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

Tales of the City

Share
Related Topics

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

KS1 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Supply Teacher re...

KS2 Teaching Supply Wakefield

£140 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS2 Supply Teacher r...

Year 1/2 Teacher

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Teacher required,...

Primary Teachers Needed for Supply in Wakefield

£140 - £160 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1&2 Supply Te...

Day In a Page

Read Next
F D R and Eleanor, both facing camera, in Warm Springs, Georgia in 1938  

Where are today's Roosevelts?

Rupert Cornwell
 

Now back to the big question: what's wrong with the eurozone?

Hamish McRae
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam