Monday, January 10, 2011 - 15:19
The rediscovery of frugality


Ray Georgeson

I spent some of my formative childhood years growing up in a large mining town on Zambia’s Copperbelt.  In the late 1960s my father took my family out to Africa on what proved to be a great adventure.  He took a three year contract with the UK’s Overseas Development Administration (now DFID) to teach English as part of a UK aid programme supporting the emergence of Zambia as a new nation independent of the declining British Empire.  With four young children under the age of seven, none of whom had been any further from Manchester than Yorkshire it was certainly an adventure for my mother!

Even now that experience evokes strong and varied memories, from saying goodbye to grandparents (two of whom we never saw again as they died whilst we were away) to leaving Manchester on one of the last trains to depart from the old Manchester Central station for St Pancras (before it was turned into a car park and eventually a conference centre) through to arriving at Ndola Airport in the hottest and brightest sunshine I had ever experienced, they are memories that stay vivid.

The arrival of our household effects in Zambia I recall was erratic, but I have a strong recollection that to my great delight, one of the first boxes that arrived contained my brand new Hornby train set, bought for my 7th birthday by my grandmother before we departed.  In an almost empty house, still waiting the rest of our stuff to arrive, I remember having the living room floor to myself as the train set took pride of place in the centre of the room, keeping me nicely occupied.

We were hardly a rich family, far from it – just a normal working family from Moss Side.  I recall a lot of hand-me-downs, visits to jumble sales (where my mother liked to be in early for the best bargains!) and not always being able to have what we wanted in terms of toys and bikes – but neither did we run short.  Reflecting with the hindsight of adulthood, of course what we actually had were riches in comparison to the young Zambian boys I was encountering for the first time.  Our house was in a suburb of houses designated for ex-pat Europeans working on development and mining contracts, but it bordered onto an area of scrubland that reached across to a township area.  This is where I first met the local boys, and being absolutely transfixed by what they had to play with.  Their toy collection consisted of a group of quite large cars, all made from scrap wire and totally mobile with steering columns and proper wheels all salvaged from scrap.  I don’t remember every boy each having their own car - I think they were taking turns to propel their wire cars down bumpy footpaths and across the dirt.  The amazement I felt at the cleverness and quirkiness of them stays with me today, as does the memory that of course, I wanted one.  They were great fun, simple as that.

The fact that my desire was for the simple homemade toy that I didn’t possess whilst enjoying possession of train sets and countless Matchbox cars isn’t lost on me now, and it is perhaps a modest symbol of today’s situation – where despite recession more people in the affluent West seek ways to simplify and rediscover the essential quality of life.  Our leaders aren’t really helping us – not only are they still failing to fully grasp the policies needed to deliver sustainability, in using the language of the ‘age of austerity’ they are creating an unappealing image of what is needed whilst trying to drive through politically dogmatic spending programmes.  We need to be smarter, and perhaps the language of frugality can be reclaimed and put to good use. 

My prompt is an excellent recent interview by Prof Tim Jackson, academic guru of sustainability and good sense in economics.  Consider this quote:

“Frugality comes from the Latin.  It speaks of bearing fruit.  Of our ability to flourish, not through relentless material profligacy, but through a due attention to season and cycle and the processes of maturation.  Austerity presents us with an arid world, stripped bare of meaning, devoid of hope.  Frugality offers us a way to re-enchant the future.[1]

Wise words indeed, and I hope a prompt towards the rediscovery of frugality as a valuable contribution to a new economy that spends less but invests more, especially in the social and environmental infrastructure that will help us lead a positive frugal life  - low-carbon, resource efficient, socially just and ecologically equitable.  Words that I hope will send you into the New Year with fresh heart for the challenge.

And by the way, in case you were wondering, I didn’t get to own a wire car, but I did get to play with one occasionally in exchange for goes on the train set.... 

[1] Tim Jackson (2010), Frugal living is road to new prosperity – interview for CNN, November 2010 

Published in Resource magazine, Jan-Feb 2011 edition