Tilting at Windmills

This is another part where I have to admit I’m bad at telling a chronological story.

So, the first time I went to Florida after Dad died, we got a dogsitter and flew out as soon as we could. Rented a pickup truck at the airport because I had no idea if Dad’s truck worked, if I would be able to drive it, and what we would need to clear the house.

Turning into that familiar street I saw what appeared to be a slowly spinning silver hovercraft over the house.

‘Oh my god,’ I said. ‘He finally built the windmill.’ And I laughed because it was the most Dad thing ever. Sure, we had the remains of a decomposition to clean up, a house with generations of memories to empty, legal processes to start. But at least he had finally built that windmill.


Everybody has one fringe theory they buy into. This could be benign, such as believing that Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson were in a gay relationship during the days of One Direction, or enormously damaging, such as believing that trans people and Jews secretly control the world.

Some theories that sound benign actually turn out to be dangerous, like Pizzagate. And there are some that sound dangerous but turn out to be benign, like the circumstances of Marilyn Monroe's death. (Benign to everyone who wasn't her, anyway.)

Anyway, I like to believe everyone has one and it's the hill they are prepared to die on, because I have a crazy theory. I don't talk about it much and I inherited it from my father. It's about how the pyramids were built.


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Let me rewind to almost the beginning, after finding out my father was dead and going to Florida and driving to Pop-Pop’s house for the first time in fifteen years. Because of the level of decomposition, the smell that impregnated everything meant we had to throw everything away. But I did keep the Box, and once we got the safe open, the Notebook.

To say my father pursued his interests with singular ferocity is an understatement. He didn’t just do recreational drugs, he went from teetotal to crack addict in less than a year. For most of his life that bent towards addiction was focused on other things. During a decade or so in the 80s? That thing was Ancient Egyptian architecture.

Why don’t we know how Egyptian pyramids were constructed? Because it is tacit knowledge. It is not contained on a single scroll anywhere, just as there is no such book today called ‘How To Make a Ford Truck’ that historians of the future could use to replicate one of our most commonly visible technologies. It was the result of know-how, of accumulated, accretive knowledge from a number of types of worker, passed from craftsman to craftsman. The priests who oversaw ceremonies at the pyramids could not make them even though their own prayers and traditions were recorded in great detail. Nor could the kings who ordered their existence. It was a feat of workmanship and oral tradition. Once the chain was broken it could not be replicated: even the Kushite pyramids are clearly made in a different way.

This happens in many more fields than we would like to admit. Lose a generation of skilled workers, and you lose the technology. Or you lose it to a competitor. The lack of direct documentation leaves the door open for people to speculate things like that the Ancient Egyptians were not really African (because we love nothing more than taking African achievements away) or that the pyramids were built by aliens (because same reason).

My father didn’t believe either of those things. He knew the Egyptians were African, and he knew they had the skill to do these things. He also believed that the religion itself held clues about how it was built. That the concepts used in pyramid (and later, obelisk) construction were so pervasive in Egyptian culture that they were hiding in plain sight.

You probably know or may even be related to someone exactly like my father in this respect. Someone who has ideas - can’t stop having them, even - and then just… does them. Without support, without permission. Often in a shed at the bottom of the garden. And he’s surprisingly good at it too.

When I was twelve years old my father obtained a concrete pillar that was left over from the construction of a bridge. It weighed about 2 tons. Not a lot compared to the pyramid stones and great obelisks of Egypt, but certainly more than a man on his own could move without help.

And he raised it onto its end. One man, using the principles he had worked out in a cheap composition book after reading thousands of pages on Egyptian culture and history. He stood it up, took a photo, and put that photo away. Where, I have no idea. You’ll have to take my word that he did it, I guess.

Even before he did this I felt he was on to something, for reasons I could not put into words as a child but know how to say now. Because he had worked. Because he had done hard and physical labor day after day, year after year, for most if not all of his adult life. He knew when academic archaeologists talked about workers they had no idea what it was to be one. That when popular fiction referenced armies of slaves pushing giant blocks uphill that was a physical impossibility. How do you build a brick wall? Brick by brick. His method meant an entire community could contribute to moving impossible-looking blocks, counterweight by counterweight. He knew what humans were capable of and not capable of. He knew it in his blood, in his bones.

I’m not going to go into too much detail here because I’m not trying to convince the world he was right, even though I believe he was. Families are like small cults. I used to say large families are like small cults, but really it’s all of them. They are where we learn a very specific version of how people should be, what the world is like, and our models for adult behavior are imprinted forever. These are sometimes but not always blueprints for the real world. You might go out into the world and find your parents have prepared you well, or you might go out and find everything they told you was poppycock and you believed it because you were a kid, what else could you do? We can rebel against the values we inherit from our families but that just reinforces the point. You have to have something to rebel against, right?

The small cult of Magnanti left me with a set of values that goes like this: Never be too proud to work no matter what the job is. A man is someone who drives his family to the door in the rain and walks back from wherever he parked. Pay attention to teachers but if they can’t or don’t teach you something, it’s on you to teach yourself. Never take a handout until you absolutely have to. Self medication is A-OK.

