Black April, and some other Aprils.

‘April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.’

T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

Never before have I heard so many journalists and commentators quoting T.S. Eliot in such a short space of time.  They have made use of the opening line of Eliot’s famous modernist poem The Wasteland.  This is unsurprising really – Monday was the advent of ‘black April’: the month when a merciless stream of vicious welfare cuts will blight the lives of millions of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our country.  More than at any time that most of us can recall, April is associated with bleak and unremitting cruelty. I could reel off a list of the cuts, but most of you will have read about them already: the vile bedroom tax, the slashing of legal aid, the dismantling of the NHS, the cap on benefits; all of this arriving at the same time as a massive tax cut for millionaires.

People will accuse me – and others – of being overly dramatic, of employing emotive language in what is supposed to be an objective, neutral and pragmatic debate about an economic deficit.  To make this accusation is to deny the hardship that this will wreak on real people’s lives.  I will not maintain an unemotional tone when human beings are having their lives, homes and communities destroyed by people who have no understanding of what they are going through.  Sometimes emotive language is the most appropriate language that there is.  As Nye Bevan put it, anyone who can callously impose such suffering is ‘lower than vermin’.  April is the cruellest month.

It is a pithy phrase to use, and it emphasises the viciousness of our government’s policies, but Eliot’s use of it was of course more complex.  The lilac springing from the stony earth recalls lost summers.  Memory brings the present into confrontation with a happier past, and rather than a sign of renewal, the new growth is a mockery of the coldness of our present situation compared with the happier days gone by.  Winter is a time of forgetfulness and a numb freezing of the earth in its present state.  This is preferable to the heartbreaking sight of the lone flower that recalls better times.  In our present situation it is hard to see any flowers emerging.  If anything is recalled, it is past winters.

As a child in the late 1980s I read C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and as with many children I had little conception of when it had been written.  In my mind, the White Witch, who had cast a spell on Narnia which made it ‘always winter and never Christmas’ was obviously an allegory for Thatcher, who had thrown the nation into what seemed to me (I was born in 1982) to be a never ending season of cold, darkness and hardship.  This, rather than the warmth of summer, is what is recalled by Black April.  Memory can be painful in many ways.  It can recall happier times that are behind us forever, but it can also recall past hardships on their way back in.

‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’

George Orwell, 1984

April is a popular theme for opening lines.  George Orwell puts it to good use in 1984.  He heightens the sense of the warped  logic of his dystopic scenario by placing it firmly and immediately in a context that we can understand.  The clocks are striking thirteen, the thought police are on patrol, the telescreens are blaring out lies, and paradoxical slogans are carved into government buildings, but still, Winston Smith nuzzles his chin into his breast to avoid the chill April wind.  The seasons are not answerable to Big Brother, and the familiar bright coldness of April takes us immediately into Winston’s distorted world.

We are now living in a world of lies and distortions – we are being told that the nation is overrun by lazy scroungers who occupy too much space, who have to be rooted out and punished.  This is particularly the case with the bedroom tax.  The reality is that social housing is already allocated according to need, that most housing benefit claimants work, that none are living lives of luxury, and that they are already struggling to get by.  But no, we are told to believe the slogan ‘POVERTY IS WEALTH’.

Similarly, Gove recently attacked a fictional red menace haunting our schools.  Apparently Marxists are abroad in our education system.  As we all know, Marxists are determined both to ignore the relationships between historical epochs, and to keep the working class in their place.  Far better for people to be taught through memorising a ‘stock of facts’, rather than developing the skills to think about how things could be different: ‘OBEDIENCE IS EQUALITY’.

This sick and contradictory ideology is put in the service of justifying a cruel attack on the most vulnerable: it is only through being reduced to poverty that people will gain wealth, and only through unquestioningly absorbing the status quo that they can aspire to life being better.

When our worlds transform, it seems inconceivable that nature would just tick along and do its own thing.  The Guardian’s headline yesterday – ‘The Day Britain Changed’ – almost leads us to expect thunderbolts and hurricanes.  There was something peculiar about heading into town to discuss an anti-bedroom tax campaign today, and catching myself smiling to see the crocuses and daffodils in bloom, and to feel the still-weak warmth of the sun against my cheek.  Spring, albeit slowly and tentatively, is beginning to emerge, literally if not figuratively.

