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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Breakfast with a National Treasure at the British Museum

I guarantee my day started better than yours did. First thing this morning I was at the British Museum for a press unveiling of Germany: Memories Of A Nation, Radio Four's big new series which starts at the end of the month. Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum who fronted A History Of The World In 100 Objects and Shakespeare's Restless World, stood up and gave us half an hour on the relationship between German identity and German history.

I noted down a few nuggets: the greatest German philosopher, Imanuel Kant, never set foot in any of the country we now call Germany; Goethe was a great admirer of british railways; the greatest German military decoration, the Iron Cross, is given to all ranks; the resettlement of eastern Germans to the western sector in 1946 was equivalent to the entire population of Australia and Canada coming back to the UK; the true measure of tyrannies like Hitler's is the amount of energy they're prepared to spend on trivial things; being an island people, the British have difficulty understanding peoples who define themselves across national frontiers.

He spoke without notes, using just a few slides to illustrate exhibits in the British Museum event which will accompany the series. He didn't once say "um" or "er", when he reached for a word it was always the right one, he didn't include a sentence that didn't need to be there in order to set up the next sentence and when he finished the audience, who were made up of hacks and arts professionals, applauded him for longer than I've ever heard anyone applauded at a press conference before.

Like all the best speakers, MacGregor's a teacher above all. It's a rare gift.