22nd July. ‘As I write,’ began George Orwell, ‘highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.’ The time was 1941. Britain had been driven out of continental Europe and victory over Fascism was a distant and uncertain prospect. He set out to define what was ‘distinctive and recognizable in English civilisation.’ He found his answer not so much in the large generalities of freedom and courage but rather in the detail of everyday life:
here it is worth noting a minor English trait which is extremely well marked though not often commented on, and that is a love of flowers. This is one of the first things that one notices when one reaches England from abroad, especially if one is coming from southern Europe. Does it not contradict the English indifference to the arts? Not really, because it is found in people who have no aesthetic feelings whatever. What it does link up with, however, is another English characteristic which is so much a part of us that we barely notice it, and that is the 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.*
These were deeply embedded national pastimes. It was not just gardening, which has been discussed in earlier entries. Stamp collecting became a passion of schoolchildren and their parents almost as soon as the adhesive postage stamp was invented with the Penny Post of 1840. The term ‘hobby’ entered the national discourse at the end of the nineteenth century, with a magazine bearing that title launched in 1896. Amateur practitioners not just of carpentry but an immense range of decorative and useful objects multiplied, generating societies, a flourishing retail trade in supplies and a raft of publications. The crossword, imported from the United States in the late 1920s became a fixture in the back pages of newspapers. ‘The range of pastimes, which are collectively known as hobbies,’ observed Ferdynand Zweig his 1952 study The British Worker, ‘is enormous and satisfies a great variety of interests.’**
As we face the largest peacetime crisis since 1945, we appear to be rediscovering the same passions. It has just been reported that the largest chain of do-it-yourself supplies, B and Q, saw a 42% rise in sales for May against the previous year. As soon as the lockdown was eased, shoppers poured in to buy all the materials they required to improve their homes and gardens. They took away plants, compost, fence panels, and a wide range of decorating and building materials, causing a temporary shortage in wall plaster. A recent survey found evidence of people re-awakening old skills or setting about acquiring new ones.*** One individual described how he put into practice a long-dormant training in furniture making, another took up embroidery again as she sought relaxation from her job in the NHS, another decided it was time to fulfil a lifetime’s ambition to learn the concertina, another rediscovered a childhood passion for playing the yoyo.
There is much discussion of how this pandemic will cause a revolution in how we live. On the evidence so far it seems more likely that we will return to all the comforting distractions that made the English who they are.
*George Orwell, England Your England (1941, London: Penguin, 2017), p. 7. Here published separately, this was the first part of The Lion and the Unicorn (1941).
** Ferdynand Zweig, The British Worker (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1952), 149-53.
***Katherine Purvis, ‘Beyond sourdough: the hobbies that helped readers cope with lockdown’, The Guardian, 21.7.20