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Archive for February, 2010

The Swiss have decided they do not want minarets in their country.

It is of course an outrage, a violation of all that progressive thinkers hold dear: diversity, equality, ethnic and cultural sensitivity, minority rights.

At least they were asked. And don’t they have a right – the right  to say what should happen on their patch? For it is their patch, isn’t it?

In that ridiculous BBC TV Question Time programme with Nick Griffin, Bonnie Greer, sibyl of fatuous utterance offered to the world as timeless profundity, reprimanded Griffin for referring to indigenous people. “There is no such thing as indigenous English,” she sneered.

Whose country is it anyway?

We are not talking about purity of blood, although there are families who can trace their line back a long way on the same patch of ground, some even who have lived in the same house for several hundred years. My brother tells me that in the villages of the Welsh Marches there are still plenty of families bearing the names of men who fell at the battle of Mortimers Cross in 1461.

There is an obvious commonsensical case for my claiming to be much more indigenous than Bonnie Greer. I have been here longer. I can point to a long line of ancestors who have lived on this patch. They have shed blood on the Somme, preached from nineteenth-century pulpits, served with Wellington, sunk in Boat Races, died in the Sudan Defence Force, given their name to pubs in South Shields, collected and classified wild grasses. I belong here in a way that she cannot, no matter how hard she tries. And belonging in that sense is important.

Like plants, we are the product of a habitat. Climate forms us, geography, language, shared memories, both near, like the tunes we danced to in our youth, and distant, like Drake and his game of bowls, Harold dying with an arrow in his eye and the Crystal Palace. Not to mention the shared past that school gave us, in the days when education worked: Julius Caesar sighting the white cliffs, Boadicea, Gregory’s angels, the murder of Becket, the revolting peasants, the wars against France, Magna Carta, Cromwell’s Commonwealth; the poets’ lines learnt by heart – scepter’d isles and winding herds, mists and mellow fruitfulness; the philosophers, novelists, artists, and scientists – Watt and Newton, Locke and Hume, Jethro Tull, Arkwright, Abraham Darby, Faraday, Dickens and George Eliot… And underlying it all the long tradition of moral questing, the endless and continuing search for the best way to live, handed down to us via the Greeks and the Romans and, above all, Christianity.

These are the influences that have shaped us, formed the institutions that we have developed to frame our lives and help us live. Not all of us, perhaps, can name or enumerate the particular components that together make up Englishness, but we are nonetheless the product of them. George, who runs the stall in the street market where I buy my fruit and veg, and I recognise each other. We belong and we know it.

We belong not just to a culture but a patch of ground. Cross 40km of sea to Calais and even the set of people’s shoulders is different. Cross the even less visible line that separates France from Italy or Greece from Turkey and again everything changes: food, clothes, driving habits, attitudes to truth-telling. Our island does have a story, as does everyone else’s.

Nowadays it is considered childish, even mawkish, to talk in such terms, at least among the educated classes. It is uncool to be stirred by a sense of loyalty to England, to be moved by the Queen’s Christmas address or the rousing strains of Elgar. Working-class Englishmen are less troubled by feeling English and asserting their Englishness; look how many white vans and domestic windowpanes now display the flag of St George – an emblem that fifty years ago only flew from church towers. But then they are also the people whose lives have been most directly touched by the arrival of huge numbers of foreign immigrants: they are the ones who saw the streets that for generations had been theirs gradually taken over by strangers whose ways were very different from their own. Did anyone ask them what they thought about this alien influx? Did any government ever consult them?

The feelings involved in ‘belonging,’ in being ‘we,’ in considering this to be our patch, are certainly tribal, certainly irrational, but they are nonetheless authentic, natural, legitimate for that. Reason has little to do with it; think of Hume’s little finger and the destruction of the world. Reason is not the source of our strongest feelings. Norman Tebbitt’s loyalty test – which side do you cheer for at a Test match? – is not as silly as its deriders try to show.

