Losing our marbles?

by Rick Johansen

It will not surprise you, dear reader, that I am not a great historian. When in Rome – and this is purely hypothetical since I have never been to Rome – find the nearest bar, rather than the nearest museum, art gallery or ancient ruin. It is a rule I have always followed. Given the opportunity to visit the Diocletian’s Palace in Split, I chose instead to watch Crystal Palace v Liverpool on a big screen, with an ice cold pint of beer for company. When in Corfu, I routinely pass up the chance to visit Prince Phillip’s birthplace of Mon Repos in order to watch planes taking off and landing from Ioannis Kapodistrias International Airport. Today, I have been learning about the Elgin Marbles.

I stumbled across an article on the website of the former Labour MP Denis MacShane which addressed the subject of the Elgin Marbles and how, in his view, they should be returned to their rightful place in Athens. I was aware that the Marbles had been removed from Greece and moved to London by someone I now know to have been Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin between 18.01 and 18.12, so just after 6.00 pm (just kidding). It is at this point that I feel I should make an embarrassing confession.

The Marbles are a collection of ancient Greek marble sculptures. I am quite probably the only person on this Earth who had assumed that the Elgin Marbles were literally Marbles, like the ones I collected at school and now enjoy watching on the popular Marbula One racing channel on YouTube. It turns out that the Elgin, or Parthenon, Marbles are nothing like the marbles I was thinking about. More’s the pity.

MacShane argues, as do many people, that it’s time the Marbles were shipped back to Athens and given that they were pilfered in the first place, I find it very hard to argue with that. I would not be terribly impressed if the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol had been discreetly taken off to, say, Spain or Buckingham Palace had been transported to Las Vegas, both without our permission. That would be pure theft. So, why do we hang on to these Marbles and what’s wrong with handing them back?

My guess is that, bar a few people with a sense of misguided history and culture about them, no one would give a toss. MacShane writes this: “The (British) museum’s chair, George Osborne, told me a couple of years ago that the marbles could go home only if it were agreed quickly in the first weeks of a new government, when all is in flux and the establishment can be sidelined.” In other words, get all the awkward stuff out of the way and in five years or so everyone will have forgotten about or wondered what the fuss was about in the first place. That’s all well and good, but I can honestly say that if the Marbles were handed back at any time, the general feeling among the Great British Public would be like, Meh.

If I really wanted to see the Elgin Marbles – and let’s not go into my years old assumption that they were somehow Scottish given I was familiar with the football team Elgin City – I’d probably be content to visit Athens to see them, particularly if that is where they are supposed to be.

Marbles? Sculptures? Whatever. If we – well, not me, but people around 300 years ago – saw fit to nick something that wasn’t theirs, then just give the buggers back. I can’t help thinking that most people have got more important things to concern us. I’ve been told many times that I’d lost my marbles. I wouldn’t mind losing these.

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