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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Behind the Blinds: George Osborne Does Larkin

Monday, October 08, 2012

In announcing his new plan to cut £10 billion from the welfare budget, George Osborne has drawn an image that is sure to be repeated in some form or other in months to come:
So we are absolutely clear that those with the broadest shoulders must bear the broadest burden. But our conception of fairness, and this is perhaps where we differ from the Labour party, also extends to the welfare system. We also think it's unfair that when that person leaves their home early in the morning, they pull the door behind them, they're going off to do their job, they're looking at their next-door neighbour, the blinds are down, and that family is living a life on benefits. That is unfair as well, and we are going to tackle that as part of tackling this country's economic problems.
As a rhetorical move, the concept of the good neighbour heading to work whilst the bad neighbour sleeps behind the blinds is a useful if blunt one. The metaphor of the closed blind or drawn curtains appeals to some fairly basic domestic sentiments in us. The drawn curtain is the mark of our personal pride in the home, which is in turn the microcosm of our relation to the civic world at large. To not draw the curtain is to fail one's basic domestic routine, and in turn to refuse to enter fully into society.

Philip Larkin, that laureate of the same common man that Osborne tries to appeal to, knew this very well, repeatedly invoking curtains and windows as the mark of social decline or moral rectitude. Watt's concordance to the poetry counts 11 references to curtains.

Perhaps most infamously, the sad and solipsistic Mr Bleaney is defined by them:
This was Mr Bleaney's room. He stayed
The whole time he was at the Bodies, till
They moved him." Flowered curtains, thin and frayed,
Fall to within five inches of the sill.
It's the cumulative details here that do for Mr Bleaney. Tasteless that the curtains are flowered, a sign of his poverty that they have become thin and frayed but never replaced, but an indictment on his whole situation, his fatalistic decision to lodge in this boarding room at the Bodies, that they never fitted to the bottom in the first place. The trope is compounded by the fact that the curtains don't even fit the stanza; the line spills over into the next one, where Larkin imagines Mr Bleaney's view:
Whose window shows a strip of building land,
Tussocky, littered.
Perhaps one reason not to draw the curtains is because the prospect is less appealing than the lawns of a Belgravia mansion. In "I Dream of an Out-Thrust Arm of Land" Larkin switches the perspective. This time the poem looks in at his own mind, seeing it as it were from the outside of its own embodied house, his body. In this nightmare, he imagines that:
...the wind climbed up the caves
To tear at a dark-faced garden
Whose black flowers were dead,
And broke round a house we slept in,
A drawn blind and a bed.
The drawn blind figures the temporary sleep of the dreamer turned into the permanent sleep of death. Curtains are drawn at times of mourning, of course, and thus the state of one's curtains figures the state of one's decay, mental or physical. Implicit in George Osborne's image, welfare scroungers are realised as living corpses, feeding off the taxes of the living. They wither away behind closed doors: the early-morning sun of a commute to work would kill them. He did not say any of this, of course, but as Larkin knew when he invoked the curtain in his poetry, the incidental image invites the imagination to fill the blank space: What is going on behind the closed curtain? If nothing dubious, why keep the curtain closed at all? Then again, perhaps it is because there is nothing going on - because the owner is dead, because the owner may as well be dead - that the curtain is closed. The hermeneutics of curtains close in on themselves.

It is contrast, then, that "High Windows" evokes the uncurtained window as a metaphor for imaginative and social freedom. The poem starts in a pettily judgmental way:
When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she's
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
But it then swiftly flicks to see the absence of judgement - particularly the absence of religious vindictiveness in a secular age - as a positive thing: "I know this is paradise." It concludes:
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
The light streaming in signifies opportunity, something that of course the benefits cheat does not pursue.

George Osborne might thus be pleased that his rhetorical flourish resonates with Larkin, who is always peering into or out through the windows of middle-England. He might be doubly pleased with the skewering of the decadents in "Femmes Damnees," which draws on a poem by Baudelaire:
The fire is ash: the early morning sun
Outlines the patterns on the curtains, drawn
The night before. The milk's been on the step,
The 'Guardian' in the letter-box, since dawn.

Upstairs, the beds have not been touched, and thence
Builders' estates, and the main road, are seen,
With labourers, petrol-pumps, a Green Line 'bus,
And plots of cabbages set in between.
The mention of The Guardian is ironic given the shape of things to come, though at this time being a working person's paper as much as a liberal's, the fact that it is lurking in the letter box signifies that the house's inhabitants might belong to the same group as the common labourers outside, those hard workers who have already been up for hours and delivered the milk. Yet before Osborne might get too cosy with this stereotype of the closed blind and the lazy scrounger, Larkin inverts appearances with a "But":
But the living-room is ruby: there upon
Cushions from Harrod's, strewn in tumbled heaps
Around the floor, smelling of smoke and wine,
Rosemary sits. Her hands are clasped. She weeps.
Osborne tries to play down the irony of being the millionaire chancellor who slashes benefits whilst perching his bottom on Al-Fayed's finest cushions. Perhaps he would do well not to typecast the poor based on the state of their curtains.

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Posted by Alistair at 8:06 pm

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