A few weeks ago, at a party in central London, I found myself talking to an internet entrepreneur who had recently bought a smallholding in Herefordshire.
I was pleased for him, because he was obviously a very nice chap, but also felt envious: I’d recently taken over an allotment, and here he was with a whole smallholding.
He told me that he cuts the grass with a scythe. Initially, he had been patronised and mocked by neighbouring farmers, so he challenged them to a race – him with the scythe against them using strimmers. And he beat them.
Back home, I immediately looked up thescytheshop.co.uk, and ordered my own scythe for cutting grass on my horribly overgrown allotment. As a tool, it looked prehistoric, but I gave it a go. I can’t exactly put into words how right it felt – but there must be even more of the peasant in my bones than I had imagined.
Which is just as well, because with rising food and fuel prices there can be no better time to grow your own fruit and vegetables, or to clear the land with a tool that doesn’t require petrol.
And it turns out that what I’ve done is not unusual. Indeed, vast numbers of Britons are now discovering their inner peasant — not because of hectoring environmentalists but for the simple reason that returning to the old ways can save money.
In the depths of economic gloom, saving money is not to be sniffed at. City bonuses may have scarcely dropped this year, but even the rich are feeling the pinch. Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou told me this week he knows of several individuals who have stopped using their private jets, because of the expense, and flown on his budget airline EasyJet instead.
On CreditCrunch.co.uk, one post outlines how the rest of us are hurting: “My weekly shopping bill has rocketed! My daily petrol costs have rocketed! My monthly electricity and gas bills have gone up! And although Gordon Brown wants to cut interest rates, banks have told him to f*** off and have raised all their mortgage rates and removed their cheap deals.”
Economists tell us that what happens in the US will happen to us nine months later. Well, last week it emerged that even the American middle classes are losing their homes and finding themselves obliged to live instead in their cars, in specially designated parking lots.
Anything that might postpone such a crisis visiting the Flintoff household can only be good. So, I have thrown myself into thrift and self-sufficiency – and the surprise is that, like many other middle-class victims of the squeeze, I have found the experience tremendously enjoyable.
It gives us a whole fresh opportunity to keep up with the Joneses, while appearing to be above all that consumerist nonsense.
After scything my allotment, I emailed the internet entrepreneur, Lewis Orr, to let him know. He replied with congratulations, but I felt a little less special to learn that I was not the first but the fourth person he’d encouraged to buy a scythe. Grrr.
Meanwhile, I have found that I’m unable to score quite as many points as I’d like by growing my own food. Because whenever I tell people I’m doing this it turns out that they’re doing it too.
Nationwide, record numbers are registering an interest in growing their own food, according to the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners. ‘Families are getting poorer and this is one way of putting food on the table,” says Allan Rees, the chairman.
As it happens, my own biggest crop may come from the tiny garden of my terraced house: strawberries, raspberries, currants, apples, tomatoes, figs. As this indicates, the new mania for self-sufficiency is not restricted to allotments. By some estimates, as many as one household in three is growing food this year, if only a few herbs in a window box. Even housemates on Big Brother are doing it.
One area in which I believe I do occupy the vanguard is in darning clothes. I didn’t have a clue what to do about holes in elbows, knees and armpits till I found a splendid book in a National Trust shop last year. Make Do And Mend: Keeping Family and Home Afloat on War Rations is a collection of Second World War pamphlets largely addressed to housewives. Since buying it, I have darned three shirts, two pairs of jeans, a sweater and two socks. My needlework is not invisible, but that’s partly deliberate: I’m proud of my stitching, and don’t mind if people see that I’m giving new life to clothes that, a few years ago, I would have chucked out. In fact, I nervously predict that home-darned clothing will soon be considered chic.
In this, I’m reassured by a friend, no slouch when it comes to extravagance, who has embraced the new thrift with vim because she believes it can be “both fun and glamorous”.
“I think it is chic to have darned your own clothes,” she told me kindly. “Darned jeans, and the fact that your winter coat is clearly something tarted up from Oxfam, definitely have cachet.”
At the private nursery where she sends her daughter, she has noticed much less bling on display than hitherto. And she notes that in nearby shops in Primrose Hill, North London, the most expensive lotions and potions are now packaged to look bashed-up and wonky. “You pay a premium for that.”
If commercial products are pretending to look home-made, no wonder making people presents is no longer a cringe-making faux pas: “Last year,” she says joyfully, “a friend knitted me a beautiful scarf with a label saying, ‘Made for you with love by Alison’. This is all about nice thrift. It can be time-consuming, but it’s completely non-ironic.”
