Supping with the devil?
If anyone is following my Lenten abstinence, I must confess that yesterday I deemed the Irish Embassy (which was hosting a friend’s book launch) to be foreign soil and I allowed myself a couple of whiskies. It was the first alcohol that I have knowingly consumed in several weeks, unless you count some sherry sauce on a bowl of ice cream.
I’m not a regular at embassy parties, but – alcohol or not – this little piece of Ireland seemed an unusually jolly place, from the welcoming doorman to the cloakroom attendant and the generous barmen. The consequence, I suspect, of being a small nation which is doing very nicely thank you, and which (unlike us) no-one hates.
By and large, though, abstinence has changed my party habits. I haven’t been the last to leave for a whole month. Instead I’ve tended to enjoy (sic?) one glass of orange juice, graze on the nibbles -- and slip away after half an hour or so, before too much temptation has been waved under my nose.
This is exactly what I did on Wednesday at the party to re-launch the Campaign for the Restitution of the Elgin Marbles (“Marbles Reunited”), and so I missed the speeches – by one of my Cambridge colleagues and by the President of the Organizing Committee for the new Acropolis Museum, which is due to open this year. (The brochure we were given made it look extremely attractive, rather more so than in this picture – though whether a glass building in sunny Athens is a good idea for visitor comfort or the environment remains to be seen.)
The event was held at the House of Commons, which is decidedly less welcoming to its citizens than the Irish Embassy is to its guests. Some of the security staff and police try their best to look friendly, but the Gulag-style body search at the entrance is as off-putting as it is humourless.
The party spirit thrived nonetheless. In fact, most surprising of all (given the sometimes bad tempered conduct of this long standing cultural squabble) was the fact that both “sides” – the British Museum and the Restitutionists -- were happily quaffing together.
Or to be strictly accurate there were at least two senior members of the British Museum staff in evidence and apparently enjoying themselves.
You might think that this was a bit like Goering turning up at Churchill's planning party for the Normandy landings. But I took it as a sign that the struggle for return was become a rather more gentlemanly and academic affair. Good news for someone like me who is a fence-sitter on this issue.
What was striking was that the Campaign felt able to invite them and that they felt able to accept. Credit all round, I thought – and perhaps especially to Neil MacGregor, the Director of the British Museum, who has tried hard to move away the yah boos, insults and the supercilious sneers about the Greeks’ unfitness to look after their cultural property (without just lying down and sending the Marbles back).
May be the next thing we can look forward to is some new information panels in the BM Parthenon gallery, on which the Restitution campaign can lay out their case to the visiting public alongside the Museum’s own.
How about it Neil?