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I got incensed by Jack Straw’s interview with the Today programme’s Sara Montague this morning and fired off the following letter.

Dear Sara,

I caught the back end of your interview with Jack Straw about Cyprus and Turkish EU membership this morning.

Straw does not understand the Greek position (neither Greek Greek nor Greek  Cypriot). How could he? He does not know that part of the world, does not speak the languages and has a very Anglo-centric view of things.

I would just like to get a few things off my chest about this whole issue.

First, you have to understand that, while “modern” Greece is territorially and in many other ways insignificant, Greek influence, that is, the influence of what today’s Greeks call Hellenism, was the decisive cultural influence in the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea from classical times until the Ottoman capture of Constantinople in 1453 and in many important ways continued so until the First World War and, in the case of Alexandria, even the Second World War. The first Greek colony in the Black Sea, near modern Constanta, was founded in 600BC; my Greek ex-wife’s mother, still alive, was born in Constanta in the 1920s – i.e. they were still there! And they were Christians, of course.

The Muslim Turks overran what had been their patch for already 2000 years and oppressed and humiliated them continuously, even though they continued to play a crucial role in the economy and administration of the Ottoman Empire. The Turks were nomadic warriors in culture and looked down their noses at trade, industry and civil service. The whole of the Asia Minor littoral is packed with mementoes of both the ancient and Byzantine Greek presence, as is the National Archaeological museum in Ankara. Any idiot can see that this stuff is Greek, yet the Turks refer to it as one of the Ancient Anatolian Civilisations; they cannot bring themselves to utter the word Greek, when in effect the entire history of what is now Turkey was Greek until 1450. And the basis of Turkish oppression was essentially religious: the Greeks, like the peoples of the Balkans whom they also ruled and oppressed for the same five centuries, were Christians and oppressed for this reason.

In the Russian campaigns around the Danube in the mid-19th century in the run-up to the Crimean war, the Sultan roused his troops to battle fury by calling for jihad.

Of course religion is an issue in this whole business. The Turks are Muslims. The Christian Greeks, Serbs, Croatians, Romanians, Bulgarians, lived under oppressive Muslim rule for a very long time and had their noses rubbed in it continuously. Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, only became part of Greece in 1913. These hurts are recent, within living memory even. Even in my lifetime (and I have been in and out of Greece since 1958; I speak Greek and Turkish), elderly Greek peasants would greet you with the words, “Good day, Christian.”

The post-WWI settlement dealt with most of the territorial question as far as Turkey and Greece were concerned, with the forced exchange of populations etc. Cyprus was not dealt with because it had been ceded to England in a special deal with the Sultan in 1870. The final Cyprus settlement came with independence in 1960 with a constitution that shared power between the Greeks and the minority Turkish population, a solution that was probably doomed from the start and would never have been agreed if Cyprus had not been in effect a British colony, for the simple and important reason that Cyprus is, was, and always had been a Greek island in the only sense that matters. The whole of the Greek world feels that, knows that. Yes, there were Turks living there but they were the conqueror, newcomers. Pretending that the Turks have any claim on Cyprus is like telling the Irish that really Ireland is English and Protestant because the English ruled it for a long time.

No one mentions it any more, but in this post-WWI settlement Turkey kept the islands of Imbros and Tenedos, both of them as Greek as could be (had been from Homer’s time). And what happened to the Greek population that remained on them? (And what, I wonder, does Straw have to say about our insistence on hanging on to the Falklands?)

Turkey is not the wronged party. It has continued to violate Greek air space and engage in other provocative acts for decades. And, of course, in 1974 it invaded Cyprus, doing yet again exactly what Greeks had come to expect Turkey to do: use violence against them.

Straw simply does not understand the underlying strength of feeling about Turkey. One might wish it were not the case, but it is  – and with more than a little justification.

And then there is the question of what sort of a beast contemporary Turkey itself is. I have some sympathy for Turkey. There is undoubtedly a large population, especially urban and young, who in appearance, manners and aspiration are indistinguishable from the youngsters of Europe. At the same time there is clearly a powerful resurgence of Muslim feeling. Even in Istanbul, especially in certain boroughs, you see thousands of black-veiled women – something you did not see forty or fifty years ago. It is true that you also see young women very colourfully and fashionably veiled but sporting a glimpse of belly button and smoking narghiles and cigarettes in public tea houses. There are those that say, quite probably rightly, that agreeing to cover up is a small price to pay for having dad let you out on the town where you can meet the boyfriend, light up and all the rest of it. Contemporary Turkey is a difficult place to read for an outsider. But there are plenty of modern, open-minded, free-thinking Turks who are very suspicious of the Erdogan government and its long-term intentions where religion is concerned.

Straw concluded his interview by saying that Turkey was a growing economic and industrial power and we would ignore it at our cost. Straw has obviously spent most of his life in ministerial cars and in others ways removed from life on the street. Antalya, Istanbul, Izmir, may look modern and emerging. Has he been to Van, Erzurum, Kayseri, Kars? Or the semi-troglodytic villages of the remote hinterland?

Being a journalist and expressing controversial views is still a dangerous business in Turkey, not to mention belonging to a non-mainstream Sunni branch of Islam. Corruption is rife, I don’t mean on the English or French scale, but on the Greek scale: in fact, it is the system, the way of life. Transactions of all kinds go through on the basis of who you know and what you pay. Much of Turkish life, and not just commercial activities, is controlled by a handful of family oligarchies.

Germany has a large immigrant Turkish population, whose differentness (there are always tales of honour killings) already causes problems. How sensible would it be to extend the free movement of labour arrangements of the EU to 70-odd million Turks, many of them ill-educated, poor…and Muslim?

I have sympathy for the Turks. Like us, they are an ancient imperial power fallen on hard times and having a hard time finding a new furrow to plough. I think they are in many ways a far fitter partner for the EU than the Arab neighbours whom they once ruled and rather despise, but… And it is a very big BUT. The EU is not a charity. It needs to strengthen its identity, not dilute it further. But Jack Straw, I suppose, is a Free Trader, a commerçant in the classic English manner: what is in it for us, how much richer are we going to  be? We don’t want any truck with those windy foreign abstractions: union, identity? Bah, humbug!

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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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