When George Clooney and his friends got special leave to be photographed in front of Leonardo’s Last Supper the Italian newspapers couldn’t resist pointing out that the last man to have that privilege was Silvio Berlusconi. And when he said off-the-cuff in Berlin that it would be very nice if the Parthenon frieze that Lord Elgin brought to London 200 years ago were returned to Greece, Clooney didn’t help his case by confirming his view to the press in London but calling them the ‘Pantheon’ marbles.
Hollywood stars are fair game, but Clooney’s opinion about the marbles is not a foolish one and many people agree with it. I am very familiar with the arguments on both sides, having been British ambassador in Athens for three years in the 1990s and counsellor at the embassy for two years in the 1970s, and I have never been able to make up my mind.
The campaign for the return of the marbles was brought to the boil by the actress and politician Melina Mercouri, and is widely supported in Greece. Clooney has received an open letter from the culture minister expressing the heartfelt thanks of all Greeks for what he said, and sketching out the case for bringing the marbles home (as usual weakening it by using words like ‘looted’).
Strangely enough I was never officially lobbied on the subject, but there were a couple of times when it came pretty close.
The first was when a Greek MEP came to see me with a letter addressed to John Major calling for the return of the marbles to Greece, signed by a number of MEPs. He asked me to pass it on to Number Ten. In the course of a friendly discussion about the marbles I said that I thought the letter would carry more weight if it confirmed that the non-Greek MEPs who had signed it were also calling on their own national museums to return the Parthenon marbles that they held. He said he thought it a good idea and took the letter back. I never saw it again.
The second was when I asked to see the culture minister to tell him about a festival we were planning, Britain in Greece. I got no answer from his office, so I tried again. When I got no answer the third time I put a ferret down the hole to find out what was going on. My ferret reported that the minister, who was a distinguished musician but no politician, didn’t want to see me because he knew that if he did he would have to bang on about the marbles, but he wasn’t interested and didn’t want to. I left it at that.
If I had had to defend the British Museum case I would have quoted Nikos Kazantzakis. By no means an Anglophile, he visited England just before the Second World War as a guest of the British Council. He spent a lot of time in the British Museum where he particularly admired the Assyrian sculptures, powerful but barbaric, and the Persian miniatures, exquisite but epicene. Also, of course, the Elgin marbles four-square in the centre, exemplifying the Greek ideal: μηδὲν ἄγαν, nothing in excess. ‘If Time had a home,’ he wrote, ‘and if it was itself a connoisseur prince, to love and to remember its beautiful past moments, for sure the British Museum would be that home.’