Mystery in hand

A lady's handbag (or purse, depending on which side of the Anglo-American alliance you belong to) is, generally, to the male, a source either of unmitigated amazement or unfathomable mystery. It is a profoundly female adjunct , partaking almost of an attribute, and it seems to me that some of its obscure fascination rests not so much on the things it contains as on the remarkably small number of things it doesn't contain. By definition I (being male) am no expert on this subject and I also recognize it as a preserve of immense privacy. In a word, I have Respect for the Handbag. . . .

That is why I felt considerable pride, some while ago, when my wife was suddenly awarded ten-out-of-ten for hers. This, as it should have been, was the assessment of an expert. And this expert -- which only goes to show how times or mores are changing and all that -- happened to be . . . a manm looking in handbags as his profession. I'm not sure what the official job-description is for these people who stand at the entrances of London's museums and art galleries - ''Bag Inspectors,'' presumably. It is extraordinary, anyway, how natural a part of the order of things they now seem. Their interest in the contents of whatever anybody happens to be carrying is of course a grim result of urban terrorism. But the incidence of nationalist zealots from third-world countries hijacking the vast, classical hulk of the British Museum and forcing its director to fly it, heaven knows where, has accelerated to such a degree in recent years that the investigatory fingers of the Bag Inspectors is a routine to which most museumgoers happily submit.

''Ten out of ten'', this one pronounced approvingly.

''What for?'' asked my astonished wife.

''Your bag,'' he said. ''One of the tidiest I've had this week. You should see some of the bags I have to look at.''

It makes you think, doesn't it? If I were a woman, and woke one fair dawn with a sudden yen to go and admire the Elgin Marbles or Van Gogh's ''Sunflowers'' or even ''The Emperor Theodosius Forbidden by St. Abrosious to Enter Milan Cathedral'' (which is not by either Van Gogh or Elgin, whoever he might be, but by Van Dyck in a Rubensian frame of mind), I would, I believe, give serious consideration to the whole question of my handbag and to whether or not the possible indignity of a mark of five or under might not mar my whole morning's art appreciation.

It is a little odd, really, this business of looking in bags before people enter a museum. Nobody seems the least concerned with them when their owners leave these palaces of culture. And some handbags one sees could easily contain a Vermeer with hardly a hint of extra bulge. But perhaps they aren't as worried as they used to be about works being stolen or damaged, only about people being held hostage.

Could it be a sign that we are after all becoming more humane, putting men and women, and possibly even children, before art treasures? All the same, without wishing to stir up anything, one can't help feeling that some of these great institutions might be splendidly vulnerable to international aesthetic blackmail. The headlines could be colourful: gunman threatens to throw green paint at Gainsborough's ''Blue Boy'' unless demands are met by Thursday. Furthermore, there can be few museums in the world which don't house a treasure or two dubiously come by. Where was it that I recently saw a gallery label openly confessing that a work had been ''stolen'' abroad a century or so ago? I don't remember. But suppose a guerrilla or two just felt it was time for one of these items to finally return home?

Looking in bags may be a comparatively new precaution, but the suspicion aroused in museums by umbrellas and walking sticks is old enough and continues unabated. (Well, more or less. At one museum recently nobody challenged my umbrella until I tried to enter the museum's library. At that point I was just politely told I could leave it outside if I wished. Since it didn't appear to be raining in there among the books, I didn't object).

Actually Mark Twain had the last word on this, as on a number of subjects, when he visited the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The attendant told him he would have to leave his cane in the cloakroom. ''Leave my canes,'' he bellowed. ''Leave my canes! Then how do you expect me to poke holes through the oil paintings?''

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