This was a theme that Orwell picked up on in his essay ‘Some Thoughts on the Common Toad’ in a 1946 issue of Tribune, a lyrical description of the lifecycle of the toad and the coming of spring. We might wonder why a political writer of Orwell’s stature should publish this piece in a political magazine. Perhaps it is bourgeois to think of such things when the nation is crippled by debt and plagued by social and economic inequality.  He asks ‘is it politically reprehensible, while we are all groaning under the shackles of the capitalist system, to point out that life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird’s song, a yellow elm tree in October, or some other natural phenomenon which does not cost money and does not have what the editors of the left-wing newspapers call a class angle?’.  Orwell’s answer to this is implied in the framing of his question: it is not wicked because appreciation of nature makes life more worth living, does not cost money and is no respecter of class.

To take pleasure in what is freely available to everyone is to contradict the model of the self as rational economic actor, and can give us insight into what freely available benefits are like.  Romantic artists and poets in the socialist tradition saw the appreciation of nature and the political project of improving the condition of humanity as connected.  Through enjoying what was wild, natural and unowned, we see ourselves as part of a common destiny, and recognise that there are things that we delight in and protect as a community, rather than as a collection of discrete property owners. It gives us a reason to strive for a better world: as Orwell says ‘If a man cannot enjoy the return of spring, why should he be happy in a labour-saving Utopia?’

Big Brother can sweep away much of the humanity of our interactions through imposing a culture built on twisted logic.  He cannot take away the bright chill of April:

‘At any rate, spring is here, even in London N. 1, and they can’t stop you enjoying it. This is a satisfying reflection. How many a time have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can’t. So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, spring is still spring. 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.’

George Orwell, ‘Some Thoughts on the Common Toad’

Orwell’s insistence that it is not bourgeois or wicked to enjoy the coming of spring is an important counterbalance to the vision of a bleak wasteland that recalls only past wastelands.  We must not lose our humanity or our ability to take enjoyment from the world, not just in spite of the cruelty and injustice being inflicted on British people, but also because of it.  Enjoyment of spring is a break from our acts of resistance, but in another way it is an act of resistance all of its own.

‘Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages’

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

Eliot’s evocation of April was a transposition of Chaucer’s opening to the Canterbury Tales (sorry if Middle English isn’t really your thing).  Chaucer paints April as a happy month where the earth stirs into life, and people are awoken into telling stories and their minds turn to taking pilgrimages.  Eliot reverses the optimism of this account, where hopes for the summer ahead are overshadowed by the ghost of summers past.  Orwell’s account of enjoying the common toad might give us some clues for how our current predicament sits in relation to these two Aprils – how we can acknowledge the vicious cruelty of April 2013 and still be called to action by the coming of spring.  Our optimism, and our insistence that life can be enjoyed has to feature in our resistance.  We have to fight the cruelty with a mind to the fact that there will be a good world to be enjoyed once it has been defeated.  If we are permanently set to grim winter, then we have no hope of creating a world where there is anything else.

And this is a month where we are, like Chaucer’s storytellers, called to pilgrimage, although for many of us this pilgrimage is not a religious one.  A pilgrimage is not supposed to be easy.  It is a long and difficult struggle for those who engage in it, and success is never guaranteed, but it is undertaken with the aim of a genuine transformation.  I’m reminded of the story of the 1936 Jarrow Crusade against unemployment and extreme poverty suffered in North East England during the Great Depression.   207 people walked from Jarrow to Westminster, a distance of almost 300 miles, to demand their rights. The marchers achieved very little immediate success.  Their shipbuilding industry was not helped, and the marchers were given nothing more than their train fares home, but their march caused a stir in the Labour movement which continues to have impact today (the marchers were not supported by the Labour Party at the time, although their struggle was later called upon by the Labour founders of the welfare state – perhaps the Labour Party of today should learn a lesson from this).  Without real struggle when there is no promise of success, we would never achieve any real change.  The struggle against this government’s savage cuts is a similar one.  There is no silver bullet, but there is hope: there is more call than there has been in a long time for a real unity of opposition to the greed, individualism and cruelty of the political right.  We need to respond to that call and undertake the pilgrimage. As in the Canterbury Tales, the joy in the coming of the spring, and the stories that we tell each other along the way, are integral parts of that struggle.