Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, since neither of them is exactly typical of the population at large, what with one being a film star and the other a princess…
Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. Just rushed straight in there without explaining who they are or why I’m mentioning them. Jeremy Irons. He’s the actor. And he has revealed that he doesn’t buy new clothes unless he really has to, and that he rides around on a motorbike that is 22 years old. The princess is the Princess Royal. Finding herself booked into a hotel room with a view, she asked to swap for one without a view, because it was £40 cheaper.
Now, don’t you find yourself a little cheered by these stories? If you do, it’s probably because you’re British and can relate to their thriftiness. They, we, can’t help it. It’s part of our national condition.
Hang on, you say, aren’t we in a financial mess caused by (Labour) borrowing and spending too much? Yes, but consider our reaction to the news of the latest City bonuses. Was it not one of revulsion? And in which other country could a comedian have made his name with a grotesque called Loadsamoney, and, later, an equally cringe-making character who was “considerably richer than yow!” Americans can carry it off. Conspicuous consumption complements their can-do spirit. I once saw a sign in Texas which read: “God, guns and guts made America great — let’s keep all three.” To that could have been added another g-word: greed. Over there, greed is good.
But, pace Harry Enfield, I don’t think we enjoy flashing money around in this country. It gives us little pleasure and sometimes causes us pain, which is a shame for the economy because, in theory, the more things we buy, the healthier it becomes.
I always assumed that this national characteristic was the legacy of rationing. But David Kynaston, the author of ‘Austerity Britain, 1945-51’, was talking on the radio the other day about how, even when the rationing generation was told by Macmillan in 1957 that they had never had it so good, they still maintained their frugal habits.
I think it is part of our DNA, and it pre-dates rationing. My wife and I used to tease our parents about their rationing-era frugality, especially their habit of driving out of their way to find petrol that was a couple of pence cheaper. But they were only doing what their parents had done.
My father-in-law took the thrift prize about 15 years ago, when he produced a jar of greenish organic matter that purported to be pickled gherkins. Not only did it not have a sell-by date, it actually bore the words “Now with new screw-top lid!” We watched in morbid fascination as he proceeded to eat the contents, wasting not, wanting not.
But now my wife and I are a little older, we are turning into our parents. In our household we ignore sell-by dates, eat leftovers, rarely have the heating on and have started collecting twigs rather than wasting money on kindling. I don’t think I ever took pleasure in spending money, but I do now find myself taking a certain satisfaction in saving it.
I know we have a patriotic duty to spend at the moment, and we are actively discouraged from saving, thanks to the policy of using low interest rates to bail out debtors at the expense of savers. But still. I suspect it is only in times of austerity that we British feel truly comfortable in our own skins.