Guardian Blog June 12 2012
They came in their Athenian finery, filing patiently into the low-lit auditorium and waiting to hear a message of hope. Its deliverer: a man who until recently was unknown to them but who is now regarded as something of a hero; a saviour of the Greek people in the face of foreign meddling and arrogance; a man who has come to their rescue in troubled times to fight for Hellenic pride.
No, restrain yourselves; it wasn't Syriza's Alexis Tsipras. The man they had come to see was one Stephen Fry, and the issue at stake was the future of the Parthenon marbles, currently held by the British Museum.
Monday night's debate at Cadogan Hall in London, organised by Intelligence Squared and entitled Send Them Back: the Parthenon marbles should be returned to Athens, was also screened live at the Acropolis Museum in Greece before a rapt audience who vigorously applauded Fry's declaration that the it would be "an act of the supremest class" for Britain to return the sculptures which have resided in London for nearly 200 years.
Conversely, there was much huffing at Labour MP Tristram Hunt's argument from the other side that "the people of Greece should have intense pride that their Parthenon marbles sit in the British Museum today." Similarly, an assertion by the historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto that "modern Greece is not a continuation of ancient Greece" did not go down well.
The Liberal Democrat MP Andrew George sounded the right notes in his appeal to Britain's "better instincts", arguing that a return of the marbles "pillaged from an occupied country" by Lord Elgin would simply be "the right thing to do".
But it was a Socrates-invoking, Byron-quoting Fry who stole the show, and with it Hellenic hearts. He wanted, he said, to see the Parthenon structures "in the blue light of Greece". For those around me, it was a winning strategy. When, at the end of the night, it was announced that the Athens audience voted 93% in favour of restitution, the only surprise was that 7% had not.
"It's an emotional issue not only a logical issue," explained one young man called Dimitris.
But are there not more important things for us to be worrying about right now? The debt crisis, political extremism, the return of the drachma, to name but a few?
Cambridge graduate Stefania Xydia, 25, put me right, explaining that, with the economic crisis having dealt a heavy blow to Greece's cultural and political pride, the debate about the marbles had become "more pertinent than ever".
"It's a matter of pride," she said. "And we have been so ridiculed and degraded that this would really help."