Jonathan Dodd’s latest column. Guest opinion articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the publication. Ed
There are certain things about being British that I have to be proud of. I’m not saying that there aren’t any non-Brits out there who don’t have these particular qualities, and I’m certainly not suggesting that every Brit has the qualities that I aspire to. Far be it from the truth, and I’m sad about that. What a wonderful place it would be if everyone living here actually was a True Brit.
I’ve just realised that I’ve been going on in my usual way without explaining what I’m supposed to be talking about. If you’ve been a regular of even infrequent reader of this column, there’s a lot of that, and I just hope that you allow for it, or even think it might occasionally add to whatever charm it possesses. But I still haven’t got to the point. I’m talking about the set of characteristics that makes up the quintessential British person, as understood by all citizens of, or visitors to, these islands.
We don’t talk about things, unless we have to
What is it that makes a Brit? I’m talking about that quiet, polite, gentle, virtuous, undemonstrative, easily-embarrassed, self-effacing, solid, good, kind sort of person we’d all like to be. We don’t need to be rich, or famous, or even successful. We don’t even need to be brilliant at anything, and we don’t even need to be happy, although we’d like to be. We don’t need to go out and strive for a better life, and we certainly don’t want to make a fuss or a spectacle of ourselves. We tend to live quietly, making a comfortable home wherever we find ourselves, and we don’t talk about things, unless we have to.
We’re not very good at emotions. We feel them, by golly, but we don’t want to show them or talk about them. We tend to think that others are similar, so we give them the benefit of the doubt. We don’t push ourselves forward, because we’re relentlessly egalitarian in our expectations that everyone else will behave in a civilised way, not jumping the queue, or cheating, or taking advantage, even if the opportunity offers itself. We’ll go to extraordinary lengths to hand in a lost wallet or find a lost dog. And we’re generally very kind, sometimes too kind, to our pets.
We keep them to ourselves
We also have odd habits and hobbies. Because we keep them to ourselves, hardly anyone even knows we have them, unless they come across us, maybe sailing model yachts, or at a stamp fair, or in our sheds. I realise here that I may be talking about British men, rather than both sexes. As a result of all the above, I may have entirely the wrong picture of the fair women of this fair set of islands, and you may be tutting quietly to yourselves at the numerous ways that men get it wrong. That’s probably true. Oh well.
But I shall persevere, because part of the thing about being a Brit is that you do understand that there are so many things that you don’t understand. I certainly don’t understand a huge list of things, and I’m heartily suspicious of anyone who claims to understand anything completely. I’ve always understood that an expert is somebody who knows one thing more than you about something. They may know more, or infinitely more, but all you know is that one thing that you realise you don’t know and they do.
One of those things that can’t be defined
All of this is very difficult to explain. Being a Brit is one of those things that everyone has a very good idea of but can’t define. Like Beauty, or Justice, or Fairness. We all know these things are real, but we can only define them in terms of things that have their qualities, to a greater extent. We can all see a view and compliment it on its beauty, but we couldn’t work out what you could add or take away to make it absolutely beautiful. Every now and then we come across something that seems to have the essence of one of these qualities, and we cherish it in our hearts.
I’ve been watching one of the most lovely and accurate depictions of being British for a while, and it’s just finished, perhaps for ever, and I’m rather upset at the thought that I may never see it again, or rather that there may not be any more episodes made. It has been an unexpected treasure, discovered and taken to my heart, and now probably not to come back.
They spend rather a lot of time walking through fields very slowly
I’m talking of the Detectorists, a lovely set of programmes described as a sit com, but fitting very uneasily in that category. It has comprised three short series of six half-hour episodes, put on by the BBC at unfashionable times, on the other side of the News, usually on channels that don’t even do news. It’s been dreamed up, written, directed by, and starring, Mackenzie Crook. Yes, the same man from the Office, tall, extremely thin, with staring eyes and hollow cheeks. It is indeed about two Detectorists, who spend rather a lot of time walking through fields very slowly, playing the ends of their metal detectors over the ground, with headphones on, and carrying spades and various implements and bags.
The thing I love about this hobby is the very particular expression on their faces. It’s a look of pure expectant concentration, because they’re waiting for the sound of metal under the ground. They can spend entire days doing this, and there’s nothing happening wherever they are, in fact, if something does, they’re often oblivious of it, because of the headphones. They don’t chat, but they’re intensely companionable, occupying the space and the air and the landscape together, sweeping the ground.
Most of their dug-up treasures are drink-can ring-pulls and buttons
They belong to a small group of Detectorists, who meet in a village hall, and discuss their finds every week. They’re not put off by the fact that most of their dug-up treasures are drink-can ring-pulls and buttons. In fact, one of their members has written a book on common buttons found in their part of East Anglia. He does reluctantly understand that he’ll never rival J K Rowling in book sales. They can identify the can that a ring-pull used to belong to and its year immediately. They’re hoping to find real treasure, lost hoards, or Roman villas, or Saxon coins, but this is something most Detectorists only dream of.
These people have ordinary lives, and relationships, and jobs, and dreams, like everyone else, and they make a mess of things like everyone does, and they find themselves agonising about what they should do about the smallest things. But they’re good people, they care intensely, and they feel deeply. As a viewer, I have found myself aching for them, hoping that they’ll get lucky, or put themselves forward, or be recognised for the good men they are.
There are no jokes, and hardly anything happens
One of them, played by the wonderful Toby Jones, has separated from his wife, and is grieving quietly. The other, played by Mackenzie Crook, is a passionate archaeologist who can’t find a job in archaeology, so ekes out a living in dead-end jobs, and pours all his frustration into his detectoring. He is married to a teacher, who really loves him, although he can’t work out why. She is played by Rachel Stirling, the real-life daughter of Diana Rigg, who appears as her mother in the series.
There are no jokes in this sit com, and hardly anything happens. The acting is quiet and unfussy, the direction is minimal, and the characters aren’t going to set any worlds on fire. But they all feel intensely real, and individual, and anyone watching will find themselves caring deeply about them, even though they’re never explored as characters, and their life up to the moment we see them isn’t mapped out. They’re just there, the thing they have in common is a shared love and quiet passion for detectoring.
They’re just like us
I wouldn’t dream of adding any plot spoilers here, which is another very British thing. Besides, there’s hardly any plot, but there’s something very wonderful about the Detectorists, because it’s intensely felt, and it’s about the people who are there, in all their individuality and weirdness. They’re just like us. I missed the first series with an ache when it finished, and I had to wait a terrible long time for the second series, and then I had to do it all again for the third series, which is supposed to be the last, and that’s just finished too. I’m suffering withdrawal symptoms right now, and it’s going to sit there in the back of my mind for a long time, and it probably won’t even be satisfied by buying the complete box set and rewatching it several times, in a quiet, undemonstrative way, with an occasional smile playing over my features, and a warm glow in my heart.
If you’ve never seen or heard of the Detectorists, there’s still time to get the first two series in a box-set, before Christmas, or you could wait for the whole thing to appear in a collected edition, complete with the one Christmas special, and hopefully loads of extras, whenever it appears. I can’t wait.
I shan’t become a Detectorist myself though. I’d get fed up with having to explain that the equipment is the Detector, but the person is the Detectorist. Besides, I already have more weird hobbies and habits than one wife can cope with, and I wouldn’t have time to write this stuff every week. Hmmm. There’s a thought…
If you have been, thank you for reading this.
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