“Too right things could be better, that’s my whole point. My going to work for the badge will not change that, will it?” Joanna said, “And pride? There is absolutely no pride in being used and cast aside every twelve-weeks for someone equally replaceable. Do you see pride on the faces of people on Workplace? I don’t. […] you know what else I never see? Any fucking hope.”
― Paul Howsley, The Year of the Badgers
The Year Of The Badgers is Paul Howsley’s, self published, first book and you can read about his motivation behind writing it on his site. Scroll directly to the end of this page for a list of shops in which to buy the book if you want to read it first, this review will have spoilers.
The book centres around Badger, the everyman. Politically apathetic, he just wants to keep his head down and out of trouble. He isn’t living the high life by any means but is doing alright, until he gets the sack after being in a workplace accident.
From here his life spirals, he loses self confidence, his means of living are slashed and he become a Badger – a slur that he takes his name from, used to further denigrate people on the dole; people reliant on their badges. These badges are part of a new system designed to control the spending of the unemployed, limiting them to approved purchases. It smacks of “food stamps” used in the US and was an idea floated in both Ireland and the UK not that long ago. You’ll find that a lot in the book, while marketed as fiction, it is scarily similar to the present day world we live in.
We first meet Badger tentatively hopeful about the new Workplace program he has been selected for. A twelve week mandatory internship where you work for your dole. Badger has swallowed the stories that a job will await him at the end if he does well enough and we follow his slow realisation that the system is rigged against people like him and his burgeoning political awareness and then activism. This realisation isn’t a bolt of lightning from the blue, it’s done slowly and surely with each knock Badger takes; be it the lack of a job, his friend emigrating for work, the second Workplace placement, sanctions and finally homelessness. He doesn’t do it all alone either but with the help of other characters he meets on his journey. He starts to challenge the mainstream narrative about people like him – Badgers. Like many he had internalised the idea that the unemployed were too lazy to work etc and scolds himself many times early on in the book for thinking himself better or unlike every other person reliant on the badge.
The book doesn’t shy away from the struggle behind the activism, the knocks that you take, the knocks you have to take and the failures that just go hand in hand with fighting back. It isn’t shown as easy and sometimes the best you can do, simply isn’t enough. Though the book doesn’t dwell on them, it does speak about the desperation that isn’t hiding far from the surface of people with nowhere else to go, touching on issues like suicide caused by sanctions.
The book itself can be a little clichéd with a Manic Pixie cast hanging over activist supreme Joanna while Badger is the Reluctant Hero but the book was never intended to be high-brow award winning fiction. It’s a book you can throw in your bag and read on the bus to work or meetings to get you thinking. The characters are deeply human and relatable as are the projects they engage in – the SayNo Sleep Centre reminds one of Bolt Hostel and the anti-workfare protests of #WorkMustPay. They are of course actually based on the Boycott Workfare campaign in the UK but we are reading this in an Irish context. The critiques of both are also on point, as while they are important and in some way making a difference, neither can solve the problems of an unjust capitalist society.
The only true fault of the book (which is simply a matter of political perspective and opinion) is the ending. While tentatively hopeful in tone, it sets up the cure to society’s ills as being one that can only be provided by an alternative government. The last few chapters of the book focus on the SayNo group protesting and canvassing for the Opposition (which is never named but clearly very left-wing) and the final chapter is them watching the election – as passive participants in the change over. The new opposition Prime Minister gives a moving speech on how things can’t all change in a day but they are going to try, along with the SayNo campaign getting a shout out. Think Alexis Tsipras crossed with Jeremy Corbyn.Something about it falls flat. There is an implication that we just need the right leaders or the right experts to sort it all out for us. That solidarity and people power is great but only if the big boys aren’t ready to play yet and when they are, we should clear the way for them. That’s not to say that elections are pointless or a person shouldn’t vote but electoral politics, though able to effect some limited change, can only at best mitigate the worst aspects of the Neo-liberal agenda. Elections are not and have never been intended to challenge the system which relies on them to exist. We need to be aware of this limitation to develop viable alternatives, namely; active and continuous struggle.
Not to end on a sour note, the book is thoroughly readable and enjoyable. It posits all the arguments against unpaid state run internships well, in accessible language with a smattering of humour throughout. It will read very close to home for some and for others it will be an eye opener on what is happening currently or about to. It’s well worth a read and a lend/borrow after.
The Year of the Badgers is available from the below online sources or if you want to buy it from a real life, talking, person – head down to Connolly Books on Essex Street, Temple Bar, Dublin.
Amazon – iTunes – Nook – Kobo – Page Foundry – Scribed