Have such values served me well? A mixed bag. When UK laws kept me from working even part-time, I became a call girl rather than accept handouts from friends or go on the dole. My standards for relationships were so ridiculous I did not meet anyone I thought would be worth marrying until my mid-30s. I still drink in spite of addiction in my family, to the extent that in the throes of a stressful legal battle I developed gout. I refuse to believe there is any subject that is off limits for exploration, especially when I have access to a library. Each of these has has in its way been related to both the best and worst experiences in my life.

Even after I cut contact with Dad the idea was still there, mostly dormant, in the back of my head. I went on vacation to Luxor and Cairo in 2007 and could not stop myself finding clues about it everywhere. Even during a tour rest stop on the way to Giza.

In case you don’t recognise the tool in the above photo, that’s a shaduf. This ancient way of raising water from flood channels to crops was used by the ancients and is still in use in Egypt today. It’s cheap to build, easy to replicate, and modern technology doesn’t do it better. I saw this boy watering his donkey and paid him 50 Egyptian pounds - about 2 quid - to take a series of pictures while the tour bus driver stopped for a prayer break.

My father's comments on the shaduf in his notebook. (He was so self conscious of his inability to sketch what he was thinking that he took up a parallel hobby of teaching himself pencil drawing, which by the time five years had passed was accomplished enough to draw decent portraits of family and friends.)

This is the heart of a dead man being weighed in the afterlife according to the book of the dead. If it is lighter than a feather, he is righteous.

That’s Karnak, the great temple and center of worship of Amun near what was formerly Thebes and is now known as Luxor. The principles that power the crane in the background, like the shaduf above, are the same ones the ancients used to build pyramids and raise obelisks. The principle of counterbalance.

My father's notes on quarrying stone.

That’s me standing next to a stone at the Great Pyramid of Giza. Look at that solid block and think of how many of them it took to construct the pyramid. About 2.3 million of them, all heavier than two tons, some as heavy as seventy tons.

Now think about all the possible ways you have been told this could be built. In the 80s the popular version was slaves pushing blocks up inclines, basically. Archaeology has discovered a lot more since then, contributing to a view of pyramid construction that is more reliant on craftsmen than brute force, but this was not common knowledge nor even widely accepted academic theory back then. And certainly was not represented in the inexpensive Dover reprints of early 20th century text that my father was using as sources.

Have you ever tried to coordinate moving heavy things with a group of people? I spent a decade as a university rower and even a group of eight athletes, each of us at the peak of our physical prowess, lifting a boat that is engineered to be as light as it possibly can be, struggled to get it from the level of our knees up to our shoulders twice a day, every day. Record-holding powerlifters struggle to move weight a small number of inches that is measured in single multiples of their own body. There is no amount of whipping slaves that can make people “just” move the blocks of the Great Pyramid into place. No, not even with a bunch of logs as rollers underneath. It can’t be done like that. Not without balance. Pyramid construction was not a matter of brute force. It was a matter of skill, of understanding physics. It took a simple yet elegant solution.

A couple of millennia later, Archimedes of Syracuse would quip, give me a lever long enough and a place to stand and I could move the Earth. But the Egyptians had already done it long before, with shorter levers, because they did it incrementally. With accretion.

There are no enormous ramps to find at Giza, because the pyramid is both the tool and the product. Its own incline is the ramp. The counterweight can be added incrementally by many people, even the very young and the very old, like putting grains of weight on a scale. Generations later, a similar principle would be used to raise obelisks. Still over a thousand years before Archimedes was even born.

This is the base of an obelisk in Karnak. The notch in the base stone is the fulcrum point where it was turned upright.

I could go on but I won’t. There’s a lot more to it than this. In my early days in London, when I was finishing my PhD thesis corrections and looking for a job, and becoming a call girl blogger, I was also spending my days at the British Library and British Museum researching Egyptian architecture. I thought perhaps, given my work was adjacent to (the wrong kind of) archaeology, maybe someday we could put my father’s ideas together as a paper and publish them in a journal. The culmination of a decades-long obsession.

Of course life took a series of other directions and we never did that. It was ridiculous to even think we could.


Like all backyard shed inventors he moved on to other ideas.

One of the last times I saw my father was in Florida, mid 2005. An on/off boyfriend invited himself to the US for a vacation and while I wasn’t especially keen for that person to meet my family, we did get together with my dad at a Hooters to eat wings and chat.

I like Hooters. It grew up in Clearwater, like me; rubs British feminists up the wrong way, like me; and looks great in orange, like me. The wings are so-so but the atmosphere is charming and the fried pickles, iconic. Also, for those who cringe at the name, put it in the context of mid-80s Florida beach bars. When your competition is ‘Molly Goodhead’s,’ Hooters seems positively puritanical.

Dad had come alone and not brought one of his girlfriends, thank fuck. He seemed sober and like his own self and I breathed a sigh of relief that at least the crackhead drama which that boyfriend was both slightly aware of and extremely judgmental of would not be playing out for him to breathlessly relate to his fellow toffs later.

