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Jessa CrispinBack to OpinionJessa Crispin

The ‘new austerity’ reading list

I don’t know how anyone reads the financial forecasts these days. No one seems to know what the hell is going on. From Europe, it’s a little funny — listening to Germany talk smack about Greece and Spain was entertaining for a while. And now the Americans and British talk smack about Germany — sure, they’re doing very well, but is that really fair to the rest of us? and so on.

Photo: Flickr/AJC1

Now that Britain is in austerity mode, it’s all stiff upper lips and visions of days past with queues for medical treatment, unearthly glowy margarine and powdered eggs. Rations. Saving up coupons to buy stockings. If any nation can get through another round of austerity, it’s the British. (Talking to a friend about a mutual friend’s predicament lately: “How is she doing?” “Oh, you know. She’s being very British about the whole thing.”)

If we’re going to do this, if we’re going to “make do,” and “do more with less,” then we are going to need better inspiration than the guides they handed out the first time round. As helpful as many of their tips are, things like “Get together and combine against Hitler by making one grate serve two families. What hardship is this compared to Russian conditions?” will not motivate us this time. (Although Russia is on fire and filled with Chernobyl smoke, so actually maybe this still works.) But luckily there are some wonderful books about this first round of austerity measures to help us understand the new one.

The Heat of the Day
by Elizabeth Bowen

Set during the last years of WWII and the London Blitz, it’s not quite the austerity period, but everyone here is certainly getting by on less. Specifically, getting by with fewer men. Stella is left to deal with life in the besieged city alone — as always. Her son is a soldier now, his father long gone and her lover is now accused of betraying his country. The women who remained in London, sons and husbands off to war, swinging wildly between gritting their teeth and losing all faith in the future, have to bear it somehow. And despite no food, total chaos and burdensome responsibility, they do. Bowen is one of my favorite novelists, able to sum up a character in one perfect sentence. Louie, a woman who goes completely adrift separated from her husband, is described as “all over herself she gave the impression of twisted stockings.”

Last Chance to Eat
by Gina Mallet

While the bulk of this book focuses on the problems of the food industry — the domination of fast and processed food, the overly expensive and probably fetishized organic and local movements, the loss of the old traditions of baking and cheesemaking — the best sections by far are her memories of growing up in 1950s Britain. Many of the regulations put in place made no sense. Some of the rationed foods were not rationed because of their scarcity, but because the government decided certain foods just weren’t healthy. Families who raised chickens for their eggs were punished by being audited, half of their eggs turned over to the state. Her family tried anyway — but failed to get the chickens to lay eggs in any reasonable place. Millet is angry at the politicians who thought they knew better how a person should eat and live and hilarious in her stories of getting around the strict rules.

Austerity Britain
by David Kynaston

Britain after the war was a dirty, poor place, completely riven by class issues and deprivation. Any historian working with this time period has a hell of a job — the era certainly doesn’t have the nasty allure of the war, the maneuvering of generals and troops and rousing speeches. It’s a quieter time, when social issues demanded to be dealt with with care and forethought. Kynaston does a hell of a job, mixing political debate, personal reflection and diaries of residents with his historical timeline of Britain from VE Day to 1951. In many ways, the issues facing Britain now saw their groundwork being laid during these years — particularly health, class, and education issues — and understanding how those much less charismatic (but just as essential) battles were won is essential to getting through this time period.

War Damage
by Elizabeth Wilson

For some reason, the years that we’re talking about here, the post-War years, are held up in America as these bright shining examples of The Good Life. It’s absolute rubbish, of course. There were years of financial prosperity, but that can’t possibly cloud the sexual issues, the race issues, the twisted priorities. And many of the movements that started then (the race for the suburbs, the “modernization” of the way we eat) are causing all sorts of hellish issues for us now. With “War Damage,” Elizabeth Wilson focuses on the sexual issues — from the inability of a woman to come from nothing and make something of herself to the total repression of homosexuality. One would murder to keep from being revealed as gay, and in “War Damage,” a “known” homosexual is found murdered in the park, and the authorities can’t bring themselves to care. Feminist scholar Wilson does an excellent job balancing the issues with the whodunit, never lecturing, and never tipping her hand.

Nella’s Last Peace: The Post-War Diaries of Housewife 49
by Nella Last, Robert Malcolmson (Editor), Patricia Malcolmson (Editor)

Nella was a housewife in her 50s when the war ended, and her enchanting three year diary — ending in 1948 — about the rebuilding of Britain is funny and warm and wise. She started her diary in 1939 as part of the Mass Observation Project, a sort of day-to-day observation of Britain during the war and post-war years by ordinary participants. Her account of the Blitz, the bombing of her house, and her work with the war effort was published as “Nella’s Last War,” but I rather prefer this second volume. After the war, these ordinary women, like the characters in Bowen’s novel, chipped in, made do, and participated in work and charity. Then they were asked to quietly just go back home. The disappointment and boredom would slowly build until the outbreak of the feminist movement, and through Nella, we get a wonderful account of how that frustration really began. The austerity years may lack adventure, but if this new era proves to be as important as the previous, it’s important we pay closer attention.

Jessa Crispin is the editor and founder of Bookslut. She currently resides in Berlin.