As it happens the British Prime Minister’s office and the Department of Culture , Media and Sport are, even as we speak, planning a ‘Great’ campaign in which they wish to show the world what is Great about Britain (in fact the Great is really of course is a geopolitical term, as in Greater Manchester, not a profession of superiority, but never mind). I am patriotic I think. I fact I know I am. And like most people who truly love their country, I don’t think it perfect but want it always to strive to be better, nobler, kinder, smarter. I want to be proud of it. Some will see the ‘Great’ campaign as a Ladybird Book version of Blair’s embarrassing Cool Britannia ‘initiative’ back in the 90s. A step back to a heritage museum Britain where we’re all the best of (Julian) Fellowes and grandeur parallels diversity, tolerance and innovation. I wish them well and offer this thought:
What greater gesture could be made to Greece in its time of appalling financial distress? An act of friendship, atonement and an expression of faith in the future of the cradle of democracy would be so, well just so damned classy. The City of London whose “interests” Cameron wishes to protect, but which independent observers say is now if anything less secure in its hegemony than ever before, has buildings in which people sit all day betting “against” Greece, or “taking positions” as they would rather put it. In other words they get home from the office happy in the thought that their transactions have hurled another thunderbolt into the land of Homer and Plato, Themistocles and Pindar. May they rot.
There is much talk of “repatriating powers” from Europe amongst Eurosceptic and even middle-of-the-road politicians. To repatriate a power takes treaties, rows, enmities, alliances and betrayals. To repatriate a collection of stolen marbles take good will, moral courage and a decisive belief that right can be done. Oh, and I suppose a Hercules transport aircraft or large ship. Rope, voiding, bungees, castors. That kind of thing. Bean-shaped foam too I shouldn’t wonder.
How can we British be proud until we sit down with Greek politicians and arrange for the return of their treasure? It would be a dignified, but a thrilling celebration. No need for head-hanging apology or anything silly, just a recognition that the time is now right. Remember that dipping of the head, that bow, made by the Queen to the fallen of Ireland on her last visit there? Symbols mean a great deal. If the Hulture Secretary, Jeremy … oh, you know who I mean … or the Prime Minister or his Desperate Deputy did have the grace and guts to make this gesture, perhaps at the opening of London 2012 and then following it up in Athens with a full reinstallation it will achieve many things: it might remind us of what we all owe Greece, it might encourage us to visit the country and spend a little tourist money on its ferries, islands, temples, attractions and dazzling beauty: those blue seas, the warmly hospitable people, the theatres, temples, statue, beaches and bottles of resinated Domestika.
Such a fine gesture might also help make the rest of Europe decide we are not always the perfidious Albion they have traditionally believed us to be. I believe we would gain far more than we lost. A simulacrum in plaster or resin could hang in the BM where the real ones now do and an series of photographs could display the process of the return and the history behind it.
I certainly wouldn’t rename them the Hitchens Marbles, Christopher would bridle and writhe at such a thought, but those who wanted to, might discover the part he played in this long struggle and know that he wasn’t all about trashing icons, vilifying statesmen or taunting faith-healers. He once defined an educated person as one who knows the limits of their knowledge. His own self-professed philhellenism stemmed as much from the great gift Greek civilisation had given him and has given all of us– the confidence to doubt, to reason and openly to question. To know how little we know. To be curious about ourselves.