Wednesday, July 15, 2009

When The Rich Play Frugal

It was sometimes last autumn, as I was dragging my heels in my local Waterstones, newly job-less and rejoicing the advantages of being free, mid-morning and mid-week, that I saw India Knight’s The Thrift Book for the first time. As my eyes darted from cover to author’s name to title and then back again in multiple loops, I felt my lips parting and my brow corrugating itself with the familiar stab of subtle misapprehension. It could not possibly be the India Knight, who pretty much made her name by writing a book (The Shops, n.d.r.) that celebrates the psychologically nourishing effects of blowing your monthly salary on a Chloe bag during your lunch hour, now suggesting that we’d better be thrifty and careful with money, could it?

Yes, that hideous term when connected to money, 'careful', as if money were a two-faced friend praising you one day while out on the coffee run and slagging you off with colleagues the next. As I began to flick, my eyes scuttling across pages filled with romanticised common sense in book form, I became aware of a supernatural presence bursting out of the depths of memory. It was Immanuel Kant, the paradigmatic philosopher of the Enlightenment, rising from the dead, placing a hand on my shoulder and admitting that, really, he was wrong the first time round, we cannot live up to knowledge and action without outside assistance, we need support, we need divine intervention, our reason alone just isn’t enough.

Is this what India Knight was doing, scrapping her entire philosophy of life, and one that sounded as enticing as a siren’s call to young women like me, in favour of thrift, make do and mend, saving and being ‘careful with money’? If so, why? Stuff such as 'save bucks by making your own sarnie and take to work' is as old a pearl of wisdom as sarnies themselves, and sits so much at odds when pitted against Knight’s previous book, a 224-page transliteration of the ubiquitous ‘you’re worth it’ mantra, as to turn The Thrift Book into the stuff of lifestyle nightmares. Even with the author’s earnest confession in opening, a financially reckless life lead on the high wings of overdrafts and loans, all I could muster was an inner quiver and the suppressed urge to reach for my violin and play a suitably tear-jerking melody in the middle of the bookshop.

Snapped back to reality though, I realised that her book was not the freakish outbreak of a public mid-life crisis, but one of many similar offerings, as this trash was already multiplying itself exponentially. There was Delia's Frugal Food, Frugal Living For Dummies, Frugal Living, The Frugal Cook, The Frugal Duchess, Chick Living: Frugal and Fabulous, Frugal Cooking, Frugality, The Frugal Life, The Frugal Gardener, The Thrifty Gardener, Charity Shopping and The Thrifty Lifestyle, The Thrifty Girl’s Guide To Glamour, Thrifty Ways For Modern Days, Thrifty Chic, The Spend Less Handbook and even the phantastically conceived How I Lived A Year On Just One Pound A Day, which should not be shelved within lifestyle or finance but within science-fiction. Blow me right out of the water, the need to be frugal as financial necessity commands had been turned into fashion.

For some time afterwards I became weary of shops in general; what if I came across a beaming cardboard Jamie Oliver next to the battery eggs at the supermarket or Nigella’s latest effort How To Be A Fat-Free Goddess at the bookshop? I knew I would not be able to stand for very long on the precipice of travesty without eventually releasing all of their books to the wilderness in disgust. This has not yet happened, even though a more subtle variation of frugalism has added itself to the equation in the shape of books that shy away from even the mere mention of thrift or frugal while operating a new, underground strategy: convincing the reader that cutting back is better than spending money, no matter your financial situation.

Enters Elspeth Thompson and her deliciously conceited The Wonderful Weekend Book: Reclaiming Life’s Simple Pleasures which laments the demise of the Great British Weekend now usurped by the shopping habit that never ends. No, the author tells us, slow down, festoon the house, wear cashmere, take up photography, rent a cottage. Life’s simple pleasures are the only real pleasures and, guess what, they won't make you skint either! Now that depends on the camera you’re buying and on the cashmere you’re wearing and on where that cottage you’re renting is, but I digress.

