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Parthenon Sculptures

Marmoreal manœuvres

My spirit is too weak—mortality
Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
And each imagined pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship tells me I must die
Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.
Yet ’tis a gentle luxury to weep
That I have not the cloudy winds to keep
Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye.
Such dim-conceived glories of the brain
Bring round the heart an undescribable feud;
So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,
That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old time—with a billowy main—
A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.

(‘On Seeing the Elgin Marbles’ – John Keats)

In March 1817, soon after the Elgin Marbles first went on display in the British Museum, John Keats went to see them with his friend, the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon. Within a week, Keats had written his poem, ‘On Seeing the Elgin Marbles’, and had it published in The Examiner. Ancient Greece was for Keats, and for many other poets and artists, a touchstone, albeit an anxiety-producing touchstone.

It’s difficult, at a distance of two hundred years, to understand the impact these carvings had on the English imagination at the time. When Parliament passed the motion approving the purchase, on behalf of the nation, of the marbles from Lord Elgin the year before, a leader in The Times expressed the cultural jubilation:

Those invaluable relics of the most splendid era of Greek genius will soon, we trust, be secured to the only nation that has ever rivalled Greece in eloquence and poetry — the only nation whose policy has corresponded with the picture drawn by PERICLES, and has been animated by the sentiments of DEMOSTHENES. Whether we can boast any painter equal to ZEUXIS or APELLES, there are now no means of ascertaining; but we have before us the remains of the school of PHIDIAS, and we need not hesitate to say that they leave English sculpture far behind. The stimulus which they have already given to our artists to emulate their excellence, affords the best presage of that improvement to which they will undoubtedly lead. We do not, therefore, hesitate to say that their price should be no object in comparison with the benefits to be derived from them. Add to this the just pride that we shall feel in possessing the most precious collection in existence, when these are united to the PHIGALIAN and TOWNLEY marbles. If the French could boast of the plunder collected in the Louvre, much greater reason have we to rejoice in having rescued from destruction the ornaments of the Parthenon! We have thus stepped in between barbarism and its prey, and we have saved the arts from a loss which could never have been repaired.

There is a lot of imperial swagger in that excerpt, but there is also a genuine sense that Britain is safeguarding the heritage of European civilization. Even so, there were dissenting voices, most notably, that of Lord Byron. The mad, bad poet shared the English adulation of Ancient Greece, but unlike many of his compatriots, his philhellenism extended to the modern-day ancestors of Homer and Pericles. A staunch supporter of Greek independence, Byron was furious about Elgin’s export of the Parthenon marbles.

Parthenon Sculptures

In his long poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Byron lamented what he saw as British cultural vandalism:

Cold is the heart, fair Greece! that looks on thee,
Nor feels as lovers o’er the dust they loved;
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatched thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorr’d!

I went to see the Parthenon Sculptures (that seems to be the official name now) again recently, a periodic pilgrimage when I’m in a Keatsian mood. By coincidence the BBC reported a few days later that ’an agreement to return the Parthenon Sculptures – better known in the UK as the Elgin Marbles – is at “an advanced stage”, according to a Greek newspaper’. I wonder if that will be the last time I see them in London? Probably not — these deals take years to implement, even after they’re agreed.

One thing I noticed about the coverage of the putative agreement and the reaction to it is a consensus that Lord Elgin ‘stole’ the marbles and/or that his actions were somehow ‘illegal’. Neither assertion is true, but that hardly matters in the current cultural moment. Elgin was a man of his time and certainly wasn’t acting out of pure altruism, but he was driven by a desire to preserve a European heritage that was being gradually destroyed under Turkish rule (Greece at this time was a province of the Ottoman Empire).

Parthenon Sculptures

As Mary Beard has pointed out:

In Elgin’s day…the Parthenon stood in the middle of the small village-cum-garrison base that then occupied the hill. It was encroached upon by houses and gardens, and by all kinds of Byzantine, medieval and Renaissance remains. It is quite wrong to imagine Elgin removing works of art from the equivalent of a modern archaeological site – it was more of a seedy shanty town.

