Now that spring is here — dark winter mornings driven away by dawns deafening with birdsong, that bout of pneumonia more or less gone, spindly primroses making a stalwart effort to flourish in unreliable sunshine, the 2010 general election finally underway — my son’s school holidays find us, with a degree of inevitability, spending yet another day exploring the British Museum.
The visit, it turns out, is more worthwhile than ever. At present, a handful of artifacts from the Staffordshire Hoard is on show at the British Museum (until 17 April 2010), after which they’ll return to the Midlands, following a successful appeal to retain these treasures, legacy of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, near the fields in which they were found last year. There’s also a handsome little booklet — £1 of the modest £4.99 purchase price goes to fund the appeal — setting out what little is known thusfar about this recent, remarkable discovery.
There’s something terribly moving about these tiny golden objects, the intricate intertwined forms and cloisonné settings still caked with the clay of their Staffordshire fields, blood-red garnets smeared with mud, crushed outlines not yet smoothed or rationalised — a riddle of riches and violence with its mystery still intact. How, one wonders, did more than 1,600 individual items, some of them absolute masterpieces of metalwork, come to be buried and found together? In truth, although ideas abound, no one is quite certain.
That there’s a provisional quality, however, to the presentation of this treasure does nothing to detract from its fascination. In mediating with impeccable professionalism between tidied-up past and infinitely messy present, museum displays can have the effect of making history look finished — literally done and dusted — reposing slightly outside our own experience. Whereas, the present display of the Staffordshire Hoard implies instead that under every nondescript field, scruffy building-site or suburban garden might lie something unsuspected, surprising, ancient, important, perhaps even staggeringly beautiful. The legacy of the past, in other words, may turn out to be closer than we think.
And indeed, this encouraging message could hardly have turned up at a better time, since the present is, at least at the level of public policy, under-performing to quite a remarkable degree. Is it just me, or is the 2010 general election coverage thusfar literally unwatchable?
Variously unconvincing simulacra of human beings, carefully modelled by their PR teams from the raw mud of polling data, bray past each other, their faces fixed in unreal signifiers of steadfastness and sincerity, within the rhetorical conventions of some parallel universe in which what our so-called ‘public services’ require is mindless tribal allegiance rather than reform or abolition; where politics can be ‘cleaned up’ through the imposition of yet more politicisation, slapdash constitutional innovation and ever more centralised party control; where fixing ‘our broken society’ is a treated as an opportunity for frankly corporatist state action notwithstanding the very obvious fact that the most broken bits of Britain are precisely those most persistently under government control; where transcending the evils of sexism, racism and bigotry becomes a business of valuing candidates and polities entirely on the basis of skin-colour, faith, gender and sexuality; where ‘change’ is desired as an end in itself and where, for that matter, ‘choice’ itself, that precious fetish of our democratic belief-system, hardly exists for some of us — if only because there is no party, as far as I know, which promises to repeal the 50p tax band; denounce the so-called mansion tax; abolish inheritance tax on all estates rather than only on smaller ones; reject the so-called Robin Hood tax; re-introduce an hereditary upper house; support our traditional political and cultural institutions; embrace wholly free migration; slim down the bloated where not simply actively malign ‘public services’; jettison extravagant idiocies like the Olympics and Crossrail; pursue a properly realistic and independent-minded foreign policy; and generally give the British people more genuine autonomy within their own lives through the simple expedient of leaving them alone to get on with things. Why, then, should I waste yet more time on any of them?
Oh, there’s nothing duller than watching a race without backing, however casually, one of the horses. Yet as the 2010 general election gets underway, this is the position in which plenty of long-time Tories, myself included, find themselves. Others — virtually every last one of my more non-political friends, as far as that goes — are reaching out, however gingerly, to embrace the LibDems, Greens and UKIP, some of them admitting as they do so that if ‘Hung Parliament’ were actually printed on the ballot, they’d vote for that instead. Still others — lifelong Conservative party activists — come out with brisk yet surprising remarks, along the lines of, ‘If Labour wins this time it will serve the Tories right,’ the icy malice in the articulation as much as the fatalism suggesting something less than a lack of absolute enthusiasm for the efforts of Dave & Co.
Given the bland seamless awfulness of the vaguely social-democrat consensus in which we have now been engulfed, one suspects that the more traditional-minded Labour party supporters are being forced to sublimate into battling the grotesque BNP, for instance, the anger they feel at their own party’s lack of idealism, vigour and focus. No wonder, then, that we are reduced to re-configuring each other’s posters and sabotaging each other’s campaign strategies, less out of partisan allegiance than the simple desire to make mischief, if only for the sake of distracting ourselves from the enormity of our predicament. For no matter how spavined and slow the field is, no matter how dreary the course, the fact remains that we all, like it or not, are being forced to stake quite a lot of the outcome of this particular derby. Boring or not, it’s almost certainly wrong to ignore it entirely. Yet the temptation to do so remains, alas, a strong one.
And so we set off for the British Museum, to seek solace in its inquisitive polyglot crowds, heroic scale, encyclopaedic range and persistent air of mild post-imperial wistfulness.
Often, when for some reason art — or, rather, the penumbra of rapacious and self-aggrandizing salesmen, the distended claims of transcendental importance and self-congratulatory uselessness that too often surround art — has ceased to engage me, archaeology has proved itself both refuge and consolation. And so, too, it now proves with politics. In part, I suppose, this is because the timescales involved in pre-modern archaeology tend to put things in context. Where, once, waves of European migration appeared problematic, where warlords of varying quality exercised their various claims, faiths clashed or grew confused, where political systems evolved and deteriorated, kingdoms merged and split and merged again — well, now we have ranks of well-lit cases coddling small, disparate objects, linked together by scholarly narratives and more than a little sympathetic guess-work, the stuff of lazy day-dreams and proper historical reflection conjoined in neat material form.
Also, though, there is a point to be made about beauty. Now that the politics of those half-submerged kingdoms are more than half forgotten, blood cleansed from the sword-hilts, the sheer nastiness that surrounds so much human interaction exorcised by distance, it is possible to admire, at a near-abstract level, the formal perfection of those entwined forms and intricate patterns, the quality of the materials, the workmanship that made of sordid political necessity something as perfect, in its way, as the Battle of Maldon, or the Lindisfarne Gospels, or indeed the grave-goods of the anonymous dead interred at Sutton Hoo.
It would, of course, be pleasing, if slightly romantic, to hope that even now, someone is making something that, 1200 years hence, will speak as generously of our own rather tedious times as the Staffordshire Hoard speaks of those long-dead men and women to whom its strangely selective profusion once seemed something familiar, uncomplicated, perhaps even utterly timeless. Who knows? We can, however, perhaps feel fairly certain that, 1200 years hence, while the names of Raedwald and Offa and Alfred will still means something, at least to those who care about Britain’s past, the names of Cameron, Osborne and Hilton will signify rather less. And for that, as for the Staffordshire Hoard’s brief sojourn in central London, we ought, at very least, to feel grateful.