There was a serious discussion on a recent RTE Saturday morning radio programme on the subject of reducing the costs of electricity and gas in the context of balancing an ordinary household budget in these times of recession.
Two men, experts in the field of economics, told us common-sensible things about the conservation of light and heat. They said that we should switch off lights on leaving a room; adjust thermostats; disconnect radiators in unoccupied space; draw curtains in winter and when making a cup of tea, we should not fill the kettle, but just boil the requisite amount of water.
There was more; don’t linger in the shower in the morning, get in and get out and apply the same rule to children and teenagers. A discussion on whether or not immersion heaters should be switched on or off when not directly in use, led to the conclusion that, marginally, it was more economic to switch off.
They recommended (and, I am not joking) that we should all remember to close the door when we left a room, and that in really cold weather putting on an extra jumper might be a good way to keep ourselves warm.
Then they discussed the wastage of food in Ireland, which amounts to several million euro in each year. Not only was this profligacy, which we could ill afford, but the disposal of this food in the garbage cost us additional money.
Dear God, I thought, what are they talking about? Does it now take a panel of experts to tell us what the mothers of my generation told us, without any claim to expertise. They would even quote Victorian proverbs to support their credo that wilful waste makes woeful want. All of which we discarded, denigrated in the almost biblical years of plenty through which we have passed.
But now - hello - thrift is back in fashion. It is allocated time for serious discussion, and serious fees to expert, by our national broadcaster. It is no longer the object of side-bursting laughter, and described as penny-pinching, scrimping or parsimonious. Thrift has become trendy.
But though not in fashion, it remained, almost in secret, a way of life for many ordinary people, especially those of an older generation which had experienced previous recessions. They, instinctively cautious, saw the Celtic Tiger years as an aberration, which could not last, would end in tears, and in very bad debts. And they were right.
The skills they had perfected were honed for survival: making and mending; ripping and sewing; collecting summer fruits in the countryside; jam-making: cooking.
In fact, many of these skills found a place in a later generation, and took on the identity of art-forms, to be celebrated in excellent “Nationwide” TV programmes. Skills of the hand and eye, hand-crafted knitwear, specially designed and executed furniture, needle-craft, farm cheese-making, vegetable-growing, weaving, all were celebrated, not as the normal inheritance of ordinary Irish people, but special, esoteric, even eccentric. And they were presented as even more eccentric by the apparent necessity of practitioners to move to remote mountainy places in Kerry and live a hippy lifestyle.
But all of these simple ways of augmenting incomes, of managing budgets, of making the most of what nature gives to us, are moving back into the common or garden. And no where is this move more obvious than in the return to the growing of vegetables, fruit and flowers in the many groups of allotments which have become a feature of our urban landscapes. Somebody has described these as “seething in activity” with family groups, including young children, planting, weeding and harvesting. All enjoying the fresh air and activity. All involved in a joint productive exercise. All, I am told, becoming warm friends and neighbours. And all producing good healthy food.
I recently met an Italian woman, and on commenting on the current crisis in her country, she said: “I’ll tell you this, no Italian person, especially those coming from my part of southern Italy, will starve in this crisis. They will just go out in their gardens, dig up a few vegetables, and make a good pot of soup.” She told me (and I had seen this for myself) that tiny patches of earth adjacent to houses are always used for vegetable and fruit growing. “Even people living in city apartments,” she said “will have window boxes where they will plant tomatoes or herbs.”
In Ireland, in the recent plentiful past, we planted and expensively maintained vast areas of velvet lawns which didn’t produce as much as a head of lettuce. And farmers would drive to town to buy a cabbage or a cauliflower. It seemed that anything which could not be bought in a supermarket was valueless.
Just a week ago, when window-gazing into a delightful handicraft and craft shop in Clonmel, I saw a scene which brought sunshine into a dark November day. I saw about a dozen women, sitting around a long table. Some were knitting beautiful garments. Others were sewing, embroidering, quilting, crocheting. They were sharing their skills, helping each other, swopping ideas, and enjoying each others’ company.
I am sure they did not parse or analyse what they were doing because they were having too happy a time in doing it. But they, and the families in the allotments, were confronting the economic gloom, and practically challenging the pervasive perception that there is nothing we can personally do about the condition in which Ireland now finds itself.
Thrift is much more than cutting out and cutting down and switching off, it is about the re-discovery of skills and talents and ways and means we thought we had lost.