May I Borrow It?

The Bayeux Tapestry is coming to the British Museum in 2020 on loan from the French. It might seem to be too early to be talking about it, but two years is a blink of the eye when you consider that it hasn’t left France for 950 years. The museum in Bayeux, Northern France, where is normally hangs, is being refurbished, and rather than place it in storage, President Macron, in a magnanimous gesture has said, “Oui, vas-y! You may borrow it!” This is officially a really big deal, especially since many of the English think that it’s coming home, quoting some historians who believe it was embroidered in Kent in the first place.

The tapestry tells the story of the future William I’s (Duke of Normandy) conquest of England, culminating in the Battle of Hastings and the defeat of Harold in 1066. I heard about this art-diplomacy chess move on yesterday’s ‘Today Programme’ when, as part of the interview, the presenter asked the high brow question, “what would happen if we break it?” He was being flippant, but it’s not a bad point, even if it might have been more correct to ask: what would be happen if we tore, or ripped it. It sounds ridiculous, but stranger things have happened. If I were him, I would have followed up with the question, “and what if we don’t return it?” In that case, maybe there would be a re-run of the Battle of Hastings! One of the interviewees suggested that the English might reciprocate by putting the Rosetta Stone on the Eurostar and sending it to the Louvre for a gap year. Well, he didn’t quite put it in those words, but that was the basic gist: one for one. Something to hold by way of ransom. And to whom do these great works of art, or pieces of history belong, anyway? Over the centuries they have all been plundered and moved around the globe from place to place, between countries and empires that don’t even exist anymore. It’s staggering that the Rosetta Stone is believed to date back to 196 BC, originate from an Egyptian temple and yet has been carefully guarded in London since 1802. I very much doubt they will let it out of their sight.

Isn’t that the reason why we don’t like to lend our valuable (or even less valuable) possessions – either they might get broken, lost, or never returned? And should loans be always reciprocated? Shouldn’t we lend with an open and trusting heart? Do we need to earn trust and work our way towards borrowing the big things? I wonder how lone children learn about the art of lending, and the art of carefully hiding things away, as – for me at any rate – this was an inevitable bi-product of living alongside many siblings. Growing up in a big family it was my experience that clothes, especially, were fair game. One summer (late teens and early twenties) we three sisters and an assortment of friends were home for a few weeks. M. came downstairs looking well and ready for a night out to Kelly’s, the local nightclub. She gave a twirl, lifted a warm potato from the bowl on the dinner table, grabbed her coat and headed for the back door. “Don’t lock me out,” was her parting shot. We finished our spuds, mince and gravy in silence until my sister’s friend, A. up from Omagh for a few nights, piped up and said, in apologetic and bewildered tones, “do you know she’s wearing my dress?” No we didn’t, and neither did she. A. was an only child and could not fathom how a dress hanging over the back of a chair was there for the taking!

We can form deep emotional attachments to items – whether or not they were ours to start with – irrationally clinging, needing to protect and hold onto them. Fear of loss or damage can stop us for making anything available to borrow as we lock away the ‘stuff’ as though they were items in the British Museum. In Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, Polonius sends his son Laertes off into the world with the words of advice, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.” It’s oft quoted as a justification for not lending. The thing is, I’m sure Shakespeare wrote Polonius as a bit of a busy-body-eejit; don’t forget, he was also the character with the dubious line, “clothes make the man.” So, I’m not saying it’s easy, but forget Polonius’s pearls of wisdom and say yes to the request for a loan of something, or better still, beat them to it and offer before you are asked.

(P.S. Message for E.: Have you still got my ‘Meatloaf’ CD you ‘borrowed’ in 2003?)

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