The Elgin Marbles - and a sentimental journey
Last week this jobbing Classicist visited Shrewsbury to talk to the Friends of Shrewsbury Museum about the Elgin Marbles. This is a subject on which I’m a maverick (or a free-spirit, depending on your point of view), belonging neither to the “send them back” campaign, nor to the “over my dead body” retentionists.
It’s an uncomfortable fence on which to sit, liable to attack by both sides. But most of the arguments usually brought out on this subject seem pretty weak to me. In the red corner: Melina Mercouri (on the stamp) weeping in front of the captured sculptures in the British Museum. In the blue: one of its ex-Directors calling the Greeks “cultural fascists” for wanting them back. Both are cheap tricks.
When I lecture about it I try to talk about why the debate is so long running and what the big issues are that drive it. No argument goes on for two hundred years unless it raises problems that really are hard to solve. What does “ownership” mean in the case of such world famous masterpieces? Why do we think that objects belong where they were made? Why is repatriation generally advocated by the Left in the case of lumps of marble, but not in the case of people?
I’m particularly interested in the question of when “history” or “historic removal” seems irrevocable – historically irreversible. If the Marbles had been taken in the Second World War, there is hardly any doubt that some process, however ineffectual, would have been initiated to send them back. On the other hand, if they had been taken to Rome by some general or dynast, in an act of Roman spoliation in the first century AD, they would now be a prime example of ancient Rome’s ambivalent dependence of Greek culture – not the subject of a reparation dispute. Where on this spectrum do the Marbles belong? And why?
There’s always a good discussion when you talk about these topics. Shrewsbury was no exception. But it meant rather more to me than usual, because going to Shrewsbury was going back “home”. Shropshire is where I was born and brought up.
There is always something affecting about going back to where you come from. It’s not just the memories (smoking what you shouldn’t behind the bike sheds etc). It is also the clash between those memories and “how things really are”. I will never forget going into the staff-room at my old school some years ago. When I was a child, it had always seemed vast, forbidding and very off-limits. When I walked in as a grown-up, I found it was cosy and actually rather small.
But for me, it is the journey “home” and back, rather than the visit itself, that affects me most. Apart from a few happy years in London, I have spent my whole life in Cambridge or Shropshire. Almost every peccadillo, pain or pleasure I have ever had has happened along the M6/A14 corridor. Travelling along it is rather like stepping down a street of memory. Each exit is a sign to a bit of the past – nightmare in Coventry, oblivion in Telford . . .
Driving the whole route from Cambridge to Shrewsbury is now always to replay those drives I made when my mother was dying – and particular that last drive when I knew I wasn’t going to make it in time, and then later the drive to the funeral. Going the other way is no less emphatically to replay coming to Cambridge for the first time as a student in her Mini.
Sure, I drive into Cambridge along the A14 something like once a week. But when I drive it all the way from Shrewsbury, in my head I am always vividly back in 1973 – with that awful, gut-twisting anxiety about what university would actually be like. If I had known then how the whole Cambridge adventure was to turn out, and that I would end up here on a life-sentence, I would never have believed it.