Books: The new poor lore

Christina Hardyment samples the good life, 1990s style

Getting a Life: the downshifter's guide to happier, simpler living

by Polly Ghazi and Judy Jones, Hodder, pounds 9.99

Getting a Life, the first homegrown publication in support of the fashionable US trend of downshifting, couldn't be more different to the last lifestyle manual to sweep the board. In 1973, Shirley Conran's Superwoman told us how to outdo the Joneses by a mixture of short cut and bluff. Getting a Life tells us we need to shift in the opposite direction.

Smilingly, we must shake hands with the Joneses, and offer to take their recycled trash to the tip in exchange for a few spring greens from their allotment. Me is out. We is in. For more, read enough; for rights, responsibilities. Barter is back: you scratch (or maybe aromatherapeutically massage) my back, I'll take in your washing.

Superwoman was a superficially frivolous, pragmatically brilliant bluffer's guide to looking richer than you really were. Getting a Life has fewer jokes and blurs over practical detail. It is, frankly, less fun, though well suited to the high moral tone of the new age. Downshifting, explain its authors (who have done it themselves) involves rethinking your existence in terms of quality rather than cash earnings.

It is close kin to the ascetic ethic of voluntary simplicity: a rejection of the endless scramble for goods in favour of finding time to be much nicer, to yourself, your community and family. It is not to be confused with downsizing, which companies do, although it may be that rapid downshifting and involuntary simplicity will be your lot if your own company is downsized.

Downshifting is of course only possible if you had upshifted first, but it is bound to catch on because it marks the renaissance of the long-lost virtue of thrift.

Cushioned for a couple of decades by soaring property values, aspirational ABs are now in a serious bind. To keep up with the Joneses both husband and wife must work; to get ahead of them, they must forgo kids altogether. Families are trapped between the present Scylla of children's expenses and the prospective Charybdis of a home for granny.

An ethic that gets parents off the hook by making it positively moral not to go to Toys R Us and Tesco, and which sees part-time work as an ideal rather than a second-best embraced only by oppressed womankind, will be generally welcomed. Aghast at the haemorraging of our hard-earned incomes, we are all more than ready for a glowing aura of virtue to be erected over flexible working, holidays in Britain, two-bike families, borrowing rather than buying, shopping communally, a decline of "easy payments" and "flexible friends" and the return of saving up for things.

The book has its weaknesses. It is almost evangelically eager, occasionally school-marmy, frequently naive. The first few chapters are thick with eco-myth and dubious statistics: "Between one in 20 and one in four Americans are believed to have opted for a simpler, more balanced lifestyle in the past ten years or so". Precise or what? The life stories have a certain fascination, but also terrible echoes of the awfulness of the age of lentils and dirndls, Self-Sufficiency and Food For Free.

But it is, ultimately, genuinely inspiring, a can-do New Testament with a host of useful references to other books and an excellent directory of organisations that are already doing their own downshifting thing with gusto. It may be a book to wield rather than to read, but it is a passport to freedom from the crazy must-have world wished on us by media images and shopping malls. Every home should have a copy.

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