The Sunday Times

May 16th, 2010

Waste not, want not: here comes the new austerity chic

Waste not, want not. Make do and mend. A stitch in time saves nine. One slice with marge and one without. There’s plenty of children would be grateful for that bit of gristle. Those were the phrases I heard constantly in my childhood, on the lips of women who had been marked for ever by wartime and post-war austerity Britain. Some even used to say, when confronted with a particularly fat slug on a raggy bit of lettuce, “extra meat rations”. These phrases lasted long after rationing: the anxious habits of hard times are difficult to break.

Women of that generation found it almost impossible to throw things away. It was only in the late 1960s that I persuaded my mother to throw away a large cache of ancient tins of food, which her own long-dead mother had bought during the war, nearly 30 years before. Nothing was too badly frayed or torn to mend, no bit of binder twine or chicken wire too short to save, nothing too useless to be labelled and packed away just in case, no clunking hand-me-down lace-up shoes too hideous for her to press upon her children, even though we were not badly off.

Countless other women and men of those unlucky generations felt just as she did. I am sorry to say that I thought it was all ridiculous at the time. Now, these attitudes will be needed again, as we face hard times in a new austerity Britain. Gordon Brown’s dreadful debt, the banking crisis and the international financial uncertainty all mean that most of us will soon find ourselves a great deal poorer. We are all going to have to make painful cuts in our spending. After years of borrowed plenty, it’s difficult to face.

It was recently reported that in countries such as Latvia and Ireland, where people have very recent memories of austerity and poverty, they have found it easier to accept radical cuts in their salaries and standard of living than Europeans who don’t remember hardship. Experience helps. In this country most people haven’t had such experiences since the 1950s, but there are still people in their eighties who remember austerity scrimping and saving, and many others who, like me, have lived in the shadows of such memories, and with the mentality of making do. My late mother and the dear departed women of her generation would have had several helpful hints for today.

The first would be to consider how astonishingly wasteful we have become. Like the public services, most of us could be far more economical, as they used to say, and even feel better for it.

We should spend less by doing less. Eat less, as they did. Less on the plate, and never left uneaten, less meat, no snacks and much less eating out. Less slathering of olive oil and butter and less overstuffing of sandwiches and competitive cooking. Abandon diets; they are all expensive and time-consuming. Eating much less usually works better and at no added cost. Avoid supermarket pre-prepared food, and imported out-of-season delicacies. Learn how to cook vegetables and discover the protein in pulses and bean curd. Buy seasonal and local food when possible. Sales of tinned corned beef and Spam, the staples of austerity Britain, are already soaring. Buy cut-price items close to sell-by dates and look for slightly damaged fruit and vegetables. Avoid air-conditioning except in heat waves. Turn down the heating: most people’s homes and offices are ridiculously overheated compared with the glacial rooms and schools of my childhood. Avoid train and air travel, unless very important (holidays are important; most jetting-about is not).

It’s much easier to cut back on non-essentials. Buy fewer clothes and forget about fashion; think austerity chic. Have fewer shoes. Exchange good hand-me-down shoes and clothes with friends and their children. Learn to darn and how to make clothes; my daughter wears a beautiful dress my mother knitted during the war, and a 1940s jacket she made out of old brocade curtains. Forget higher body maintenance; we will get plenty by walking and bicycling more to avoid the cost of transport.

Abandon some of all that professional buffing, depilating, exfoliating, waxing, re-energising and massaging at vast expense. However, I believe that for most women over 40, professional hair colouring will be one of the last things to go, as it will be for me. But avoid the more expensive lotions and potions and slap: all these products are pretty much the same.

On the home front, don’t buy all those expensive cleaning products in non-degradable plastic tat: plain detergent, bleach, washing soda and vinegar will see to most household dirt. Avoid silly gadgets, like gizmos to produce square hard-boiled eggs, or battery nose-hair clippers. Above all, don’t throw things away, as we did with abandon in the days of high living: find a new use for them. But when you do buy, buy British.

One thing that will certainly have to disappear is conspicuous consumption. With people facing big pay cuts or unemployment, it will simply be unacceptable to go around showing off a designer bag costing well over £2,000. In 1947, after years of fabric rationing, Christian Dior‘s models wearing 60ft or more of material in “new look” dresses had them ripped from their backs in protest against the outrageous extravagance flaunted in the faces of women long starved of pretty clothes. That mood may well come back.

In some ways it might be rather positive.

Embracing the new thrift might bring on a pleasant feeling of virtue. And there will certainly have to be a new spirit of sharing — one of the sweetest uses of adversity. People will be obliged to share their petrol, their childminding and their best hats. We will have to get together for home entertainments. At any rate, the terrible anxiety we’re now supposed to feel about our status, appearance and taste, and generally speaking the struggle of having it all, will give way to the calm of nobody having very much anyway, or hiding it if they do.

We won’t have to try so hard. Less will be calmer; at least we won’t have to suffer from choice fatigue. The pursuit of status will seem unkind — unpatriotic almost — as will the relentless pursuit of fashion and style: austerity is a great leveller. Waste not, and in the other sense of the word, want not.

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