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Opinion

When things look this dystopian, we should be more like Orwell

We have to look for the chinks of sunlight where we can, so let’s take a moment to appreciate toads, like George Orwell did

The fear bearing down on so many people now as the cost of everything mushrooms was not lessened by Rishi Sunak’s mini-Budget. Economists and think tanks from across the political spectrum insisted that to help a significant percentage of the population from toppling into a spiral of debt and uncertainty, there had to be a benefits lift. The MoneySavingExpert founder and financial expert Martin Lewis was so anxious about what lay ahead that he declared himself “out of tools” and called for major government intervention. We called for it too. It didn’t come.  

And now those who can are casting around considering where they can tighten belts. Those who can’t are considering if there is anything that can be done. The energy bills hike is coming this week. Already, the boss of Iceland supermarkets Richard Walker has warned, “We’re hearing of some foodbank users declining potatoes and root veg because they can’t afford the energy to boil them.” 

Solutions are hard. Is there anything beyond the fear? 

Last week, somebody told me about the toads. Roads around the Holyrood estate in Edinburgh, the seat of both the Queen’s Scottish residence and the Scottish Parliament, are being closed at certain times. They’re closed to accommodate the toads. The toads are appearing in great numbers and heading off to their favourite ponds to make beautiful toad music and create a whole load more little toads. Best not to prevent this happening by driving over the creatures. If you can afford the petrol. 

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Until that point last week I knew nothing of the toads and their appearance, or of their desires. And then, what do you know, you wait forever for toad information then two pieces come along at once. I was sent towards George Orwell. He wrote an essay in 1946 titled Some Thoughts On The Common Toad. The emergence from their hibernation holes signalled, for Orwell, a return of spring. Orwell felt very positive about this. He went big on his toad love.  “A toad has about the most beautiful eye of any living creature,” he wrote. “It is like gold, or more exactly it is like the golden-coloured semi-precious stone which one sometimes sees in signet rings.” 

George Orwell knew how to write (not breaking news, I grant you) and he was looking beyond toads. He wondered if, given everything else that was going on in the world, was it wrong to take delight in spring. There were signs of it everywhere, “not even the narrow and gloomy streets round the Bank of England are quite able to exclude it”. 

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At that point, coming out of the Second World War, the positive impact of the welfare state and the NHS hadn’t appeared yet. But still, so long as hunger didn’t grip, he said, we must allow ourselves to be vulnerable to those delights.   

“The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the Earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.” 

While we search for answers, and ways to help those who fear they’ve reached the end of the road and been met with a wall, we should allow ourselves to enjoy the toads, however they present themselves. 

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big IssueRead more of his columns here.

paul.mcnamee@bigissue.com

@PauldMcNamee

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