I’m not sure if being away from home helps me think more clearly but certainly being in Leeds for a few days this past week has been full of education for me. Education of the in your face kind that I wrote about at the Real Junk Food Project of course. But also gentler learning through visiting other places doing good things as part of my work, plus other learning and thinking whilst there from long conversations about life and the living of it in a time of austerity with friends new and not so new.
Back in Liverpool now all this education has led to one of my Sunday afternoon musing rambles to see if I can work out what it all amounts to, for me anyway. Here goes.
Learning from austerity the last time around
The first thing I should clarify immediately is, of course, that I don’t for a moment believe that this really is austerity that’s being visited upon us in these years. It’s a cold blooded political attack and I could fill the rest of this post with the names of the guilty. But enough said. The guilty are calling it ‘austerity’ and I’m going to think through how we might move from widespread paralysis to recovery by thinking about the last time there was real austerity.
It’s 1945 and I’m not born for another decade, but I now know that all of Europe and a good deal of the rest of the world is in ashes and chaos after six years of total war. Sure, the emerging late century powers are already manoeuvring about how they can best profit from the situation, but the rest of us are getting on with ‘making do and mend.’ Continuing the habits of wartime in the rationing that actually gets more stringent in these years, these years of ‘waste not, want not.’
So anyway, I arrive and begin my growing in a world that’s still ‘making do and mending,’ still ‘wasting not and wanting not.’ In our house and our street this continues, in fact, well into the 1960s. Much to my childish and then teenage grasping annoyance. But do you know what? My main memory now is of how much the adults around me enjoyed it all. In lives that for many of them had been blighted by two world wars with a world wide depression in between they were enjoying:
- Having some measure of control over making the best use of the food they had. Just like in the war when they’d dig allotments and keep hens in the back yard;
- Taking great care of their basic possessions by knowing how to fix them, patch them, darn them and generally keep them going as long as possible because ‘When they’re gone they’re gone’
- Enjoying also the fact that virtually everyone else they knew was habitually doing this too.
As I grew to my age of reason I don’t remember anyone around me thinking of all this scrimping and saving as ‘real’ politics or ‘real’ economics, but it was ‘real life’ and we were none of us distanced from that. So I supect there are things we could now be learning from all that:
- Things about taking individual responsibility for what we can do if we really want to;
- For ourselves and the people around us;
- Things about knowing and caring where our food comes from and where a third of it goes for a start;
- Things about waste not, want not.
I’ll be coming back to all this after fifty years have gone by, so don’t go away.
Then distance arrives
Now I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy the prosperity that arrived in North Liverpool in the 1960s and 70s. I grew up healthy and strong and taller than my parents. Went to school and university for free and emerged feeling I’d be able to go out and pick any work I wanted to do easily, and buy a house and a car and loads more stuff when I wanted – and I did. Maybe you did too?
Life was great and I’m grateful. Except that somewhere in all of our joyous consumerism some things got lost.
Some big things like much of our control over how work is organised, whether we and our children can buy houses any more and how our democracies and economies work.
And some of the smaller things we used to enjoy like knowing where our food comes from, having enough of it fresh and local to feed our children and knowing or having around us people who can fix our household stuff so we don’t always have to keep replacing it with new stuff.
Vague impressions. Coming like awake again. Maybe dreaming?
So here we are, coming only partly awake from our time of dreaming and distance and consumerism to find ourselves in a time of ‘austerity’ that we do know, even only half awake, isn’t really real. It’s just the dream continuing.
But we can’t seem to fully wake from this most of us. We are at a loss to know what to do, the powers that others now seem to have over us feeling so greatly oppressive. We hear from these powers that ‘democracy’ only happens every five years now and apparently it just has. People around us in the dream seem to be agonising about ‘how to get the working class vote back’ and suggesting it’ll take us five years of ‘careful repositioning’ of whatever ‘the party’ is (bear with me, I’m telling you a story) before we can fully wake from this austerity. Even then, some of these apparently ‘new leaders’ seem to be saying, we’ll need to be careful about not alienating the aspirants, alienating the aspirants, alienating the aspirants…
Well sod that for a dream. I’d prefer to wake up fully and do something about it all now. Which is where ‘waste not, want not’ comes in. So…
What are you going to do about it?
Yes I know, when you were a kid and someone said this to you you knew it was fighting talk. And it is fighting talk. I promise not to hit you, but I do want an answer.
Because I’m sick almost to distraction of people waiting for other people to do good things and then picking petty fault with them when they do. I get it that most of us have never got into the habit of doing very much at all unless it’s for our own gratification. And won’t vote for anyone unless we can see how we will directly benefit from whatever their latest big and shifting ideas are.
But all of that’s evedence of living in a leftover dreamtime that I’m suggesting we wake up from, and wake up fast.
While we sleep people are starving, while we sleep people are losing their homes, while we sleep wars are being raged in our names, while we sleep our society and all that generations of us have worked and fought for is being stolen from us. While we sleep.
And sure, some of the ways to sort this situation and get out of the holes we’ve been driven into are going to need philosophical, societal, political and economic thinking and persuading over some considerable time, perhaps. But we can all start doing things right now. Like what?
Well I don’t know. As ever I have no prescription because I don’t know who you are, where you live and what might be happening around you. But you do.
So who could you join in with, where could you volunteer (with the obvious proviso that you’re not doing somebody else’s job for free), what might you help with that’s beyond your own life and immediate concerns, that could be generally good for someone who isn’t necessarily you? Only you can know, but do something I’d suggest for others, for us all. Because if we all carry on with this dreaming that life’s ok as it is we’re in even deeper shit than many of us think we are.
Which brings me back to Leeds and the Real Junk Food Project (and don’t forget there are now Pay As You Feel Cafés all over the place where you could volunteer to help). What they’re doing isn’t the only way to fix things, to get us through this domination, this austerity. But it is brilliant and we need to see a lot more of this kind of stuff.
Stuff that doesn’t ask for permission, doesn’t wait to be given clearance by some clip-board holder, wouldn’t even know how to apologise because it’s never done anything it needs to be sorry for:
- Imagine if we all woke up?
- Imagine if doing good things for and with others was part of our ordinary everydays?
- Things about food, waste, decent housing, living wage work (fill in your own issue, your own passion here)?
- Imagine what we could do?
Well one thing I suspect we’d definitely do is we’d enjoy ourselves. Like people did when they were making do and mending. When they were wasting not and wanting not. In the face of disasters way beyond their individual control people worked together to make such sense of their lives as they could. Beginning reconstructing society with their own communal hands. Because there’d been a war on.
That’s about it then. They’d been through a real war and we’re in, well, a class war, a global capitalism war, a living ostentatiosly while we use up the last of the oil war? Whatever it is we could sit round despairing, leave it to others, criticise, criticise and criticise. Or we could start doing things. Things, as I’ve said, for the common good, the good of others. Things we’ll enjoy, things we’ll learn from and who knows? If enough of us go around looking out for each other maybe it’ll start to change everything sooner than we might have thought? Maybe we’ll learn from each other? Maybe we’ll be good for each other?
It’s up to you and me.
Thanks to the loose grouping of people that come together now and then to discuss the likes of this, most recently in Leeds last Thursday afternoon in our discussion on community led active citizenry – and much else. Also of course to the people of Granby and Homebaked, the world changers I know.