Updated: December 16, 2021 10:27:52 am
Not even annus horribilis has dented the British public’s love for its hobbies. A report published earlier this week by the British Museum found that a copper alloy harness found in Lincolnshire was the millionth archaeological discovery by a member of the British public. In 2020, it seems that the lockdown activity of choice in the UK was treasure hunting and archaeology — 50,000 artefacts were discovered by amateurs. This ability to stay with the small joys, in even the most trying circumstances, was something George Orwell admired about his compatriots. In The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, as Fascism threatened to sweep England, he remarked: “We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans.”
In his brief but prolific career as a journalist, polemicist and novelist, Orwell managed incisive criticisms of the depredations of empire and capitalism. He described, in perhaps the greatest examples of sociological journalism and memoir writing — Road to Wigan Pier, Down and Out in Paris and London, Shooting an Elephant — the exploitation and inhumanity of the country and the Raj to which he belonged. The discovery of a medieval pendant by a hobbyist in England — an example of “the English genius” — would have pleased Orwell.
There is indeed something admirable about the ability to obsess over the small pleasures that life has to offer. But it can also speak of a certain blindness, of people and nations, to their own privilege and entitlement. During the rise of Hitler, Orwell asked his people to look beyond their gardens; to shelve their stamp albums and end colonialism. Today, perhaps, he would urge a post-Brexit, vaccine-hoarding Britain to take its gaze off itself once again.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on December 16, 2021 under the title ‘Orwellian artefact’.
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