Boyd Tonkin: 'Prudent people tend to hold their tongues when they're with a journalist'

Tales of the City

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For all the obvious reasons, prudent people will tend to hold their tongues when they share a table with journalists whom they don't know well enough to trust. Our reputation for screaming tittle-tattle from the rooftops has all-too-firm foundations. But what happens when a poor hack escapes to an obscure bolthole, only to find that work pursues him there? Last week I dived, as I often do, into a favourite local restaurant, a haven of cheap and wholesome Spanish grub just around the corner from home, on a scrappy north-west London street of takeaways and convenience stores. The council high-rise just across the way sees regular drug raids. On the same street stands a well-known rough-and-ready boozer with big-screen Sky Sports action. Thankfully, Groucho Club gossip and intrigue feel a million miles away.

And there, at the next table, sits an author with a high-profile children's title out in the autumn, chatting to some friends. Unprecedented. On my patch and (unbeknown to him) bending my ear as well. How did he and his patrician-sounding party ever find this hidden gem on the wrong side of the tracks? You'll come across this writer somewhere soon: BBC coverage, book signings, blanket reviews, the works. Worse, he's talking about the hot literary topic of the moment: the government's insistence that authors must pay a fee for criminal records vetting if they visit any school.

Should I, the off-duty books editor, stop my ears? I try. But professional curiosity keeps me tuning in to the news from five feet away. Deplorable, I know. Spare no pity for the involuntary eavesdropper. My sole defence is that this author once published a gossipy memoir that dropped a fair few names. I won't do the same for him. But the next time his or any other bookish group fancies garlicky mussels or aubergine with chorizo, please don't come so close to my neck of the woods.

***

Two cities, two museums, and two starkly opposed ideas of cultural values and how to present them. Last weekend, on a suitably monsoon-like summer afternoon, I savoured the mind-bending colour and design of the royal paintings from Jodhpur at the British Museum's Garden and Cosmos exhibition. These truly fabulous visions, lent by the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, have never been beyond India before. But when it comes to captions for mystically-inspired artworks that illustrate the doctrines of the Nath sect of gurus, the BM's admirable relativism about differing belief systems shoots off the scale. Visitors are informed with a straight face that the Nath holy men of two centuries ago appealed to Rajasthani rulers because of their powers (for instance) to end droughts and burn down rival cities. (Thanks to the practice of hatha yoga, they also claimed the secrets of immortality.) No giggling at the back, now. Luckily, this spellbinding art can tell its own far more credible story.

A fortnight earlier, in Athens, I visited the institution that probably wishes it could burn the BM down by force of will just now: the airy new Acropolis Museum. In the circular row over the fate of Elgin/Par- thenon Marbles, the BM claims its Greek antagonists portray the temple and its sculptures as a purely local achievement rather than rela-ting it to the art of Egypt, Persia or Assyria. That's largely true: in Athens, few multicultural comparisons dim the glory that was Greece.

Yet this is a beautiful and satisfying space, full of light and grace, with the missing sections of sculpture hauntingly represented by plaster casts next to the real thing as the Parthenon itself looms beyond the vast windows of the top-floor gallery. For the moment, entry costs a single euro and the shady terrace café serves the best-value snacks and drinks in town.

My solution to the stand-off between London and Athens would, I hope, tickle the Sophists who used to ply their logic-chopping trade in the ancient Agora nearby. The authorities in Bloomsbury should cede their claims to ownership and repatriate the marbles. But the Acropolis Museum's Parthenon gallery would in turn become Room 18 of the British Museum – with, if required, a culturally diverse display to gladden Neil MacGregor's heart. So Lord Elgin's loot would simultaneously be back in Greece for keeps, and still on display in the BM. The Sophists had a bad press, but I kind of like their style.



John Walsh is away

To read more columns by John Walsh, go to independent.co.uk/walsh

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