Thursday, March 5, 2009

Thrifty Business

What is it with thrift? The recession may have given it an empty kind of validity, but it's been creeping up on us for a while. Everyone seems to be taking a lot of (perverse) pleasure in faux-austerity and mock phlegmatic belt-tightening*. Articles that are only partly tongue in cheek calling us to do our bit by buying British fashion. Guides to budget holidays on the English seaside. Advice on how to shave money off the Waitrose bill by going to Netto.

Ostensibly these are reactions to both the recession and climate change, a turning back from credit financed reckless consumption. Given this, an embracement of thrift takes on a knew currency as a gentile form of anti-corporate backlash. And herein lies the rub. A persistent element of all this thriftiness is that it emanates from the relatively well-to-do middle classes. Or the Coping Classes as the Daily Telegraph likes to call them. You might almost say that it was fashionable.

Take India Knight's recent The Thrift Book. This is ostensibly about how to save money by rejecting conspicuous consumption. The book makes a straight appeal to our anxieties, both personal and ecological, encouraging us to take pleasure in being thrifty, make our own presents and grow vegetables. This is all presented as a form of healthy penitence.

Knight's previous book was in celebration of shopping so she obviously feels she has more than most people to feel penitent about. The Thrift Book is her hangover. Like a hangover the tone is self-flagellating, vaguely remorseful and comically self-obsessed. Here's the blurb:

"Feeling poor because of the credit crunch? Feeling guilty because of global warming? No Need to panic. Put down the economy mince and buy this instead. It's a blueprint for living beautifully while saving money and easing your conscience."*

Note the feeling poor bit. Not actually poor, but feeling it, much like you might feel that ankle boots are on their way back. It's a chill wind maybe, but there are ways to button yourself up and stay warm. And still look great. Which leads to the other telling part of the description which is; it really is all about you!

There is no political or social aspiration to Knight's book. It is a straight-forward palliative, something to soothe one's vaguely troubled conscience. There is not even an attempt at altruism. It will stop that annoying nagging guilt and let you get on with your fabulous life. Knight's is perhaps the ultimate decadence: an aestheticisation of poverty. Like a crumbling peasant cottage on a picturesque estate, Knight is attracted by the look of rustic chic.

She's not the only one. Take Labour and Wait, a ludicrously self-conscious shop off Brick Lane specialising in 1950's style household goods: wooden handled pen knives, galvanised dustbins and blocks of coal tar soap. All the really useful stuff. A close up of the window though reveals the affluence behind its apparent back to basics claim: it's only open half the week. Labour and Wait is like a Stuckist installation, a deliberate semi-ironic anachronism. The man behind the counter even looks like Billy Childish.

Just around the corner from Labour and Wait is a cake shop that uses Butlins' 1950's tagline "Our true intent is only for your delight", presumably to summon up the ration-era pleasures of a nice cup cake. On one level this is consistent with the strange inversion of shopping habits that has taken place over the last decade between the city and the countryside. This folding of space and time has resulted in the urban middle classes picking up their muddy potatoes from the farmers market and their Lincolnshire Poacher from the organic cheese shop while everyone in the sticks shops at Tesco.

Our cities grow odd organic appendages at the weekends, temporary infestations from the countryside that spring up to sell expensive organic vegetables to a niche market troubled by supermarkets and urbanity. There is a sort of alchemy at work here, the turning of base metal into gold, or thrift into luxury**. For coal tar soap and muddy potatoes were surely never meant to be luxury products. It takes a particularly weird intersection of class and socio-economics to make them so. And whilst Labour and Wait remains packed on a Sunday morning, my local Woolworths - that most genuinely thrifty of shops - is already a boarded up memory.

* This post takes a big cue from Owen Hatherley's
recent thoughts on austerity nostalgia.

**By the way, I'm not denying the actuality of recession, just some of the perverse inequalities of its manifestation.

(Image of bristles and soap via)


Rob said...

Addictive Picasso said...

brilliant post. This thrift stuff is driving me NUTS! (second though to people telling me that a recession's "really rather good for innovation") It's like the urban middle classes now don't just want to have a cheap holiday in other people's misery but share in it too. And you can guarantee that come the air crash in the Andes, the likes of India Knight will be the last to offer themselves up for the plate. It's all part of a larger Old Etonian/Tory conspiracy. But hey ho, be positive, at least there'll be scented candles in the bunker.

Charles Holland said...

Thanks. Amazing how people claim the status of victimhood isn't it?