Will Anderson: The Green House

In an era before carbon footprints, the ethics of 'make do and mend' helped save our planet
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The Independent Online

Mary Harris arrived in Britain in 1946 after spending her earliest years in war-torn Singapore and New Zealand. In England she lived with relatives in a house on the east coast which had lost its back wall to a doodle-bug. In the bitter winter of 1946-1947 the family took their coats with them to bed. In New Zealand she had learned to grow vegetables and to identify edible seaweed. In England she learned to salt beans, bottle tomatoes and pickle eggs. She learned how to make stock from scraps left on plates and to render down fat from the miserable meat ration. When she started domestic science at school aged 12 she was already a dress-maker and accomplished cook.

More than half a century later, Mary is still careful with resources and energy. She got in touch with me because of the similarity between post-war and new-century anxieties: "As children growing up in the war, we learned all sorts of waste-saving skills, many fixed in memory by deathless verse such as: "Switched-on switches and turned-on taps mean happy Huns and joyful Japs."

The motivation has changed of course but many of us ignored oldies are repositories of all sorts of skills which are now coming back into use. I have always watered the garden with the bath water.

We didn't call it "grey water" then, but we certainly didn't waste it and I still don't.

"What is the problem with people who think that leaving the tap running actually makes their teeth cleaner? And why is it so difficult to switch all the appliances you are not using off at the wall? I read my meters once a week and have fun trying to slow the buggers down!"

Mary speaks for a whole generation whose wisdom about the careful use of resources is undervalued. The green movement is less than eager to present wartime austerity as a model for sustainability yet there is clearly a rich seam of knowledge and experience here that is just as applicable to the modern world as it was in the 1940s.

There is, however, nothing nostalgic about poverty. As the post-war years slipped by, Mary found herself "going with the flow". When the first Christian Dior new look dresses appeared with their extravagant use of material, she salvaged materials where she could and did her best to copy them. She was eager to enjoy the delights of central heating and automatic washing machines and the advent of supermarkets made life with young children easier. Today she makes good use of her gadgets - computer, television and DVD player - not least in her meticulous research for families of prisoners of war in the Far East.

Yet her ethic of care in the use of resources never left her and has been reinvigorated by a very modern appreciation of her "carbon footprint". Now she avoids the supermarket and buys vegetables from the local farmers market instead. She composts "furiously" and always makes the most of what's left in the fridge before going out to buy more. Recently she has returned to boiling a kettle on her gas stove, thereby keeping down her high-carbon electricity consumption.

Mary admits to being irritated by the excess of modern "hamburger culture" in which all resources - food, energy and materials - are squandered thanks to a surfeit of wealth and a lack of domestic skills. Coming from a family with a long history of sewing, she worries that the transfer of skills within families is being lost: if we lose the power to transform the resources that enter our daily lives, we will lose our ability to care for these resources.

Mary wonders if there are lots of people out there like her with old wisdom for a new age. If you think you fit this description, do get in touch. If there is a seam to mine, let's do so and bring this neglected gold into the light of day.


Mary recommends Dorothy Hartley's 1950s book Food in England, a history of English cooking and kitchens which includes subsistence farming (Little, Brown, £17.99)


Averil Stedeford has done a remarkable job converting her Oxford semi into an exemplary eco-house ( www.sageoxford.org.uk/ecohouse.htm).