Over the centuries, the Parthenon has suffered natural decay and intentional destruction. In 1687, a Venetian missile caused severe damage when it ignited a gunpowder store the Ottomans had located inside the building. When there wasn’t a war on, local people carted off stone to recycle into new housing and tourist guides encourage visitors to chip off bits of sculpture as souvenirs. Even after Greece’s independence in 1832, successive Greek governments neglected the Parthenon for more than a century, until 1975.

The recasting of English, French and German collectors, scholars and archaeologists as villains is a sign of our times. The men who began the discovery and preservation of ancient monuments and artefacts, at great expense and in conditions of great hardship, are dismissed as being solely in it for the money. That’s not to say that swindling and theft didn’t occur. No doubt, most of them had mixed motives, but no more so than the rabble-rousing politicians whose calls for ‘decolonization’ of Western museums are usually an attempt to divert attention from their own incompetence and venality.

Let’s not forget too, that the Parthenon itself was the product of an imperial slave-owning power: classical Athens. The Mary Beard essay I’ve quoted from was written in 2011 and gives a balanced view of the arguments, without coming down on one side or the other. Personally, I worry that the endgame of the ‘decolonize the museums’ crowd is the emptying out of the museums of Europe, leaving behind only that produced by the majority group indigenous to the particular country. Call it a form of leftist ethnonationalism.

Parthenon Sculptures

The Parthenon can never be fully restored, never be made pristine again. Too much has been lost and destroyed. Last year, the Greek Ministry of Culture published a digital reproduction of the sculptures, based on the remains held in several European museums, combined with drawings made before further destruction occurred. It’s probably the closest we’ll ever get to a full restoration.

I can understand why the Greeks want the Parthenon Sculptures to go back to Athens. And I think, despite my misgivings and mainly for romantic reasons, it’s time they did. I think too it’s what John Keats would have wanted.


Ironbridge blues

It’s very difficult for historical sites, especially in the English-speaking world, to resist Disneyfication. Ironbridge Gorge is no exception. The visitor website proclaims ‘Ironbridge: Valley of Invention’ and displays video of smiling, happy families walking through clean, well-preserved streets, inspecting clean, well-preserved buildings. The only potentially jarring encounter, that of being cornered by actors in historical character, is endurable. But I don’t want to knock it too much. The Trust that manages what is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site needs all the money it can get to maintain ten separate museum sites spread over five square kilometres.

Historians may dispute whether Ironbridge Gorge is the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, but it has as good a claim as anywhere. Here in 1709, in this valley of the River Severn, an ironmaster named Abraham Darby was the first to produce iron form a blast furnace fuelled by coke rather than charcoal. Darby’s works at Coalbrookdale is part of the World Heritage Site. The process that Darby perfected was crucial because the switch from charcoal — a product of increasingly scare timber — to coke — made form plentiful coal — was essential to secure future domestic iron production.

Museum of the Gorge Ironbridge

Ironbridge Gorge quickly became Britain’s largest centre of iron production and iron crafts. A slightly later ironmaster named John Wilkinson became known as ‘Iron-mad Wilkinson’, and had his works across the river from Ironbridge village at Broseley. Wilkinson was so enamoured of his product that he left instructions he was to be buried in a cast-iron coffin.

But the most famous monument of the early Industrial Age is the Iron Bridge itself, the first large bridge in the world made of cast iron. It was designed by a Shrewsbury architect named Thomas Farnolls Pritchard and built with iron cast at the Coalbrookdale works, then managed by Darby’s son, also named Abraham Darby. The bridge opened in 1781 and was immediately greeted as one of the wonders of the modern world.

Tontine Hotel Ironbridge

There is something poignant, from a distance of more than two hundred years, about the optimistic faith in industry and progress exemplified by men like Darby, Wilkinson, and Pritchard. They believed they were improving the world and creating prosperity — and so they were. It wasn’t until the super-charged mass manufacturing of the nineteenth century that reformers began to question the optimistic view of industry and material progress.

