IN 1983 Melina Mercouri delivered the Herbert Read Memorial Lecture at the ICA, writes Peter Thompson. As she was already Greece's Minister of Culture, and on a private visit, she did her best to steer clear of controversy. But nobody would have missed her meaning when she closed by apologising for her accent and added: 'I hear it and am reminded of what Dylan Thomas said of a British broadcaster: 'He speaks as if he had the Elgin Marbles in his mouth.' '
The then director of the British Museum, Sir David Wilson, was in the audience that night. At the reception afterwards he found himself sharing a sofa with Mercouri and manfully keeping up his end of a vigorous - and anything but uncontroversial - conversation. His gallantry, however, became ever more tight-lipped as Mercouri's campaign for the return of the Parthenon Marbles (she contemptuously rejected the term 'Elgin Marbles') gathered pace, even though she insisted her quarrel was with the British government, not the British Museum.
Melina Mercouri grew up in a household drenched with politics. Her grandfather was elected Mayor of Athens a record four times, and her father was a left-wing MP in the difficult period after the Greek civil war. Her happy marriage to the film director Jules Dassin was infused with his own radical and unwavering intellectual commitment.
By chance Mercouri was playing in a musical on Broadway when that infamous band of colonels staged their coup d'etat against Greek democracy in April 1967. From the start she was in the front line of the expatriate struggle for their overthrow, and joined the handful of those deprived of their citizenship by Brigadier Pattakos, the junta's Interior Minister. 'I was born a Greek, and I will die a Greek. Pattakos was born a Fascist and will die a Fascist,' was her riposte.
Her home in Paris became an open house for Greek political exiles, whatever their party affiliations, but the first anniversary of the coup she spent in London, addressing a rally of some 20,000 people in Trafalgar Square which will not be forgotten by anyone who was there.
So when in 1974 the colonels finally departed in ignominy, Mercouri was well set for a political career. She joined forces with Andreas Papandreou's Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok), and three years later was elected MP in the working-class port city of Piraeus. She wore her wealth with ease, was proud that her male constituents accepted her as an equal, and campaigned spectacularly both for practical neighbourhood improvement and for the advancement of women's rights in a still largely macho society.
When Pasok won the 1981 elections, Mercouri was appointed Minister of Culture, a post she uniquely retained throughout the eight years of socialist rule. What had been a marginal ministry leapt on to the front pages. Among her successes were the impetus given to cultural activity in the provinces, while she most regretted her inability to win a greater share of state budget for the arts. Above all, though, her ministry became an exciting place, buzzing with ideas and enthusiasm, and drawing on talent and energy rather than political loyalty.
Mercouri brought the same dynamism and eagerness to international cultural co-operation, particularly within the EC, where she was much helped by her friendship with Francois Mitterrand and Jack Lang. During the Greek presidency in 1983 she initiated regular meetings of the community's Culture ministers, and can also take credit for the institution of Cultural Capitals of Europe. Athens was the first such Cultural Capital in 1985.
But it was with the Parthenon Marbles campaign that her name became synonymous. And what a campaign it was. With Mercouri's glamour and sense of drama to spearhead it, and an erudite and energetic British lobby to disseminate it, the cause penetrated people's awareness so deeply that it even provided a theme for political cartoons dealing with the 1983 general election in Britain. After any number of leading articles, television documentaries, opinion polls, diplomatic demarches, and an Oxford Union debate, as well as a new book on the subject, it was still making news 10 years later.
Mercouri summed up the argument for the return of the Marbles in her closing words to the Oxford Union: 'We say: 'You have kept those sculptures for almost two centuries. You have cared for them as well as you could, for which we thank you. But now in the name of fairness and morality please give them back.' I believe such a gesture from Great Britain would ever honour your name.'
Mercouri remained loyal to Pasok through all its tribulations after the party lost the 1989 election. She had tribulations of her own, fighting a battle against cancer, but was re-elected to Parliament in 1989, and came close to being elected Mayor of Athens the following year. When Papandreou returned to power last October he re- appointed her Minister of Culture. At one of her last election rallies she told the Athenians: 'You can be sure the Parthenon Marbles will come back to their home.' She would have liked nothing better than to live to see it happen.
Peter Thompson died 24 November 1993.
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