Playing poverty: The book in middle-class make-believe

As the economy nosedives, handbooks on cheap and simple pleasures thrive. Susan Jeffreys reads the new literature of atonement
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

When you have read this section, steep the paper in vinegar and use it to clean your windows. After you've done the windows, smooth the paper out flat and put it under your mattress – so much cheaper than switching on the iron – and in the morning you'll have some charmingly "antiqued" paper. Use the paper to wrap the bed socks you have knitted out of unravelled jumpers and give them to a friend. The friend can then coat the paper with a generous layer of goose fat and use it as extra-insulation inside the bed socks. This is my gift to you in these troubled times.

Money saving tips, eh? The world never runs out of them. Here's one I used the time before last that the economy went belly-up. Beans are involved. You need two beanbag cushions and a recipe for bean casserole. Start cooking the casserole on the stove, with the lid on tight. Once you've got it to the boil, bung the saucepan on one beanbag and slap the other on top of the saucepan. Then you go out and look for work, or for whatever the tide has brought in. "The very fire" as I often reminded my eldest child when she slacked at the oars "that warmed you when you were a baby, was picked out of the river alongside the coal barges. The very basket you slept in, the tide washed ashore." On your return from trying to scratch up some money, you can sit in the tepid beanbag while eating tepid bean casserole. Another gift I bring you in these troubled times.

India Knight has many such "cutting back" tips to share in The Thrift Book (Fig Tree, £14.99). I once saw "The India" in her pomp, in full pink silk sail, her paintwork fresh and her brass gleaming. I was grubbing around on the foreshore of literary life and she was a gallant rig. It's a shame to see her now, trimming her sails to the economic wind and carrying a cargo of craft-work, free food and cheap-date tips.

She has an odd idea of thrift, does Miss Knight, and urges the newly impoverished reader to "go to Paris as often as you can", on the grounds that it's much cheaper than going to Manchester and you can spend the time "eating delicious food and looking at beautiful things". Hemingway saw it all so differently. "You got very hungry when you did not eat enough in Paris because all the bakery shops had such good things in the windows and the people ate outside at tables on the sidewalk so that you saw and smelled the food". Hemingway is mute on the making of greeting cards from "glitter, bits of fabric and mini pom-poms".

Actually, Knight can't be arsed to say much about the making of anything. Herman Melville will tell you how to make a poncho out of a whale's penis but her advice on patchwork is alarmingly sloppy. When it comes to decoupage, soap-making and making blusher out of beetroot, she refers her cash-strapped readers to appropriate blogs. This is not an advice book for the off-line poor.

Reading Knight's money-saving hints, by the light of an energy-saving bulb while a damp, diseased log sulks on the fire, I think of all those half-starved Brontë heroines, swatting up on their German grammar beside cold, empty grates. They were my role models for poverty chic, back in the bean casserole days. I was an avid reader of the yellow-and-black Teach Yourself books. You could pick up second-hand copies for next to nothing, as the drop-out rate at the school of self-improvement is always high. I would sit in the beanbag practising the guttural sounds recommended in Teach Yourself Arabic or winching myself up to a higher level of consciousness with Teach Yourself Zen.

Now, after reading Trevor Barnes's People With A Purpose, (Teach Yourself, £7.99), celebrating 70 years of the doggedly determined series I realise I could have learned so much more. I could have read Teach Yourself How To Live, with its emphasis on the merits of buying vicuna waistcoats and "crocodile shoes hand made to measure for £10", and even Teach Yourself Sex, which told readers that "In human behaviour there are certain drives which are definitely innate. These are not acquired like a taste for kippers or an interest in jazz music".

If only Teach Yourself Banking, with its emphasis on probity and caution, had stayed in print, we might not be in this mess now. And Elspeth Thompson wouldn't be urging us to "reclaim life's simple pleasures" in The Wonderful Weekend Book (John Murray, £12.99). She once worked in the brocaded splendour of World of Interiors.