When in Rome…

How should you behave when you go and live in someone else’s country? When in Rome, ran the old adage… When I worked in Libya many years ago European women were asked to dress modestly, wear longish dresses and keep their shoulders and arms covered: in other words, respect local customs. If, when I entered your house, I made a beeline for your wife or daughters, helped myself from your fridge, sprawled uninvited on your sofa with my feet on the covers, demanded that you let me stay for three months at your expense, how would you react? At the very least, my behaviour would be regarded as extremely bad manners. Probably you would try to throw me out.

I have lived and worked in France and Greece as well. I did not expect anyone to make special allowances for my Englishness, go out of their way never to say anything that with my cultural background I might find offensive. Equally it would never have occurred to me to attempt to interfere with their way of doing things, even if I thought mine might be better. And I made sure I learnt both languages.

I would have thought it was both common sense and good manners to be discreet, try to fit in, not make demands on your hosts, be grateful for the opportunities that you are allowed and, if there are fundamentally important things that you do not like about the place, remove yourself and go back home. You are the new boy on the block; you should not expect to receive special attention.

Multi-culturalism versus assimilation

I remember hearing Anne Cryer MP lamenting in a television programme about immigration just a couple of weeks before September 11th 2001, that “assimilation” was now regarded as an outmoded model: multi-culturalism was the fashion of the day.

We live in a multi-cultural, multi-faith society, we are told ad nauseam. But what is this supposed to mean? If it is meant merely descriptively, to describe the blindingly obvious fact that lots of people of different races, from different cultural backgrounds, now live in this country, then one can scarcely object to it. If it is simply a plea to us all to live in harmony and not pick on each other for differences in colour, belief, diet etc, well again, fine. But it is not, of course: it is a prescription, a rallying cry, a policy, which  seems to mean in practical terms that anyone who wishes to live here as if he had never left home should be encouraged to do so.

And we are smug about it, proud of ourselves, for our openness and tolerance, especially in contrast to the dreadful republican French who go around banning things. I think Wole Soyinka is right: it is a kind of arrogance and it is blind, because very few Englishmen know any foreign languages any more or have any experience of living in cultures different from their own. We seem to think that there is no more to cultural difference than the chicken tikka massala or throat-singing or steel bands that so enrich our culture. That other cultures might, as a matter of course, regard women as chattels; might consider fathers or brothers honour-bound to kill sisters and daughters who so much as bid good-day to males outside the family circle; might consider anyone who does not rig an election or cheat at exams or answers truthfully when asked a question as a pitiable idiot, seems to be beyond their understanding. Indeed you are a racist and therefore not entitled to be heard at all if you so much as suggest such things. And yet anyone who has lived and worked pretty much anywhere in the world south and east of Rome and, more importantly, learnt to speak the language, knows this to be the truth. Why, when there is a vote-rigging scandal in this country, is there nearly always an Indian sub-continent name attached? Why did the University of London regard Greece and Nigeria as the greatest threats to exam security?

You do not have to pass a judgement on these practices. It is simply how people do things, in Iran, in Turkey, in Egypt, in Greece, in India. And if you do not do them also, you will never get anywhere – there. It is part of speaking the language, one might say.

But do you want to encourage people to operate in that way here, where by and large you cannot bribe the magistrate for a favourable judgement in a divorce case or buy the Biology A-level questions in advance of the exam or pay a million dollars to a couple of employees of the Inland Revenue in order to introduce a new accounting system?

The people who talk about multi-culturalism and advocate it seem to me to have little idea what they are talking about. Theirs are the muddled heads.

Sure, there is advantage to some in pursuing this line. Thousands of jobs have been created to monitor diversity and equality and ensure that our attitudes are “culturally sound,” as the mental health charity Rethink would have it. And there are immigrants who themselves have learnt very successfully to exploit this climate.

“Abroad, the emigrants threw themselves on the mercies of the civil liberties organisations. They sought the protection of the laws of the countries where the planes had brought them. They or their representatives spoke correct words about the difference between poor countries and rich, South and North. They spoke of the crime of racial discrimination and the brotherhood of man. They appealed to the ideals of the alien civilisations whose virtues they denied at home.”

These words were written thirty years ago by VS Naipaul in  Among the Believers, the book in which he described his journey through the Muslim states of Iran, Pakistan and south-east Asia. It seems rather apt to recall them in this week when Ali Dizaei, the police officer who was so quick to use the charge of racism, has been found guilty of behaviour very unbecoming of a policeman.