Britain is now essentially a post-industrial island. Though pockets of manufacturing remain, the once workshop of the world is now the heritage capital of the world. The free-market liberals will say this doesn’t matter and that offshoring manufacturing frees up capital for higher-value knowledge industries. I’m generally sympathetic to the free market and perhaps the liberals will be proved right in the long run. But we seem to have become an island whose economy is fuelled primarily by financial services, fast food outlets, and public sector behemoths like the NHS.

Ironbridge Gorge

There was an interesting video on the FT website recently about the ongoing Brexit debacle (full disclosure: I voted Leave, for reasons which I may cover in another post one day). It contains interviews with British business people, all testifying as to how difficult the post-Brexit rules have made trading with the EU. But what struck me as much as anything was the interview with a couple who run a jewellery business. They design the products in the UK and then have them made in Thailand and Hong Kong. I was surprised, not to say staggered, that even an artisanal — and presumably high-value, low-volume — business doesn’t actually make a thing in the UK.

Several newspapers reported recently that based on current trends, the average UK family will be worse off than the average Slovenian family by 2025 and the average Polish family by 2030. Now I know that these kinds of forecasts are usually wrong, but it’s certainly another example of the current climate of decline. The UK seems to be blocked in every direction, hamstrung by a sclerotic planning system and an incompetent political class. If a present-day Darby or Wilkinson tried to build an innovative manufacturing plant anywhere in Britain he’d almost certainly be blocked by the NIMBYs and the local politicians. Still, we’ll always have Ironbridge.

Rowden Farm


I’m not old enough to remember the Great Train Robbery of 1963, but I am old enough to remember the time when the Sex Pistols recorded a couple of songs with Ronnie Biggs, by then the most famous of the robbers. These were the post-Lydon, post-Vicious Pistols. The once-seminal band was now little more than a novelty act, a status confirmed by the collaboration with Biggs. The Pistols liked to see themselves as outlaws and Biggs was a genuine outlaw. It was a match made, not in heaven, but in the mind of Malcolm McLaren, the Pistols manager and a genius of outrage marketing.

The performances, if you can call them that, appeared in Julian Temple’s film The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, a film that signified that as far as the McLaren and the Sex Pistols were concerned, the game was up.All that remained was to make as much money as possible before the whole thing imploded. Ronnie Biggs was by this time (1980), the most notorious of the Great Train Robbers and the Pistols were the most notorious rock band. The hook-up was, as McLaren knew, publicity dynamite.

But rewind almost thirty years to the original heist and Biggs was a bit-part player, recruited to the gang only because he happened to know a train driver who’d be able to shift the hijacked train along the track. It was Biggs’ daring escape from Wandsworth Prison in July 1965 (almost all the gang had been rounded up and convicted by this point) that made him really famous. He became a staple character of the tabloid newspapers as he scarpered overseas to live in exotic places like Australia (you may laugh, but in the 1960s, Australia was exotic to most British people) and Brazil.

Sears Crossing
Sears Crossing

The hunt for Ronnie Biggs became something of a national sporting contest: the dour, plodding operatives of Scotland Yard in pursuit of the crafty, lovable rogue. But by the time that Biggs was finally tracked down in Rio de Janeiro in 1974, he’d blown his share of the takings — £147,000, almost £3 million in today’s money — on travel, plastic surgery, and legal fees. So he decided to consort with the media rather than go to ground again. He needed all the money that the newspaper exclusives, and eventually Malcolm McLaren, could supply.

There is a strain of admiration for robbers in British culture that goes back to Robin Hood, via Dick Turpin, AJ Raffles, and others. But whereas Hood was a medieval social democrat, redistributing from the rich to the poor, Turpin and Raffles, though perfect gentlemen, were in it strictly for themselves. Nobody would call the Great Train Robbers gentlemen. But it was the 1960s, and permissiveness extended to crime as well as sex and art. The Krays got themselves photographed by David Bailey and John Bindon partied (and possibly more) with Princess Margaret on Mustique. The Great Train Robbers rode that zeitgeist. They may have been villains but they really stuck it to the system. After all, weren’t the ruling class robbing people every day anyway? Theirs was victim-less crime — apart from Jack Mills, the train’s driver, who was beaten with an iron bar and never fully recovered.

