Of port and cigars, wills and paintings, aquariums and community centres

past desires, present needs
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The Independent Online
I'm told that among the many pleasant things that students of philosophy at Oxford have to do is to consider conundrums. Well, think about the following: if a kind benefactor has left enough cash to supply your college with an infinite supply of port, but your wine cellar is full to overflowing with the stuff, do you have the right to spend the money on cigars? Greed, betrayal, honour and loyalty all jostle in the mind over this one; should pragmatism triumph over principle? Ought the living be able to reassess the intentions of the dead? And does it matter?

Yes it does. This week the courts in Scotland ruled that the trustees of the Burrell Museum in Glasgow were able to set aside Sir William Burrell's express wish in his will that the 8,000 exhibits in this beautiful building should not be moved. He feared for the objects' safety, but his stricture means that the museum is denied some pounds 120,000 income from renting out its treasures. You could say that old Burrell was a curmudgeonly old berk; you could say that the original bequest could not have taken account of modern conservation practice which can ensure that the artifacts are not damaged in transit; but what you can't say is that Burrell was not clear about his wishes. So you could say that this is a breach of trust. But does progress invalidate binding commitments?

Tinkering with the past makes me nervous. Superman's dad told him early on not to interfere with human history; it would always turn out badly, and as fellow readers will confirm, it always did. Moreover, turn your back on the past and it rears up and kicks you in the behind. Across the globe, land mines lie in wait for those who think that war has ended and that the combatants' new words have obliterated the old conflicts.

Anyway a few eternal verities can help to make change bearable; we need anchors in today's rushing tidal wave of change. Manchester United can design a new strip every month and still get away with making their supporters pay large sums of money for each version because the fans know it'll always be red; they belong to a scarlet tribe, whatever the current pattern of its warpaint. New Labour keeps the left in case it feels the need to kick the dog; every Tory leader has to appease Michael Heseltine. These things make us feel that we know the contours of our country. But how should we act when the past intrudes into the present?

This week, a new extradition treaty came into force between the UK and Brazil. HMG promptly whacked in a request for the return of the escaped train robber Ronnie Biggs, who has spent most of the past three decades in the Brazilian sunshine, no doubt repenting his part in the heist and the death of the railwayman that followed it. But over the time, Biggs has become a sort of pantomime Jack-the-Lad, seen consorting with leggy young women, regretfully declining to return to London to help the Home Office with its inquiries. A school of thought has grown up that suggests that such old rogues should be left alone to die in peace; that being shut away from his friends and family is equivalent to being incarcerated; and that the police should spend their time on something that affects today's citizens. Fortunately, most people seem to have dismissed this for the sentimental tosh it is. The law against stealing others' money and assaulting them does not change with fashion.

Then there are more difficult legacies, not the property of individuals. The rainforest that covers four-fifths of Guyana is probably the most virgin (ok, so you either are or aren't a virgin, but you know how forests are) in the world, simply because the country has never had the money to develop it. Now, rich developers are promising large sums of money to the cash-strapped Guyana government if they can do some limited forestry. The government has tried to reassure the world's eco-protesters by setting aside a huge tract of land, about the size of a large English county, for ecological research. Should Guyana accept that there are hungry mouths to feed and the ancient mission to preserve the forests may now go by the wayside? Or should it insist that certain assets are so intrinsically valuable that they must be preserved as they are? In this case, pragmatism will probably win.

When you come down to it, I guess the rule has to be that you should not interfere with the wishes of the dead, but that you do have a right to change the circumstances of the living. Mr Biggs may protest, as may the eco-warriors, but at least they'll get their say. But to return to the conundrum facing the students of Oxford, does it ever make sense to buy more port? It is a very real question for those who dispense lottery money.

David Mellor (who is, in a sense, the man who willed the lottery to us) was, when I last saw him, both alive and in possession of a full set of marbles. I wonder what he would make of the struggle that is going on in East London over the funds from the Millennium Commission? Tower Hamlets Council and others have for ten years, been trying to get a "rich mix" centre off the ground, to celebrate the cultural diversity of that area, which for centuries has been the gateway for immigrants to England - Jews, Huguenots, Bangladeshis, Somalis and so forth. They have come up with a scheme that promises to entertain and educate many people for years to come. It would also be a boon to a hugely deprived area. But across the river, there is a separate proposal for an equally entertaining and educational project - an aquarium. This is backed by several prominent naturalists and media stars, and promises a new and glamorous use for lottery cash.. It seems that the aquarium has now displaced the rich mix centre in the Commission's affections.

The aquarium may have showbiz on its side, and may well make a lot of money. However it will cost the lottery ten times as much as the rich mix centre, and will not do as much to bring pride to those who live in the area. Moreover the Tower Hamlets plan is the only centre of its kind in the country, while there are already sharks swimming in a tank a few miles upriver at County Hall. Perhaps, in this case the Commission might consider that instead of buying a new supply of Havana cigars, what it needs to do is to invest in yet more port and send a case down to the poor buggers who hardly ever get a sniff of the good stuff.