Indian Muslim separatism: legacy of the Raj

For thirty years Gilles Kepel, the French Arabist scholar, has been writing about Islam in Europe. In A l’Ouest d’Allah, published in 1994, he devoted a chapter to the history of the Pakistani and Bengali Muslim immigrants who established themselves in the Midlands and North of England in the 1950s and 60s. I have just re-read it in order to refresh my memory of what he has to say about the English way: multi-culturalism rather than assimilation or integration. It is really quite shocking to be reminded of the unscrupulous manner in which the self-appointed leaders of these communities, mainly people associated with the various mosques and their different rival tendencies, set about extracting from the local authorities (often only too ready to collude, generally for reasons of political expediency, i.e. Labour politicians losing their appeal for increasingly prosperous English working class voters) concessions designed explicitly to maintain the separateness of the immigrant groups – people like the Bradford Council of Mosques of Satanic Verses fame and the later Leicester Islamic Foundation. The pretext was preserving Muslim identity, children in particular, from contamination by the immoral, pornographic, materialistic etc (sic) English contemporary culture by association with English schoolmates. It makes the familiar charge that the natives excluded the immigrants rather laughable.

Kepel shows how this exclusiveness presented as a demand to be treated as a separate community was inherited from Muslim experience under the Raj post-1857 and the removal of the last Muslim Mogul ruler and imported, as it were, in the intellectual/political baggage of the first migrants, who were coming, it should not be forgotten, from a new state whose whole raison d’être was Muslim separateness and Islamic identity.

In 1966 Roy Jenkins, then Home Secretary, reassured anxious Muslims that Britain was a “pluralistic” society that valued and was enriched by its cultural diversity and was not going to require them to assimilate – the original source, I suppose, of  all those diversity monitoring forms that accompany every notice of planning application, charity membership questionnaire, Council document… If there are six of you, then you may be entitled to one twenty-fifth part of a Council post.

He rather changed his tune about the wisdom of this approach when one of the components of this rich diversity staged, in 1989, its own version of the Nazis’ 1933 burning of un-Germanic books. It is pretty difficult not to see a direct and obvious development from these “separatist” beginnings, the setting up of the Muslim Educational Trust, the proclamation of a Muslim Parliament, right through to the London Underground bombings and the terrorist risks of today. Muslim militancy has quite clearly been a factor in the equation since long before any war in Iraq or indeed long before Palestine became such a hot topic.

The author of the 1990 Muslim Manifesto told his readers that the acquisition of British nationality did not absolve them from the duty of jihad. One could be forgiven for thinking that this looked suspiciously like evidence for the existence of a fifth column. My mother was stopped by a policeman while walking across Hyde Park in wartime and taken to the police station. Why? Because the sharp-eyed copper had spotted a tiny swastika-shaped amulet on her charm bracelet!

The superior virtue of the oppressed

We hear endlessly about communities. The white community, the black community, the gay community… Suppose you are black and do not want to be part of the black community, do not think of yourself as being part of it. Suppose you come from Mali and do not want to be lumped together with the Sudanese. My mother once turned to my Greek wife who was describing the chaos that is Greek political and economic life (in 1981 – what is new?) and said, “I suppose what the country needs is a white man to run the place.” Are Greeks then not white? Are Albanians ethnic but not Slovaks? You have only to look at the way the categories on the diversity monitoring forms wander unsystematically among races and nationalities – it would seem sometimes that season might be a determining factor – to realise that the originators of these schemes have not a clue what they are doing.

Why do we go in for this nonsense? It is expensive, it is riddled with contradiction, it is clearly potentially dangerous. In fact it would be hard to think of a better way of loosening the glue of social cohesion altogether. And it is essentially anti-democratic. How can you have a proper democratic debate if the electorate will always divide along predictable lines, according to membership of definable groups which can in effect be “whipped,” rather than according to the merits of the case?

So why do we do it? I think there is a powerful element of Bertrand Russell’s Fallacy of the Superior Virtue of the Oppressed about it. All these poor disadvantaged people from backward countries whom we once so bitterly oppressed. Let us open wide our virtuous welcoming arms and make up for our past villainy and show them that really we do truly appreciate their wonderful colourful and various cultures.

It is as if we cannot bring ourselves to believe ill of our “inferiors.” We have no trouble being rude and critical about the French, but suggest – Heaven forfend – that a black person might be at fault… As happened last night: a dear friend had just lost her husband and was telling us that some of the nurses had been brusque and unhelpful and it was generally the black ones. Another friend, a kind and understanding person, immediately suggested that it was probably because black nurses had to go to a second job. And why should it not be the case that the black nurses were quite simply brusque and unhelpful? It is a complaint I remember my first wife making forty years ago when giving birth to my son in a London hospital. Different manners, different culture. Not always compatible.

In the aftermath of September 11th the Blessed Jon Snow frequently gave air time on Channel Four news to representatives of Hizb-ut-Tahrir to spout their nonsense about re-establishing a universal caliphate, presumably believing that thus he was upholding the great English tradition of balance and fair-mindedness. Since some of their co-religionists murdered a few of us on the Underground, their appearances have been less frequent, I notice.

A Muslim friend, an academic who taught for several years at SOAS and the LSE was pestered continually by these people,  trying to get him on board. Their methods, he said, were indistinguishable from the Socialist Workers of yore, bullying and threatening fellow Muslim students and attacking Jewish ones.

It is not fair, we are told, to tar the vast body of calm and law-abiding Muslims with the same brush as the extremists. Fair enough: but might it not be a good thing if they were not quite so quiet in their condemnation of the loud ones? Why are they so quiet? Is it just the response of the traditional timid villager afraid to draw attention to himself or a kind of inverted class solidarity: must not wash the dirty linen in public?

Can  villains smile?

Talk to any Pole, Ukrainian, Romanian, anyone who because of his status finds himself at the bottom of the social pile, having to rent accommodation from dodgy landlords or accept employment from dodgy employers. They will tell you many a tale of immigrants fiddling the benefits system; they are shocked at our stupidity in allowing this to happen.

Why do we refuse to recognise that some people are very much against us, not with us? That they will use the liberties that we allow for their own ends; that, as VS Naipaul said, they speak correct words and appeal to ideals that they most definitely deny in their own countries? Can we really not see that it is possible to smile and smile and yet be a villain?

I once had to pay off a Greek building worker. The man who had engaged him was a friend and I checked beforehand how much I owed this worker. When he came to receive his pay, he said that I had made a mistake and the amount was not right. I told him I had just spoken with his employer but would ask again to be sure. Would he come back the next day?

I checked again and was told his wages were the same as the others who had already been paid off: I was not to pay him a penny more. He was a man in his forties. He stood in front of me. “I who am your friend,” he said, “would I lie to you? I swear on the head of my son,” and tears ran down his cheeks! I phoned my Greek wife. “You are the Greek,” I said. “You deal with it!”

It is always easier dealing with your own villains. They speak the same language.

Our ancestors the Gauls

In France children’s first contact with history at school traditionally began, “Nos ancêtres les gaulois… Our ancestors the Gauls…” But as French teachers will tell you today, when they look out over their classes, they do not see many children who look as if they had Gauls for grandfathers.

Yet I believe this is the way to go. There must be integration. What is the point of living in someone else’s country unless you are going to try to be part of it? Why, if it is okay to protect the identities of small minorities of newcomers, is it not doubly okay to promote the identity of the English? What is more, I am sure children brought up on a full, rich diet of English history, literature and art will come to think of it as theirs. If that leaves the parents somewhat out of the picture, should not they be asked why they left their villages and came here in the first place? And what happened anyway to English working class children who received a proper education for the first time?

In Istanbul the cacophony of muezzin calls five times a day is stirring and romantic. Echoing down the valleys of the Lugg or Clun, it is rather less so.

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I have fired off letters to the Press and others about this matter over the years, with about as much effect as pissing in the wind! Now I have a blog I thought I would give my thoughts a more permanent home.

In 2003, a former Lib Dem MP, Richard Allan, who likes to have himself billed as an archaeologist – presumably because he thinks it lends credibility to his case, although we are never told what his credentials are (am I a jazz musician because I have tried to play the saxophone?) – launched yet another campaign to have the Marbles “repatriated” to Greece. I wrote him a letter, the text of which, with some additions, forms the basis of this piece.

