We have them to thank for the Olympic Games too, and the next Olympiad of the modern age will of course be held in London in 2012, and very excited and pleased about that I am. Excited and pleased because I love sport and always and automatically want to line up on the opposite side of cynics, curmudgeons, wet-blankets, pessimists, and (literally in this case) spoilsports.
I am also excited and pleased because the occasion — the largest regular gathering human beings on the face of the planet — offers…
A) a remarkable opportunity to appease the dead spirit of the great Hitchens
B) to make up to some small degree for our recent devastating and pathetic humiliation in Europe
C) to redress a great wrong and
D) to express our solidarity with, affection for and belief in Greece and the ideals it gave us.
The Hellenic Republic today is in heart-rending turmoil, a humiliating sovereign debt crisis has brought Greece to the brink of absolute ruin. This proud, beautiful nation for which Byron laid down his life is in a condition much like the one for which he mourned when they were under the Ottoman yoke in the early nineteenth century, taking time off from the comic ironic tones of his ottava rima masterpiece Don Juan to insert this mournful threnody….
The isles of Greece, the isles of Greece!
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace,
Where Delos rose, and Phoebus sprung!
Eternal summer gilds them yet,
But all, except their sun, is set…
And where are they? And where art thou?
My country? On thy voiceless shore
The heroic lay is tuneless now—
The heroic bosom beats no more!
And must thy lyre, so long divine,
Degenerate into hands like mine?
‘Tis something, in the dearth of fame,
Though linked among a fettered race,
To feel at least a patriot’s shame,
Even as I sing, suffuse my face;
For what is left the poet here?
For Greeks a blush–for Greece a tear….
Two years ago a new and beautiful Acropolis museum was completed, allowing visitors a much more intelligent enlightening, captivating and informative journey through the history and meaning of the Acropolis than the rather rocky hillside rambles of the past.
A year earlier, in 2008, the Italian and Greek Presidents had taken part in a ceremony in which a fragment of marble sculpture taken from Greece and left in Italy 200 years earlier was returned to Athens. This small fragment had been taken by the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin.
The greater part of the haul was taken to England where they have been housed in the British Museum in London since 1816 under the now highly charged name of the Elgin Marbles. Even at the time plenty of Britons thought the Ottoman Empire’s granting permission to take so many elements of the Parthenon (and the stunning Erectheum, the temple with its famous caryatids further down the hill) away from their home and into London was little short of looting.
What has all this to do with Christopher Hitchens, polemicist, shamer of Clinton, Kissinger and Mother Teresa, champion of Orwell and Payne, scourge of tele-evangelists and mountebanks everywhere? Well, in 1997 Hitchens wrote a book called The Parthenon Marbles, the Case for Reunification. In it he lays out how, inspired by reading Colin MacInnes (of Absolute Beginners fame) on the subject, he threw himself into finding out more about the marbles and came to what he saw a frankly irrefutable case for their return.
It was, as the author Simon Raven pointed out, the Greeks who maintained that anyone who tells you what happens to a person after they die is either a fool or a liar. The speculation over Hitchens’s soul’s fate has been as disgusting and degrading as the age of indulgences, sold pardons and chantry chapels, but comes as no surprise to anyone. His legacy however, his doctrine of decency, his war on bullies, tyrants, liars and frauds, now that can be honoured and it can be called, if you wanted to do so, his imperishable soul.