Jayne Dowle: Lessons in how to face austerity on home front

Today is an anniversary that might pass you by. It’s not a big one, like the start or end of a war. It won’t be celebrated by grand parades through the streets and the ceremonial laying of wreaths. It might, however, be remembered when you stand in the kitchen later wondering what to cook for tea.

It is 75 years today since rationing was introduced in the Second World War. It is difficult to imagine now what the impact of limiting the amount of bacon, butter and sugar must have had on people. What must it have been like, being told there was only so much food to go round? And of course, rationing expanded to cover not only all kinds of food, but clothing, petrol and basic items such as soap. Can you imagine the panic that would break out these days? You only have to witness the unedifying spectacle of women fighting over cut-price tellies in a sale to envisage what would happen. We wouldn’t manage a day without civil unrest, never mind buckle down and get on with deprivation for years.

It might be difficult to imagine, but for some of us it will always be difficult to forget. I still use recipes that have their roots in my grandmother’s wartime economies. Like meat and potato pie. When meat was scarce, there would be more potato than meat. It’s the same with hash, a moveable feast if ever there was one. I never cook this family favourite without thinking of grandma gathering together the vegetables and weighing them up against the stewing beef. I always have a little minute to think of my granddad too. He was a fanatical gardener and kept an allotment where he grew vegetables and no doubt swapped cabbages for eggs. In doing so, he helped his family survive in hard times.

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There is so much nonsense talked about “self-sufficiency” these days. It’s the trendy in-thing. It leads to silly urbanites attempting to keep chickens in their backyards with no more clue about how to look after them than what they find on the internet. However, we could do worse than to look to our frugal forefathers and consider just how self-sufficient we could be. It’s too easy to spend money without thinking how we could save.

It’s the same when I come back from shopping. Everyone in this house raises their eyebrows at me when I sit there with my list and pen, checking the pennies in my purse. Yet, I feel like I am carrying on a family tradition which I know started with my grandma totting up her ration books. I sense her looking down at me with approval – and believe me, grandma’s approval was hard-won – that despite the indulgencies of our modern lives, I’m still careful about where my resources go.

I still follow my grandma’s example then. However, it sounds incredible that a whole country of 50 million people fell in and (more or less) abided by the rules of rationing throughout the war and beyond. It is difficult to contemplate such levels of mass obedience these days when we all “know our rights” and personal freedom is held as sacrosanct above all else. I don’t think any of us could realistically argue that it would be preferable to go back to such a time. However, I think there are things we could all learn.

It is easy to assume that the lessons would be to be careful and parsimonious. Actually though, I’d argue that rationing helped to foster a spirit of innovation and spurred the imagination. It is here that we moderns could especially benefit, especially when it comes to material goods. Make do and mend has a lot to recommend it.

As a child, I loved to hear stories from older relatives about wedding dresses fashioned out of parachute silk and dance costumes conjured up out of curtains. I spent many a Sunday afternoon in my auntie’s back bedroom, learning to sew on her old treadle machine and picking up how to make something out of nothing. From her, I learnt to cut the buttons off items that were worn out, and save them in a tin. She also showed me how to draw a line up the back of my leg so it looked like I was wearing stockings, but I have to admit that’s a tip I haven’t really used that often.

It’s not until I think about it that I realise how much has been passed down to me. I look at the myriad jumble of “just-in-case” items in my kitchen drawer and remember with a rueful smile my grandad’s habit of hoarding string. I see the line of jars in the cellar and think about the jam my grandma used to make from blackberries gathered from the hedgerows. I might not get round to making the jam, but I still can’t throw a perfectly good jar away. I see the carrier bags stashed for reuse and the leftovers in the fridge, and I quietly commemorate an anniversary that we would all do well to remember.