Greek lack of generosity

But, before I begin, I would like to say that for me one of the most disappointing things about this whole dispute is the lack of generosity on the part of Greek officialdom in making such a song and dance about the presence of the Marbles in the British Museum. For one thing, it is quite clear that if the sculptures had not been removed to England they would have in effect perished by now. You have only to compare the state of blocks that were recorded in pre-Elgin casts but remained in situ with their condition as revealed in contemporary photographs to see that. I can even see from amateur photographs that I took at Easter 1958 that the arêtes on the fluting of the Parthenon were much sharper then than they are now.

Secondly, through their presence in London the Marbles have served as ambassadors for the culture of classical Greece and spurs to tourism in Greece itself on a scale far exceeding anything that could have been expected had they remained in Athens. (And there is no charge for seeing them in London, unlike Athens, where not long ago non-Greek visitors were required to pay higher admission charges for visiting the Acropolis than Greeks.)

Thirdly, Greece itself is absolutely stuffed with glorious monuments of the classical age. Can’t they find it in themselves to leave these wonderful sculptures, which have arguably been far more influential in the subsequent intellectual and artistic development of countries other than their own, where they are, in one of the world’s great international collections? For the BM’s collection is INTER-national; that is half the point of it – it is not a matter of narrow nationalist pride.

***

And now, with some additions, for what I said to Richard Allan:

Greek claims based on  narrow nationalism not reason

Greece has no better claim to the Elgin Marbles than any other modern state has to objects or artefacts once found on what is now its territory and housed, for whatever reasons, in a museum on the territory of some other state. Are we to unravel the great international museum collections for this sort of petty cultural chauvinism?

Greece’s campaign to gain possession of the Marbles is based on emotion and little else: an appeal to a narrow kind of patriotism that has made a national virility symbol of the Marbles. It is entirely in character that it should have been launched by Melina Mercouri, whose only real talent was the histrionic display of “passion.” Noble, heroic little Greece, cradle of democracy, mother of western civilisation, for ever martyred, humiliated and despoiled, by the Great Powers, Turks, British, Americans, all its ills attributable to the ksèno dhàktilo, the foreign finger. In this instance, robbed of its greatest treasure by a dastardly Englishman and an aristocrat to boot. That, basically, is how the story goes. That is the essence of the appeal. And of course it works with the “passionless” English, who can be made to feel guilty, both for their lack of passion and for their Great Power past.

Appeals of this kind may win votes, but they do not confer rights or amount to an argument.

You make a show of disinterested objectivity on your website. All we care about, you claim, is the best possible future for the Marbles themselves. But you are essentially dishonest, for you proceed to present your case in extremely tendentious terms. You claim that the Marbles somehow embody the achievement of a free democratic people: no mention of the slave economy of 5th century Athens, of the total disenfranchisement of women, of Athens’ brutal mainmise on the treasury of its allies in the Delian League, not to mention its bloody “disciplining” of its allies. “Imperial Spoils,” Christopher Hitchens calls his book with unconscious irony. Dead right!

You claim that Elgin removed the Marbles without the consent of “the Greek people” – an anachronism if ever I heard one. There was no Greek state and never had been one in 1800. So what do you mean by “the Greek people”? Would you have polled the Greeks resident for centuries in the Crimea, Bucharest, Odessa, Alexandria, for example? Would you have included the Vlachs, the Albanians, the Macedonians, the Pomaks and the other minorities systematically repressed by the modern Greek state?

You talk of Greece being under Ottoman occupation. Of course, the Ottomans ruled what we now recognise as the territory of the Greek state. But then? There was not a Greece in the fifteenth century for the Ottomans to occupy, not in the sense which you are trying to exploit.

And you put this tendentious stuff out on your website and publish what you claim are the results of opinion polls. I would bet that 95% of the people whose opinions you claim to have sounded do not know what you are talking about and could not tell an Ottoman from a penguin. Besides, it is hardly surprising in our politically  correct times that if you present the BM’s possession of the Marbles as theft and ask people who no longer have much idea of history, classical or modern, whether they approve or not, they are likely to say no, just as demands for reparation for the evils of slavery are always aimed at England, as if the slave markets – with Christian Europeans the slaves in many cases – of Turkey, north Africa, central Asia and Arabia – had never existed, never mind continued to operate long after the trade was banned wherever England’s writ ran.