The entire time Dad was talking about his latest idea: a more efficient windmill that could be made by anyone with minimal tools and experience. Super balanced and light, that could turn no matter how little wind there was. The shape of each leaf was like a pressurised gas container cut lengthwise. It could be sheet metal or stiffened fabric. It was oriented horizontally rather than vertically. He sketched it out on a Hooters napkin as he spoke. In my family, talking about Big Ideas over dinner is par for the course. Meal time is blue sky thinking time. Brainstorming time. We don’t do small talk, and Dad as usual went straight in at the deep end. I was delighted, it was a window back to my childhood. Just like old times sitting around the table on a Sunday in Beacon Square.

For my posho ex who was more accustomed to superficial pleasantries of the kind tossed around by Britain’s ruling class it was like being dropped into an impromptu engineering workshop. He was far, far out of his depth but kept trying to cut in with pat lines and banal observations that had nothing to do with any of it. We left that meal with my sort-of boyfriend thinking my father was a hopeless eccentric (true) and my father thinking that boyfriend was a blowhard asshole (also true).

If I had thought it was like old times, that meal at Hooters, it wasn’t for long. Dad’s life was spiraling rapidly into chaos. A few months later we had the argument that ended with us never speaking again. So I didn’t know about the windmill until we drove up to Pop-pop’s house more than two weeks after Dad died.

My husband and I took down the windmill. (It wasn’t easy and we ended up sawing through the frame, we didn’t find his special wrench-on-a-pole for it until days later.) Sold the inverter and battery banks he’d been planning to use to take his house off grid. Sold the tube bender he’d used to fabricate the frame, a bender so large one of my cousins who is a pipefitter had no use for it. Another cousin and her husband took the windmill home either for scrap or to do I don’t know what with it. But Dad at least got to build a prototype of his last good idea. Looking at it I know he would approve of the life I live now, generating solar in the middle of the desert, self determined and off the grid.

When I look at the windmill, when I think about the notebook, it gives me embarrassment and joy in equal measure. Embarrassed because it is so silly really. And yet I secretly love the audacity of his ideas, some plumber from nowhere thinking he could solve a riddle that has fascinated historians and archaeologists for ages.

I love it because this is where I got it from. My absolute devotion to the things that fascinate me no matter how ridiculous. The obvious futility, in the end, of being an academic or media outsider was overwhelmed by my compulsion to see these things through regardless of the outcome.

There is a type of media maven, especially in the UK, that thinks the ambitions of the hoi polloi are best left unexplored. The sort of person who sneers ‘don’t encourage them,’ for example, when anyone says we all have a book in us or suggests that all children should have access to the arts.

They are the tastemakers who know next to nothing of the country they live in and its culture. Not for them the trad pipers and fiddlers who work for the water board or are brickies by day, or the paintings of Ashington miners. The things they love are culture, the things you love are sentimental and kitsch. There is no value in the workaday thing. No beauty. No worth. You are bred to work for them and work is all.

This sort of person is born to the class of gatekeepers. They were appalled that someone like me could make it through, and made damn sure that door was slammed shut as soon as possible. It’s a closed shop they oversee, determining not just which stories are told but who gets to tell them - preferring people more like themselves to parachute in and report on the working class, for example, rather than letting us tell our stories for ourselves. Even where the subjects have decades or generations of tacit knowledge and lived experience to bring to the discussion, the gatekeepers think themselves above needing to know any of it. What they know in their bones is not what working people know in theirs. They can theorize, suggest, but it is all just moving pieces around a game board to them. Their reality is not our reality.

Blogging in its early days almost changed that. There were no gates to keep beyond access to the internet. But the pendulum swung back and now media is overflowing with the anointed and the previously chosen, actors from Eton, writers from Ivies, reality television that turns mere millionaires into billionaires. Where normal people and their passions, thoughts, and desires are allowed to exist at all it is as zoo animals to be gawked at then forgotten. The sites that got high traffic were, for a brief period, written by people using free websites and living anywhere in the world. Now they are written by those who can afford to work for free in London, New York, LA and published by old media companies who have bought out or pushed out everyone else.

If you are smart and poor it is better not to be, and since wealth is rarely in our control, the easiest way not to be is to drink and take drugs. When I was at FSU there was this friend of a friend named Russ. We called him ‘Stupid’ because, well, he was always doing something stupid. It was years before I realized that Russ wasn’t stupid at all. He was extremely smart, and extremely angry about the world, and he dulled the edges of that with enough drink and drugs to successfully disguise what he really thought of life and the world around him.

Even now I can not quite forgive what my father did as an addict but I can understand it. The world will break you. The smarter you are, the fewer outlets you have for that, the more it breaks you. Better to be stupid, right?

This is why I drink. It is also why I write. It is my outlet like his projects were his. A fantasy of what we might do if we had infinite resources with which to do it. It is intoxicating, the freedom to dream. My father Paul Magnanti dreamed of being named among his heroes, people like Flinders Petrie and EA Wallis Budge. He worked on that notebook in spite of the reality, as a man whose first job was fixing lawnmowers, that his last job would be pushing one. And he would be doing exactly that on the day he died.


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