British Writer and Actor Stephen Fry Speaks about the Return of the Elgin Marbles to the Parthenon


Britons have been flocking to their "tellie" to view good, old-fashioned civilized debate and discussion about contemporary issues, ever since the advent of Intelligence Squared in 2002. Broadcast live in large public venues, the performance halls have been packing them in to hear articulate and persuasive debates. Intelligence Squared bills itself as the "world’s premier forum for debate and intelligent discussion. Live and online. . . [Intelligence Squared] take[s] you to the heart of the issues that matter, in the company of some of the world’s sharpest minds and most exciting orators." And judging from the the cast of participants, the company has succeeded: "Stephen Fry, President Jimmy Carter, Patti Smith, Richard Dawkins, Chris Anderson, Sean Penn, Germaine Greer, Werner Herzog, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Salman Rushdie, Eric Schmidt, Richard Branson, Professor Brian Cox, Nate Silver, Umberto Eco, Martin Amis and Grayson Perry. "



Stephen Frye (Intelligence Squared and You Tube)


On or about 11 June 2012, Intelligence Squared hosted a debate about the return of the Elgin Marbles. Partnering with Vanity Fair, the group televised and later posted to the Internet this rich debate, nicely summarizing opposing views and arguments mustered in favor of and against the proposed action. Visitors can follow the English-language debate on the website of Intelligence Squared at http://www.intelligencesquared.com/?s=Parthenon+marbles .

Following the Internet airing of the debate, Videoman.gr ostensibly picked up the clip and provided Greek subtitles for Greek audiences, after which it was posted to You Tube to reach an even larger Greek-speaking viewing audience globablly.Thus far, more than 25,000 visitors have accessed and viewed the brief video. Most of the comments have been solidly positive, expressing appreciation to the eloquent efforts of Stephen Fry to sway British officials.

HCS Transcription of Fry Remarks:

(Introduction by moderator) Stephen Fry, writer, actor, broadcaster, you-name-it he’s done it all, he’s going to argue for the motion. (Applause)

I’m very disappointed—he’s a marvelous MP and a splendid man and a very fine historian—yet he used the phrase “slippery slope.” And the very fact that we want to return the friezes and the metopes of what now everyone is far too embarrassed, only recently, to call the Elgin marbles, the very fact that we want to return them to the place where they were born, does not mean that the Rosetta Stone is going to go back to Egypt.

As has already been said, the idea that a museum is some whole, perfect, finished Victorian idea of a kind of pantechnicon of all world knowledge is non-sensical. Like all things, it changes.

My proposal to you is very simple. How classy would it be if you went into the British Museum, and in the place where now you see the friezes that Elgin took, you saw a film of how they were cast—because they can be cast, unlike a painting which you can only photograph—so what you would see when you went to the British Museum, you would see a period of two hundred years in which we curated them beautifully, and then you will see the journey of these extraordinary pieces of Pentelic marble being returned to within five miles of Mt. Pentelika where the marble was quarried and where that extraordinary temple, the Parthenon, was erected to Pallas Athene, the goddess of Athens.

The reason it’s important in Athens, is because it’s all about Athens. There are 192 soldiers on the friezes because 192 soldiers died in the Battle of Marathon. And it was between the Battle of Marathon and their own defeat at the hands of the Spartans, between that period, Periclean Athens, that saw the rise of everything that our culture now depends on: philosophy, logic, Euclidean mathematics, empiricism, a refusal to take on trust anything that is told to you—Socrates died by that principle, history, algebra, astronomy, justice—the Areios Pagos, the hill up to which they went to dispense their justice, every citizen available to do it.

By no means was it a perfect society; women did not have equal rights; pederasty was rife. But, hey, I was in a public school—there’s nothing new there. (Laughter) So, the fact is, everything our enlightenment is predicated upon, Athens and around that time the enlightenment, it so happens the Ottoman Empire had completely overtaken Greece. Now the idea that it was a legitimate purchase by John Bruce, the Lord of Elgin, is like saying the American ambassador to the Netherlands went to Amsterdam when the Nazis had invaded, and did a deal with the Nazi ruler of Holland to buy Rembrandt’s “Night Watch.” And it was all signed, yes?

“Und ve are de Germans und ve own Hollands und de are under our occupation, und you can have it, it’s yours.”

And then Congress said, Yup, it’s perfectly legal. We now own the ‘Night Watch.’”

Greece was under occupation. Nine years after Elgin took those, raped those beautiful, but extraordinary pieces of history, Byron died to that cause. There are more statues of Byron in Greece than there are in Britain. And the Greeks started their War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire which they eventually won in the 1830s—in 1832 I think it was. So, we’re not talking about some simple business of an English ambassador doing a deal with a legitimate government who gave him the right to take away the stones on the temple that absolutely characterized and personified the greatest civilization the world has yet seen, the one on which ours is predicated.

And all I’m saying to you is, wouldn’t it be classy if we as Britons said, “Yes, for two hundred years , it’s true, we’ve saved it.”

If my neighbor has a fire, and I go over and say, “Well look, I’ll take the paintings a bit before they get burned. I’ll put them in my garage.”

And they come back three years later, “Can I have my paintings back?”

“Oh, no. Oh, no, you can’t have them back. They’d be burned if I hadn’t taken them.”

There’s no argument. That’s just beastliness. It’s just beastliness. And Perfidious Albion, which is the name by which Britain has been known for so long, this untrustworthy country, which still has colonial ambitions, let’s not be that anymore. Let’s be a classy country. Let’s make an exhibition in the British Museum of which Britons can be fantastically proud, which shows our curation of these extraordinary marbles, and also shows their transportation back to the magnificent new Acropolis Museum where they can be reunited, not in the same temple because that can never happen, but where within, through the glass in the blue light of Greece, a country struggling desperately under debt, we can show them that no matter how much their sovereign debt crisis means they owe us, we will never, ever, ever, be able to repay the debt that we owe Greece. Thank you. (Applause)


(Posting date 14 December 2013)

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