How can the Mona Lisa compete with a copy made from toast?

I'm in Melbourne, along with half the world's funnymen and funnywomen and a few people passing themselves off as those things. We're all being outsold, though, by a ferocious opponent, in the form of a 3,300-year-old man. He has a five-star review from Melbourne's big­gest newspaper and it's almost impossible to get a ticket. He doesn't do jokes and he's not even physically present at the show. It's hard to compete with a performer whose reputa-tion allows him to take such liberties with the paying public.

He is King Tutankhamun, and the riches of his tomb are on display in Melbourne for the first and only time before they return to their final resting place in Egypt. But I know a marketing ploy when I see one, and this sounds suspiciously like Tom Jones doing his "last ever tour" some time around 1986.

This past week I went to see my veteran - indeed, dead - rival in action. Sure enough, it took some effort to get in. The Melbourne Museum hasn't held back on the hype, describing it as "the greatest exhibition of all time": a slap in the face for the Great Exhibition, which must have thought it had something of a monopoly on the title.

The museum is chock full of Egyptian-flavoured merchandise, in case, after reverently examining the drinking-cups and immortality talismans of the boy king, your first thought is: "Well, what I need now is a pencil case." We lined up with hordes of ticket-buyers, having first posed for a complimentary photo that we could buy afterwards - very much like ancient Egypt. Then, we were let loose on the treasures of the tomb. It was the first time I've heard a teacher utter the phrase "Darren, don't bash the amulet".

The most remarkable thing about the exhibition's success is that the remains of King Tut aren't there. Though the show is cannily called "Tutankhamun", it might more accurately be called "Some Stuff We Found In a Tomb". This didn't deter anyone, but it did leave me wondering what would happen if audience members turned up to my show and found, instead of me in the flesh, a lot of my clothes and books scattered about the stage.

Still, it was quite an experience - almost enough to get me digging in my pockets for money to buy the CD of music "inspired by Egypt" in the gift shop afterwards. There's an undoubted thrill in seeing objects that not only have survived the test of time, but look so weirdly new, thanks to nobody troubling them for more than 3,000 years.

Wonder fatigue

At the same time, there is a problem with witnessing wonders these days: you've almost certainly seen them before. Faced with a mummy (or any jaw-dropping artefact, for that matter), often your first emotion is not awe but the strange sensation that it looks a lot like the mummy in that film you saw. Your first thought on seeing the Sydney Opera House ought to be, "What a privilege to clap eyes on this world landmark," but more often it's likely to be: "This looks a lot like Steve's screen-saver at work." Some things end up seeming less impressive than their replicas. When you finally make it to the Mona Lisa, you are more than likely to think: "Is that it?" Its many reproductions, tributes and appearances in pop culture mean that the real, oddly small, invisible-behind-camera-flashes thing hanging on a wall in the Louvre is a near-certain disappointment. I once saw, at Niagara Falls, a Mona Lisa homage that some patient person had made from thousands of pieces of toast, grilled to slightly different colours. How can the real Mona Lisa compete with that?

What can we do to avoid famous-sights fatigue? Should we avoid all images of such things in order to save ourselves for the original? It's easier said than done - do you know how many Eiffel Tower keyrings there are in circulation? I'm in Sydney next week; am I meant to shut my eyes each time I see an Opera House mouse mat for sale?

Perhaps it's just a matter of mental adjustment. If we're so used to processing images of spectacular sights that we become blasé about them, we need to shock ourselves into connecting with them. Next time you're face to face with the riches of Tutankhamun, or some comparable marvel, try articulating the astounding facts. Try saying, "This object was made by people more than 3,000 years ago. For most of what we understand as human history, it has not been seen by a soul. Now I am privileged to set eyes on it." In fact, if you really want the museum to yourself, try saying it out loud in a thunderous tone. That'll stop Darren from messing about with that amulet. l

Next week: Nicholas Lezard

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 25 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.