Neglect of all periods of history outside the classical and lack of interest in other people’s cultures

Greece suffers from a peculiarly narrow chauvinism, in the cultural as in other domains. It prizes exclusively that part of  Greek history which precedes the death of Alexander the Great. The Byzantine and, especially, post-Byzantine periods are largely ignored and their monuments neglected. Numberless early medieval chapels in Crete and the Mani languish in varying states of decay and neglect; even the main Byzantine churches of Thessaloniki have been “devalued” (to use your tendentious expression) by the overshadowing of modern apartment blocks. Mt Athos itself has been allowed to fall into serious disrepair. The rich heritage of eighteenth and nineteenth century architecture has been almost completely destroyed in the last fifty years. Of the grand old mansions of Kastoria, Siatista and many other northern towns hardly one survives in a reasonable state. In the 1970s the National Tourism Organisation of Greece bought four of the survivors (at that time) in Kastoria and over the next ten years allowed them to fall ever further into disrepair. Practically every provincial town in the country has been architecturally desecrated and Lord knows how many interesting remains lost through the unscrupulous activities of property speculators.

There are churches and monasteries throughout the Pindos mountains which have scarcely even been catalogued. Their frescoed walls and painted ceilings have been ruined by damp and repaired any old how with raw cement and their flagged floors concreted over because it is “easier to clean”. (The politicians in Athens have never even set foot in these places.)

I suggest that the proper appreciation of this more recent history is far more important to an understanding of contemporary Greece and its place in the world of today than the exclusive focus on the grandeur of the classical period and consequent playing down of all subsequent periods. The Greek government would be performing a far greater service to the people of Greece if it were to promote the proper teaching of these periods of history rather than the thoroughly cleaned-up version of events that passes for history teaching at the moment.

As to the contents of Greece’s museums, you will not find a single item of African or Oriental art anywhere in the country, nor an Italian Renaissance painting, nor an example of English or French eighteenth-century furniture, as if Greece’s cultural horizons started and ended with its own classical period.

***

It is rather noticeable that since the coming into being of the new Acropolis Museum the terms of the argument have changed: from being about the repatriation or restitution of the Marbles to being about their re-unification.

Re-unification of the Marbles a red herring

Well, a) it is pretty clear that for most people the interest of the Marbles is the beauty of the sculpting, NOT understanding the historical context, the significance of the Panathenaic processions et cetera; and b) re-unification is a term that anyway begs rather a lot of questions in this context, as fewer than half of the original Parthenon sculptures survive in any form. Christian Greek iconoclasts destroyed a goodly chunk of what they considered pagan work in the sixth century AD and a Venetian artillery shell landing in a Turkish munitions dump blew a further large hole in the south side of the building in 1687. It is difficult to see how any “artistic unity” could be restored in these circumstances.

A lot more heat than light is generated in most discussion about the Elgin Marbles. Nadine Gordimer and the Australians (a very large Greek migrant community there of course, whose feelings about back home may well be as irresponsibly nationalistic as American Irish support for the IRA used to be) seem to think that, were it not for the bloody-minded British, the Parthenon could quite easily be restored to former glory. Hitchens seems to think that the crucial factor is the villainy of a ferocious, predatory, horse-whipping  aristocrat, who “ripped off huge chunks,” “carried them off” to his “private home”  – a bit like Grendel, perhaps? “Only his bankruptcy saved them,” to the relief, I suppose, “of all us Philhellenes.” And is not that a give-away? For what is a Philhellene if not a sentimentalist, an uncritical worshipper of an ideal vision of all things classical Greek, and an essentially Anglo-Saxon vision at that? I assume he is not thinking of the baser practices of ladhòmata, rousfètia, fakelàkia and so forth.

My late lamented friend, the painter John Craxton (see my earlier post), who like me spent half a lifetime in Greece, used that to say that the Greeks had a chip on their shoulder and it was made of Pentelic marble!

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