I fished some back-numbers out of a Hampstead recycling box last week. Oh the glossiness of the pages! Oh the swags, the urns and the pedestals! Oh the dimity upholstery, the Gustavian half-tester beds and the silk hangings in the Chinese room! I will not put these back numbers on the fire with the diseased log, they do not burn well and, in these hard times, have a pornographic allure.

Miss Thompson, though, has turned her back on the lush World of Interiors with a vengeance. "Why this constant need to paint, paper, or tile our walls in bright colours? Why not just have plain white walls and wooden floors and let the furnishings in our homes –the books, the fabrics, even the flowers in the vases and the fruit in the bowls-create the character and colour?" Yes, books sure do furnish a room.

This is the literature of atonement. Women who were once filling columns with advice on £900 handbags and £90 per roll wallpaper are now telling us to fiddle around sticking autumn leaves on to chicken wire and pounding up aspirins to make face masks.

Catherine Blyth, meanwhile, is on a mission to save The Art Of Conversation (John Murray, £12.99), which she fears is being killed off by technology. The late, great Alan Coren would have none of this talk. He maintained that if conversation were better than television, you'd have a person in the corner of your room.

I mingle so rarely in society these days, on account of the fierce concentration with which I stow away the free food and the fact that the dress, which me, Mammy and Suellen made out of the moss-green velvet curtains don't quite cut the dash it used to. I do remember, though, how truly ghastly it was to have someone practise the art of conversation on you and to be put at your ease when you're already there.

Miss Blyth is full of advice on choosing a subject of conversation, small talk and flattery. She includes a thinly written, sloppily researched chapter on lying. If she'd stirred her stumps, got up from her computer and had a conversation with a couple of poker players and a few policemen, they would have told her a tale or two.

But none of these books is about giving real information or advice. They are beautifully produced, thinly written talismans; nostalgia-steeped products for a past that never was. Poverty is prettily wrapped in recycled paper and tied up with carefully saved string. Everything's cosy, there's still home-made jam for tea, there'll be orderly queues outside the newly opened wool shop and hard times will mean we have more time to listen to each other. Even the busy Miss Knight might come offline and dip into Teach Yourself Quilting.

This is all wishful thinking: a rose-tinted vision of the hard times ahead. Blade Runner was set in November 2019 and we look pretty much on course for that. I brood on all this as I look again for that recipe for bean casserole, put another damp log on the fire and reach for some proper books.

What you need for the coming troubles is a good insulating layer of Dickens, Brontë, Melville and all the heavyweights who will help you read out the looming slump. Still, thanks to Miss Knight, Miss Thompson and Miss Blyth I have a good supply of dry kindling. Books do heat up a room.

Classic guides to the good life

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Ruling as Roman emperor for almost 20 years (161-180AD) only gave Marcus Aurelius a keener appreciation of the vanity of possessions and aspirations. Infused with his Stoic philosophy, and tempered by the hardships of his frontier campaigns, his thoughts on the vanity of human desires – and dreads – have never lost their appeal. With earthly existence and its passions seen as no more than an ephemeral dream, he endorses a simple, virtuous life.

Walden by Henry Thoreau

The first classic of back-to-nature austerity, Walden arose from Thoreau's stint living in a cabin in a Massachusetts wood. Published in 1854, it recommends intimacy with nature, reduced spending, self-sufficiency and leisure for reflection as routes to the kind of happiness that modern urban life snatches from most people's grasp. But Thoreau is never a misanthrope, and advocates kinder human relations rather than a retreat into total solitude.

My Experiments with Truth by MK Gandhi

The memoir of India's liberator appeared in 1921, when he was already a revered protest leader. It switches between pacifism and diet advice (pure veg), chastity and non-violence, with praise for frugal living as the springboard for spiritual enlightenment and social action. Despite its focus on his inner life, the book became an influential hybrid of self-help manual and manifesto.