the plaza I have to take a moment to collect myself. I am ashamed of being rude to the young woman, and ashamed of letting it get to me. I think of Etty Hillesum, feeling compassion for the Nazi behind a desk shouting at her, and wish I had her- control, actually, rather than compassion, I do not like letting it get to me. The authoritarians, having won Brexit, are trampling so much, tearing up our social fabric, but I have been living with this for a year. And they still surprised me, and they still got to me.
We won’t let the terrorists change our way of life, intone the authoritarians, solemnly. Ha.
Inside, I visit the Rodin exhibition. A friendly security guard goes and gets me a stool when I ask him, and I sit in various vantage-points around The Burghers of Calais, which has Rilke quotes about each one displayed on the platform. It is a Mahler symphony of an art work, worth twenty Henry Moores, and with it I forget the security. That man clutching his head- I think he is beside himself, Rilke sees him as taking a moment with his thoughts and feelings away from the surroundings. Rilke affords him dignity. I like that.