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  1. Diary
28 November 2023

Why the British Museum should return the Elgin Marbles

Also this week: a night with U2 in Sin City and the courage of Salman Rushdie.

By Sarah Baxter

I have just flown back to New York after attending a meeting of the Parthenon Project in London, which is leading the campaign to return the Parthenon Sculptures (also known as the Elgin Marbles) to Athens, in exchange for bringing Greek masterpieces on a rotating basis to the British Museum. When I first tackled the subject in a Sunday Times column in 2018 the comments were largely hostile, but the national belief in fair play has kicked in. Views on the 2,500-year-old sculptures have changed so fast that a YouGov poll in July found that 64 per cent of the British public favoured their return as part of a deal.

We haven’t heard much about developments lately from George Osborne, chairman of the British Museum, who has been crisis-managing the disappearance of 2,000 stolen artefacts, as well as launching a podcast. But an intriguing recent story in the Greek newspaper Ta Nea claimed that the prime minister of Greece, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, will be having “high-level contact” on the future of the sculptures during his upcoming visit to London, ostensibly to participate in a Greek investment conference.

Money talks

According to Ta Nea, the Greek government and British Museum are “very close to an agreement in principle that could pave the way for [the sculptures’] gradual return in 2024”. Is this over-optimistic? I know the Americans are now paying attention. I was recently in Las Vegas, addressing the annual convention of the National Hellenic Society on the case for a “win-win” deal. Osborne, who is trying to raise $1bn to modernise the museum, might find that friends across the Atlantic would be willing to help, should he do the right thing.

Viva Las Vegas

What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. The naughtiest thing I’ll admit to was shelling out for tickets to the U2 concert at the Sphere, Las Vegas’s newest landmark. My mistake was to tell my husband about all the brilliant reviews. “It’s bound to be sold out,” he said casually, so – being an incorrigible googler – I immediately checked. There were only a few seats available for a ridiculous price but by then I was hooked. Our son joined us from Los Angeles and we had a fantastic night to remember. I hear there are controversial plans for a new Sphere in Stratford, east London. Go for it, I say.

[See also: Why did Brian Cox agree to this terrible James Bond reality show?]

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Gamble on a dream

This was my second visit to Sin City but I have yet to hit the slot machines. Perhaps I should have tried my luck. I recently heard the psychologist Jonathan D Cohen discuss his new book on the lottery, For a Dollar and a Dream. The event was held at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan, where House of Speakeasy (a wonderful charity co-founded by the historian Amanda Foreman) hosts literary cabarets. Cohen suggested gambling is an important component of the American Dream; indeed the only chance for have-nots to acquire a fraction of the wealth enjoyed by those at the top. As such, it is a rational choice.

Battle of wits

Salman Rushdie was there to hear his wife, the poet Rachel Eliza Griffiths, deliver a cracking story on stage about being petrified to meet her literary heroines, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. I felt the same way about Rushdie. I had noticed him in the lobby but was too diffident to say hello, as I feared the horrendous terrorist attack he suffered last year would make him wary of strangers. Not so. To my delight, we were seated next to each other. He looked marvellous in glasses, with one lens raffishly shaded. It was brilliant to have him on our table as he knew all the answers to the culture quiz, including an obscure reference to a song by Creedence Clearwater Revival. He also told me how Norman Mailer had once punched Gore Vidal, but lost the battle of wits when Vidal responded: “As usual, words fail him.”

Front-line reporting

How brave Rushdie is. I am helping students at the Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting at Stony Brook University with a project on journalism and mental trauma, aided by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network. When we began our studies, I had no idea that reporters would be obliged to view terrifying raw footage of Hamas’s attacks on Israeli civilians – and still have to contend with a firehose of disinformation – or that Palestinian journalists would be shouldering the burden of covering the conflict for Western media organisations while trapped inside Gaza. As I write, 36 journalists and media workers have been killed in the Israel-Hamas war, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. These are frightening times, but Salman Rushdie’s courage is an example to us all.

[See also: Will more Labour frontbenchers follow Imran Hussain and resign?]

This diary was originally published on 8 November 2023.

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This article appears in the 08 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Fury

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team.
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