OPINION: Norfolk's Wasted Land is all too apparent in our cruellest month

All the blossoms on April branches can’t hide the wanton destruction of so many precious green spaces in Norfolk

All the blossoms on April branches can’t hide the wanton destruction of so many precious green spaces in Norfolk - Credit: Trevor Allen

“April is the cruellest month” … a memorable verdict first floated exactly a century ago which now carries extra layers of murky menace oozing out of our eye-watering cost-of-living crisis.

Massive energy bill leaps on opening day, usually dominated by annoying but comparatively harmless japes, reminded us how downright foolish it would be to consider this a short-term storm likely to blow itself out before the clocks go back again.

If the Covid pandemic forced us all into a two-year reappraisal of personal priorities and habits, such a chastening economic challenge blocking roads to recovery all over the globe must spell the end of countless ambitions, from the reasonably laudable to the blatantly selfish.

April will pass on that “cruel” tag to all calendar companions, possibly for several years, before full freedom to sigh and exclaim “Back to something like normal,” returns to bless what I’m now bound to call the next generation

As a child of the 1950s, I had enough of austerity, ration books and make-do-and-mend. But I also learnt quickly about strength of small communities, value of self-sufficiency and simple powers of countryside surroundings to cope with all aspects of Norfolk life waiting beyond leafy lanes and blooming hedgerows.

Now, as I sit pondering the future of dear old Norfolk, a habit born out of too many years of unprecedented and unwarranted change, I catch the stilted tones of Thomas Stearns Eliot delivering that opening line of his signature modernist poem, The Waste Land, first published in 1922, just after First World War carnage and the hideous Spanish Flu Epidemic,

His “cruellest month” sentiment is still argued over by everyone from gardeners and cricketers to taxpayers and soothsayers as well as academics who can’t make up their minds whether it’s a work of despair or salvation. Clearly the former might get a few more nods to suit our present predicament.

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If March went out like a frisky polar bear, April came bounding in more akin to a snarling snow leopard issuing a health warning. Both signs of exacting times fore and aft to demand another search for a tinge of hope in one of our most celebrated poems. “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow out of this stony rubbish?” seems the best bet for a sprig of comfort.

This ties in with my budding theory that TS Elliot had just taken on an allotment, inevitably described by his poetic friends as The Waste Land. and realised the plot would soon thicken with tough jobs like breeding lilacs out of the dead soil. He might have grown into the perfect celebrity gardener on the modern media merry-go-round. Digging Terse Verse and The Fork Quartets sound like ratings winners.

But he tended to be wary of trendy critics after one revealed his name almost spelt “toilets” backwards. Out of such palindromic niceties can initial publicity be fashioned into literature’s herbaceous borders.

It's easy to imagine outstanding wordsmiths from the past waxing mournfully over today’s troubled world… climate change, financial collapse, yawning gaps between rich and poo, bullying dictators and civilian massacres for starters.

I suspect a 21st century TS Eliot, born in St Louis, Missouri, might have looked ruefully at what was happening across his adopted home territory, most notably in what he probably accepted as England’s pastoral and pleasant alternatives to soulless sprawling urban bustle and bother.

Any search for telling combinations of practical and spiritual values adding up to healthy “quality of life” verdicts, must have included close looks at Norfolk and immediate neighbours 100 years ago when rural parts wore a different and distinctive looks of their own. Norwich, for example, kept a green belt policy alive for its village fringes in stark contrast to the grim straitjacket of exploitation now dominating.

Mass pillaging of agricultural acres for bland housing developments since the 1960s has taken too much traditional character and purpose out of Norfolk life. Bloated planning applications continue to multiply and get the nod despite blatant evidence of being built on sheer greed rather than local need.

This brand of speculative opportunism makes a mockery of local democracy as national government “let-rip” polices tear irreparable holes in our precious natural tapestry.. Nowhere has that been more brazenly pronounced than in destruction of vital green lungs in Norwich and surrounding beleaguered outskirts.

I shuddered in horror as the wonderful county cricket ground at Lakenham - I lived next door for a decade during my press reporting career - and Norwich Rugby Club’s home at Beeston Hyrne were flogged off for housing.

A third sporting surrender unfolded at Hellesdon as the Royal Norwich Golf Club course suffered an ignominious “coup de grass” on yielding to yet more housing development with all its ramifications for traffic congestion and community cohesion.

It seemed reasonable to ask if Carrow Road might be next on the chopping list if the right sort of offer came along …

We had to do with the Northern Distributor Road setting a new cynical low. Ostensibly built to ease traffic flows in and out of the city it looks like turning into one of the biggest building sites in the chequered history of Norwich suburbs.

No wonder there are rumours of a TS Eliot comeback with a fresh indictment of environmental time past, time present and time future- an epic poem called The Wasted Land.