Issue 137: 2018 01 18: Diplomatic Gifts

18 January 2018

Diplomatic Gifts

And cultural exports.

By Neil Tidmarsh

Diplomatic gifts and cultural exports have been much in the news recently.  Anglo-French entente is about to be strengthened by the loan of the Bayeux tapestry; Middle Eastern tensions were underlined this week by the banning of a Hollywood movie; and apparently World Peace now depends on… a girl band from North Korea.

President Macron is expected to announce that France will lend the Bayeaux Tapestry to Britain, when he meets Prime Minister Theresa May at Sandhurst Military Academy today (Thursday 18 January).  This magnificent gesture should do much to launch the new high level of co-operation between the two countries which will be necessary post-Brexit.  The Tapestry (in reality not a tapestry but an embroidery) has never been allowed out of France before, in spite of numerous requests – this artefact, nearly 1000 years old, is simply too fragile to be moved for any but the most important purposes.  As a gift-horse, it outpaces even the French Republican Guards’ fine eight year old gelding Vésuve de Brekka which M Macron presented, along with its antique saddle and an engraved sabre, to President Xi on a state visit to China earlier this month.  Churlish Brits would be wise not to look it in the mouth (no “Is he trying to remind us that the most important event in our history is the defeat of Anglo-Saxon speakers by French-speaking invaders?” please, and no “It’s ours, anyway, it was made in Britain, so let’s keep it once it gets here; give us back our Marbles, no, I mean, our Embroideries!”).  Instead, we’d do better to remind ourselves of another piece of Anglo-French co-operation involving the Tapestry: in 1944, Hitler instructed Heinrich Himmler to remove it to Berlin, but luckily Bletchley Park got wind of the plan just in time and informed the French Resistance who managed to spirit it away only 48 hours before German soldiers arrived to commandeer it.

Diplomatic gifts aren’t always so overwhelming, of course.  M Macron’s predecessor President Hollande was given a camel by Mali as a ‘thank you’ to French forces for driving Islamist militants out of the country, but transportation problems and questions about the northern European climate resulted in the camel being left in Timbuktu, where it was slaughtered and eaten soon after by its handlers.  President Putin was delighted by the gift of Yume the Akita puppy from Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe in 2012, but he had to turn down another Akita which Japan wanted to give him four years later (perhaps he already had too many dogs – Bulgaria’s prime minister Boyko Borissov had given him a Bulgarian shepherd puppy, Buffy, in 2010).  On the other hand, the Komodo dragon given to George Bush senior by the president of Indonesia in 1990 became a celebrity when it was donated to the Cincinnati zoo, admired by the public and fathered 32 baby dragons in a long and happy life. Rather like the polar bear given to King Henry III by King Hakon V of Norway in 1252; it lived in the Tower Of London, and used to go swimming in the Thames to catch fish.

The USA’s greatest cultural and diplomatic gift to the world has of course been Hollywood.  But even this gift horse has its teeth inspected every now and again. This week Lebanon banned Steven Spielberg’s new film The Post because of his links with Israel.  He donated $1 million to Israel during its conflict with Lebanon in 2006, and the Arab League has officially boycotted his films ever since.  Schindler’s List was boycotted before then because some of it was filmed in Israel (a film about the Holocaust is never going to box-office in the Arab world anyway) although his BFG and Bridge of Spies were shown recently in Lebanon.  Films by other directors have also been boycotted; Wonder Woman was banned last year because it starred an Israeli, Gal Gadot.

The government of South Korea is currently wrestling with a similarly knotty cultural/ diplomatic/ political problem in the form of a girl band from North Korea.  The Moranbong Band is an all-singing, all-dancing superstar troupe of a dozen presentable young female musicians who perform in glitzy, chic outfits (cut-down military uniforms, Disney characters, etc) to praise Kim Jong-un and his regime throughout the country.  Pyongyang is determined that they should perform at next month’s Winter Olympics in the South. This presents a dilemma for Seoul, however: it’s illegal in the South to praise the North, so it would be difficult for this most seductive of propaganda machines to avoid breaking the law.  (The band’s recent tour of China was abruptly called off when Beijing banned their on-stage celebrations of ballistic missile launches.)  So the band’s appearance in the Games is in jeopardy, which means that the North’s participation in the Games is in jeopardy, which means that the North/South talks are in jeopardy, which means that World Peace is in jeopardy…

Thank goodness the Moranbong Band will never be eligible for the Eurovision Song Contest.  Or will it?  Don’t suggest it to Kim Jong-un, for heaven’s sake, or it’ll be the first non-negotiable condition he puts on the table if and when talks about limiting his nuclear weapons program ever get under way.



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