Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – Aug 30, 1947
“The Time of Our Lives”
I have had a letter from a reader asking me to write something in praise of austerity. “Taking into consideration the state of our country just now,” my correspondent asks, “is there anything so very dreadful in the fact that silk hats and white toppers weren’t seen at the royal academy private view or that no royal courts were held and only two garden parties with few expensive frocks?”
Certainly, if austerity meant no more than that I should be the last person to grumble, and I doubt whether even the housewives’ league would raise much of a fuss about it. I can get along quite comfortably, too, without a steam yacht, a house in the country with fifteen bedrooms, champagne, or even a gold watch.
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To me, austerity means such things as living without lemons or olive oil, a laundry van that calls only once a fortnight, difficulties of travels by train and boat and shortage of money due not only to income tax but to the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s fiendish cleverness in finding out the thing I like best and putting the heaviest taxes on them.
Do away with these things and give the restaurants more and better cooking fats for fried fish and chips, and I would be as ready to praise austerity in general as Sir Stafford Cripps himself.
The truth is, of course, that what is austerity to one man is not austerity at all to another. Mr. Bernard Shaw could live in luxury in a totally cigarless world in which Mr. Churchill would be about as happy as the Prisoner of Chillon.
A whisky shortage such as has not been known since the Flood turns a public-house into a very bleak house indeed for the barley-lover, but it affects the teetotaller as little as the buzz of a passing fly.
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What most of us mean by austerity, I fancy, is doing without the things we are accustomed to. This, many a housewife who was accustomed before 1939 to have plenty of help in running her house, and to have most of the things she wanted delivered at the door, is conscious of the austerity of a world in which she has become an overworked cook and housemaid, a queuer at shops and in food offices, without even the mild extravagances and relaxations of dinner parties.
Her standard of living has been lowered. This was undoubtedly necessary, in order that the general standard of living should be tolerable, but she is certainly living in an austere world.
You can see how relative a thing austerity is if you imagine what a modern child would feel like if he had to live in such a world as most of the Victorians grew up in. today the modern country child travels to school in a luxurious bus. In the last century he had, in many cases, to walk long distances there and back—sometimes in my part of the world, in his bare feet.
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In town the child spent half the day in the then foul atmosphere of a factory, and in his leisure time he had no cinemas to go to and, as a rule, no pocket money, or very little, to spend on anything.
If an ordinary modern child could be transferred by magic back into the nineteenth century I think he would look on the Victorian era, and not on the present war-impoverished time, as the real age of austerity.
The adults, too, of the present time, have become accustomed to enjoy, almost as a right, many luxuries that most of their grandfathers had to live without—not only cinemas, but cars, bicycles, holidays at the sea, wireless, dog races, good tea shops and good-looking clothes.
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What an austere world it would seem to most people if all these things were suddenly to disappear—if motor-coaches were forbidden, and cinemas closed, and dog-racing banned, and work in the factories began at six in the morning and the mass of men and women had to dress as they did in Victorian times! One is almost tempted to say that, in comparison with the Victorian era, we are now living in the age of luxury.
The truth is, therefore, that this is the most Gehenna-like of all ages simply because Lord Woolton has to wear collars made out of his shirt tails.
This is the sort of thing Robinson Crusoe might have done, and, if he had, he would have thought himself a perfect swell.
Austerity? Well, I do pity the woman who has to run a home, but, apart from income tax, and shortages, and digestive troubles and other things too numerous to mention, we men are having the time of our lives.