I still skipped home glowing and smug, in that spectacularly peculiar and fuzzy way that only a book that tells me things I already know backwards can instill in me. Except as I began reading, I felt something was entirely off. This is because being able to buy a Chanel bag (my own example) is quite a different thing from taking a walk in the park. Even more jarring is the contrast between knitting a Chanel-like bag instead of buying the real thing because I cannot afford to do so. The pleasure derived from making an object, or trying one’s hand at a new craft, is not on a par with the pleasure derived from buying an object because we can afford to do so, no more than can and must can be thought of as operating on the same level. They speak to our subconscious in entirely different ways because they are different entities.

I investigated a little and realised that Elspeth Thompson is an ex World of Interiors editor and successful writer with one house in London and one project house by the sea, a set of Victorian railway carriages she is turning into an eco-home. Let me explain this in context: she used to be an editor of a magazine that celebrates the merits of hand-painted wallpaper at
£ 7,500 a roll and now figuratively tells us that we needn't worry because that wallpaper isn't going to make us happy anyway, a walk in the park will. I took it from there and started looking for other similarly enlightened individuals doing the Frugal and Happy Hippie lark and soon realised that I had been living in my own blinkered version of The Truman Show, as signs of this twisted game were, and are, everywhere.

The free Waitrose brochures stacked at the tills are now wildly more concerned with the 'cost per portion' of the recipes they write about and not so much with the calories/ saturated fat in them, while millionaire model and lingerie pseudo-guru Elle Mcpherson acknowledges from the pages of Tatler that she too is feeling the pinch while wearing a lycra mini-dress that would buy regular people a small car. But then maybe she was referring to tight lycra as it is known to pinch on occasion. And what to make of Liz Hurley who, also from the pages of Tatler, waxes lyrical about the advantages of upping sticks to the country for that gentler pace of life of yesteryear, while wearing £ 10,000 worth of couture?

It all brings me back to that seminal moment in Ab Fab when Edi, her mother and Pats are accidentally locked in the drawing room and the old woman relishes the moment, because ‘it’s a bit like the war’. Except, Edi spits: ‘Without the war!’. A gentler pace of life is a fabricated fallacy that did not exist in the shape and form suggested by today’s authors and pseudo-celebrities. Acting oblivious to the class-rooted differences between those who could play cards all day and those who took four hours on foot to get to the houses they were contracted to clean, they persist in broadcasting a fictitious Pleasantville-like hyper reality of well-fed, well-behaved children who excel at school while their mothers take great joy in scrubbing floors on all fours and setting the dinner on the table with military precision every day at six o’clock for the rest of their lives. Even with my average middle-class background I can assure you that, were my grandma alive today, there is no chance in heaven or hell that she would refer to her weekly donkey-like walk down to the river while carrying two stones worth of laundry and a bucket of ashes for bleach as anything other than a royal pain in the ass.

It does not stop at celebrities or reasonably high-profile authors that churn out fluff though: playing frugal is so much fun that absolutely everyone wants to have a go. Vogue recently published a list of forty tips for fabulous frugality: they included a stay-at-home supper topped with taleggio and truffles and skipping lunch at Cipriani in order to adopt a glamourous cause instead ‘or better still, adopt a cause then talk about it over lunch at Cipriani’. Blog-land is bursting with diarists who write about their pressing need to be thrifty, objectivised by the picture of their receipts spiked on a metal stick next to their computers, and then yap on about their new £ 20,000 car ‘which is so much better for an expanding family like ours’. A friend of mine has been out of work since last year and while lamenting the lack of income, lack of intellectual engagement and lack of someplace to go on Monday morning, he just had a £ 12,000 side conservatory installed. The game is spiralling out of control. It seems so irresistible even I want to try it out, except the pre-requisite is to be reasonably financially secure, and I’m afraid by the time that happens to me, we may well have moved onto another state of play altogether.

Why should I care? Because the proliferation of thrifty titles bestowed upon the little people by those who need not count their pennies is symptomatic of a borderline farcical trend the new incarnation of which has already started to surface on the horizon in the shape of Miss Dahl’s Voluptuous Delights. A model publishing a book about cooking is quite possibly the Ultimate Oxymoron, if we discount that Tony-Blair-As-Ambassador-Of-Peace stunt. What next? A shell-suited chav on benefits writing a style guide? Now that would be rich indeed.

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