I love this picture of actor Nicholas Hoult on the set of Mad Max: Fury Road. I love that he’s in his full makeup and you can’t really see any other crew in the background — you can almost imagine another film in which his character, Nux, the War Boy, goes off on his own and spends the apocalypse making caps or something.
I thought of the picture while watching the BBC film, George Orwell: A Life in Pictures. Since there is no surviving footage of the author on film, actor Chris Langham plays Orwell in fake newsreels and documentaries, delivering monologues that are straight from the essays. At one point, Langham starts quoting the essay, “England Your England,” which Orwell wrote during The Blitz of 1941: “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.”
Orwell is trying to describe what makes English culture unique and why the English seemed to be resistant to fascism. Only a few paragraphs in, he mentions the English “love of flowers” and their “addiction to hobbies and spare-time occupations, the privateness of English life.”
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. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official – the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea’. The liberty of the individual is still believed in, almost as in the nineteenth century. But this has nothing to do with economic liberty, the right to exploit others for profit. It is the liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time, to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen for you from above.
In my post, “In Praise of the good old-fashioned hobby,” I quoted actor and director Mackenzie Crook saying that he suspected that a penchant for hobbies and pastimes was a very British thing. I then suggested that as our own empire crumbles, “we would do well to observe how citizens of former empires enjoy a nice pint, a ramble, and a bit of tinkering.”
I’m interested in this idea that hobbies can not only help us cope in times of crisis, but they can also foster in us a sense of personal liberty that, no matter how small, can help us resist tyranny.
I’m thinking, now, of Leonard Woolf planting iris, or Paul Kingsnorth, in Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, on leaving the environmental movement to tend to his own little “square of earth”:
Only two ways of reacting to the current crisis of nature were offered. On the one hand, there was ‘fighting’. This fighting was to be aimed at the ‘elite’ that was destroying the planet – oil companies, politicians, corporate leaders, the rich. On the other hand, there was ‘giving up’. Giving up meant not fighting. It meant running away from a necessary battle. It meant being selfish. It meant ‘doing nothing’, and letting the planet go to hell.
All of this hinged on a narrow definition of what doing something involved, and what action meant. It seemed to suggest that action must be something grand and global and gestural. Small actions were not actions at all: if you couldn’t ‘change the world’ there seemed little point in changing anything.
I like this idea of tending to your plot. The prerequisite for resisting a tyrannical government, as Orwell showed in 1984, is maintaining the “few cubic centimeters inside your skull.”
I suppose some would scoff at these ideas with the old expression: “Nero fiddled while Rome burned.” The funny thing about the phrase is that fiddles, or violins, weren’t actually invented yet in Nero’s time. So he didn’t literally fiddle. But there’s the other meaning of the word fiddle: to fidget or pass time aimlessly, without really achieving anything. And yet, fiddling, in this sense, is so much a part of how artists arrive at their work: they fiddle around, they putter, they waste time.
There’s another story about fiddling during a crisis: the orchestra on the RMS Titanic, who played music to keep the passengers calm as the crew loaded the lifeboats. (There is speculation as far as what final song they chose.) A passenger said:
Many brave things were done that night, but none were more brave than those done by men playing minute after minute as the ship settled quietly lower and lower in the sea. The music they played served alike as their own immortal requiem and their right to be recalled on the scrolls of undying fame.
Bertolt Brecht wrote a short poem called “Motto” about 1930s Germany:
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.
It’s for this reason that my next book starts with this poem, “Overheard on the Titanic”: