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Lord Elgin was only trying to help the Greeks

Mark Steel writes about the Parthenon Marbles in his own inimitable way – with his tongue planted very firmly in his cheek. As always though, there is a lot of truth in what he says.

Independent [1]

24 January 2002 00:45 GMT
Mark Steel: Lord Elgin was only trying to help the Greeks
‘They should retaliate by running off with the dome of St Paul’s and placing it upside down in Athens’
17 January 2002

Whenever the British reject a plea from the Greeks for the return of the Elgin Marbles, we sound like a small-town petty criminal making an excuse for being caught with a van full of stolen bacon. They will “never” be returned to Greece, it was announced this week, because we can look after them better than the Greeks. The full original statement probably went: “We haven’t nicked them or nothing, we’re just looking after them, ‘cos if they were left in Greece, they’d melt with all that sun. And olive oil brings statues out in blotches, apparently.”

This is similar to Lord Elgin’s original argument, that he was swiping the sculptures to protect them from the Ottoman Empire. Since then, we’ve given them nothing but loving care, if you exclude incidents such as the time in 1938 when someone decided they weren’t white enough, and scraped the top from almost the entire collection with wire wool. I suppose the Greeks are lucky that, in the 1970s, no one decided to paint red hats on the statues, stick fishing rods in their arms and stick them in a garden next to a pond. Or cover the whole collection in formica, pebble-dash them and hang window-boxes full of pansies from the water carriers. Or, in the 1980s, try to strip them back to the original wood.

Perhaps the Greeks should retaliate, by running off with the dome of St Paul’s and placing it upside-down in the Arndale Centre in Athens to use it as a skateboarding rink. Or hoisting away Buckingham Palace, saying: “We can’t trust them to look after it, they’ve got a drug-taker in the family.”

Another argument of the British Museum is that all museums contain works from other countries, so returning the marbles would set a precedent that would end with the Mona Lisa going back to Italy, and so on.

But the marbles weren’t just sculpted in Greece, they were the central part of the most important temple at the heart of the highest point in Athenian history. They were designed to be on the Acropolis, unless, as they were being sculpted, the artists thought: “What a shame these are ending up in the Parthenon. To appreciate their full beauty, they need to be seen in a dimly lit room just off the Tottenham Court Road.”

In truth, Pericles and the artists he commissioned would be horrified at how their work is viewed, even when it remains in Greece. I once saw an American lecturer at a building on the Acropolis telling his students that “the most important aspect of this building is where the perpendicular meets the triglyph”. Here was the centre of this extraordinary experiment in civilisation, the site of the birth of concepts such as democracy, law and culture, and all this bloke cared about was the angle of the poxy triglyph. It was just a posh version of someone watching King Lear and saying: “Ooh, what lovely costumes.”

Lord Byron and his friend Hobhouse, who witnessed the original removal of the marbles from Athens, reported that several workmen broke down and cried as they carried them on to Lord Elgin’s boat. This is difficult to appreciate in modern Britain. I suppose the equivalent would be the anguish aroused by a foreign power robbing our favourite works of art while we wept and pleaded: “Please, no, not the dogs playing snooker.”

Byron was so outraged that he scrawled graffiti on the Parthenon. Since he was a romantic poet, this must have been the classiest graffiti in history – something like “Elgin thou art an unholy slag”.

But the way this theft is normally portrayed fits in perfectly with the history of the British Empire I was taught at school, where we went around the world selflessly sorting out people’s problems, by saying things like: “Well if you’re sure you’d like to be slaves, I suppose we could spare a few boats.”

There must be a whole generation in this country that assumes we went to places like India following official invitations that read “Dear General, we are very much hoping you may be able to invade us in the next few weeks, as we are keen to learn about discipline and respect, and particularly eager to learn about the LBW law.” Until the 1940s, when enormous crowds screamed “Please, please don’t go,” as an admiral sailed away saying, “No, I’m sorry, Mr Gandhi, we have to.”

If this was America, we’d tell the Greeks we were keeping their marbles because we’ve got daisy cutters and they haven’t, so what are you going to do about it? But the British liked to dress the Empire up as an act of kindness. We stole the marbles for the good of the marbles. Or, translated into modern language, we help to bomb villages in Afghanistan for their own good. Well, they certainly don’t know how to look after themselves, do they?

Now we’ll just have to hope no one tries a similar trick on us, and raids our modern national treasure. Imagine the national grief if someone stole the Millennium Dome. Fortunately, it’s more likely that we’ll stick it on the cliffs of Dover with the keys in the door, praying someone nicks it so we can claim on the insurance.