I’m pleased to hear this, because for another friend’s recent birthday, I cut three huge stems of roses from the garden and also potted up some jasmine for her balcony. Another friend managed to look pleased when I presented him with a tiny apple tree that I’d grown from a pip.
The novelist Eleanor Bailey believes the new thrift is no aberration but a return to normality after a period of madness. She offers me tips on how best to save pennies without compromising quality. I’m grateful to her, and write them down, but take care to tell her that I do most of them already.
When it comes to food, choose budget items carefully, she says. For instance: always buy the cheapest available tinned tomatoes. “But butter you should spend more on, because you can taste the difference – and the same for bread and chocolate.”
Sir Stuart Rose, chairman of Marks & Spencer, will be glad to know that I followed this advice and bought his upmarket chocolate puddings this week. But I must take some responsibility for M&S’s dreadful quarterly results: when my in-laws came for dinner on Thursday we ate just two puddings between four of us. “Half a portion is ample,” we all agreed.
When it comes to clothes, Bailey recommends buying upmarket items when they’re on sale, and getting the basics at charity shops. “If you travel to the right charity shop, in a prosperous area, you’ll get good stuff.”
As for cosmetics: “A good lipstick might be worth the money,” she continues, “but the best moisturiser you can use is E45 cream. We’ve all been seduced into having premium-range shower gels; but when I tried the Boots brand, the only thing wrong with it was the gaudy packaging. Well, if you could be bothered, you could pour the gel into a prettier container.”
Thrift seems to be invading every part of our lives. On a popular blog devoted to weddings, a post addressing the impact of the credit crunch advises couples to cut their guest list, have a buffet instead of a sit-down meal, and just one floral display that can be moved from room to room. “Or think about having pot plants on the tables that can later be given away as gifts,” it goes on. “And why not consider a black cab to take you from the venue?”
As for holidays, Thomas Cook announced this week that summer bookings are down 6 per cent. Tour operators predict that the days of frequent, short breaks abroad may be over – sorry, Sir Stelios – and we’ll soon revert to taking just one long holiday a year. Many of those, to judge by my own circle of friends, are going to be taken in Britain, and not a few under canvas. Others are spending the entire period at home – not a vacation but a “staycation”.
Another friend, an economist at the Bank of England, will this year accomplish the hair-shirt double: camping first, followed by a staycation. Slightly wrong-footed by my accusation of thriftiness, he denied it at first – giving me a lot of eyewash about how the children will enjoy sleeping in tents – but eventually conceded that they were not going abroad, as originally planned, because they’d spent a lot recently installing double-glazing – itself a brilliant piece of thrifty one-upmanship.
When it comes to luxuries, quite a few professionals short of spare cash are joining cashless Local Exchange Trading Systems, or Lets, to barter goods and services directly. My local Lets is in Camden, north London, and calls its units of payment Locks. Nervously phoning to find out more, I’m told that if I do something for somebody, and earn a certain number of Locks, I can use those to pay somebody else. With 60 or so people trading in the group, this means I won’t absolutely be obliged to repay the person who cleans my windows with an aromatherapy massage, if that’s what he’s after.
Among the members are a barrister who gives legal advice and makes bread, an art historian who offers high-end art books, a teacher who gives salsa classes, a brain surgeon who mends clogs, and a retired woman who knits jumpers in return for help with her computer. (Actually, I made up one of those.)
More and more people want to join, says a spokeswoman. I put my name down too – then go to the library to get hold of some free books.
I mention using the library to Andrew Clover, columnist and author of the new book Dad Rules, and immediately regret it, because authors, like the chairman of M&S, depend on people continuing to buy stuff. He shrugs it off, but agrees that money is tight. Like Bailey, he has experimented with budget foodstuffs, with grim results. “The 20p pasta is really rank and gritty,” he reports.
All the same, Clover positively welcomes the credit crunch. “I’m so bored with people talking about their marble kitchens and trips to the Maldives. The credit crunch is saving us from all that boring, desperate consumerism.
“I love the idea that everyone is poor and we can get on with the things that are more fun, like waving at trains and drawing cartoons at the kitchen table and getting hold of the bathroom light and pulling the string 200 times.” (Clover, in case it isn’t obvious, spends a lot of time with his children.)
“We had an art battle last Sunday morning,” he says. “My daughter went to her mate’s house and they decided they were opening a gallery, where all the pictures were £2 each. They were Matisse-style collages. A bit derivative, but all right. They took our money, so the rest of us decided to open our own gallery, on the other side of the road, and drive them out of business.”
I mention that some of the younger children on my own street recently held a similar sale, of old books. For a small fee, visitors could also stroke a rabbit. Clover plainly approves. “Long live the credit crunch,” he says. “And long live girls sitting outside the house selling Mr Men books for 5p.”