Before Christian rule outlawed pagan practices, the Ides of March marked the celebration of Anna Perenna, the Roman deity of the circular year. On 15 March each year, Romans would pack picnics, dance, drink and make merry as they celebrated the cycle of life, renewal, fertility and the abundance of nature.
It seems like a fitting week to write my first column for Big Issue North, and wish our regular columnist Saskia Murphy well as she awaits the arrival of new life (due on the spring equinox and hopefully on time for her and poeticism’s sake).
But as early as 44BC the Ides of March began to take on a different meaning for Romans. It became notorious as the date of the assassination of Julius Caesar on the steps of the senate and when the soothsayer warned Shakespeare’s Caesar to “beware the Ides of March” in 1599, its gloomy connotations stuck.
It’s hard to feel the sense of energy and optimism that should come with the lengthening of days, the opening of daffodils and the dawn chorus of robins, blackbirds and thrushes, when an unseasonable cold snap seems intent on reminding us of our climate emergency and the ramifications of this darkest of winters play out. Around the country warm hubs – the latest bit of Dickensian-like language to become an accepted piece of our vocabulary – are reminding the public that they remain open for games of Scrabble and cups of tea as people otherwise weigh up whether they can afford to pop the heating on for an hour.
On the Ides of March this week, all eyes will be on chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s spring budget and we should all beware any promises made. Pressure has mounted on the government to scrap the energy price cap increase that would see our already inflated bills rise by another 20 per cent. A three month extension of the programme that keeps our bills capped at £2,500 per year is now expected, along with a year-long suspension of the 12p rise in fuel duty.
As nurses, rail workers, teachers and others continue to strike Hunt is also expected to make announcements on public sector pay, but the 3.5 per cent the government claims is all it could afford doesn’t even match the forecast 4 per cent rate of inflation by the end of the year, let alone the current 10 per cent. And beware any springtime fertility deities as childcare costs come under the spotlight – the TUC predicts any reforms are likely to be considered too expensive for the government this week. Meanwhile, a rise in the pension age and tightened benefit sanctions are some of the predicted measures to ease workforce inactivity.
Even in pagan times the Ides of March was seen as a deadline for settling debts, but as the permafrost looks unlikely to thaw and we’re chucked another lump of coal to tide us over this week, most of us will be unable to settle ours.
If, amid the sense of foreboding that’s hung over 15 March for nearly 2,000 years, you do find a shred of springtime optimism – say, for example, with the arrival of new life – and a picnic does strike your fancy, just remember it will cost 16.9 per cent more than it did last year. And don’t expect any tomatoes.
Antonia Charlesworth is Big Issue North’s deputy editor