Bridego Bridge
Bridego Bridge

The landmarks of the robbery are in Buckinghamshire. At Sears Crossing, the gang stopped the Glasgow-to-London mail train by tampering with the signal and changing it to red. At Bridego Bridge, a little way down the tracks, they unloaded the money, £2.6 million in all, and took it to a nearby farm where they had cars and vans waiting. Sears Crossing and Bridego Bridge (now called Mentmore Bridge) aren’t exactly tourist attractions, but if you visit the cafe at Rowden Farm, just up the road from Mentmore Bridge , you can see a little wall display of photographs and documents. It’s as quaint a display as a corner of a tea shop given over to mementoes of, say, Jane Austin or Admiral Nelson.

Aylesbury Proclamation


As with most Britons alive today, there hasn’t been a change of the UK’s Sovereign in my lifetime. Not any more. I don’t follow that branch of the entertainment industry known as ‘The Royals’ and I have no particular affection for its various actors. Most of them strike me as charmless or gormless or both. But I think the system of constitutional monarchy has served this country well, all things considered. I like it that we have a head of state in the UK who’s independent of political parties, lobby groups, and financial donations. The monarch unites the nation in a way no elected president ever could.

The Crown is not just a symbol of the nation in unity, but of continuity, stability and tradition. A symbol, in other words, of the simple things, the understandable things, the relatable things. The things that radicals, progressives, and leftists sneer at and want to abolish, along with the monarchy itself.

Aylesbury Proclamation

I went to my local market square to see the Proclamation of the new Sovereign. It’s a ceremony that’s been held in towns and cities all over the United Kingdom in recent days, and it’s just the kind of event that republicans love to mock as outdated and comic. It’s all a bit of a joke, a bit Gilbert & Sullivan, a bit cringe, actually. Other countries don’t have this nonsense, they’ll say, as if being the same as other countries is an end in itself.

Of course, most of us there didn’t think it was cringe. We gave three cheers for the new king and sang the national anthem. This being the county town of Buckinghamshire, there were mayors from all over the county who came to take copies of the proclamation back to be read to their own citizens. Just as happened in 1952, when Elizabeth II became queen, and just as happened before with preceding monarchs. This kind of ceremony may be archaic and faintly daft, but I found it comforting and moving.

Metaphysical monarchists will tell you that the Crown and the person who wears it should not be conflated. Still, it seems that the monarchy’s popularity since 1952 has, with a few wobbles, been due to the personal qualities of Elizabeth II. She became queen when she was just twenty-five and effectively began with a clean slate. Charles III is seventy-three and begins with several slates’ worth of incidents which cast him a poor light.

Aylesbury Proclamation

The Royal aides have been trying to manage the mainstream media for decades now, with mixed results. They haven’t a hope in hell of managing social media. The ongoing William/Kate vs Harry/Megan conflict might simply have kept the tabloids and gossip columns fuelled with endless copy thirty years ago. Now it’s become another front in the culture wars.

Yes, I know — it’s the Crown, not the person. But in the social media age the personal qualities of the monarch are scrutinized as never before. I do wonder whether Charles or his successor (who can’t be that far off) will be the last of the line, especially given almost everybody under age of forty seems to think socialism is the answer to everything.

But those republicans who want an elected president as our head of state — so much more modern, so much more egalitarian — should be careful what they wish for. It could as easily turn out to be a Trump or an Erdogan (or a Corbyn, God help us) as an Obama or a Macron.

Forty-five years, ago, Anthony Lewis, a columnist for the New York Times, writing about the Silver Jubilee, compared the queen with the prime ministers who’d served under her:

Success is the real difference. Whatever it means to be a successful queen, Elizabeth is that. Her system visibly works. The ceremony glitters, a simple speech brings tears to the eyes. And so much else in Britain, political and economic, does not work.

Plus ça change…