Sarah Marie Hall and Helen Holmes
Whether trading food, learning to crochet or baking a 4-tier raspberry pavlova from scratch and without a recipe, lived experiences of austerity and crisis are often suspended somewhere between the nostalgic and the absurd. We see this in popular TV shows such as Kirstie Allsopp’s Home Style, The Great British Bake Off and The Great British Sewing Bee, whereby complicated, time-consuming and often costly ‘forms of crafting, cultivation and cooking have become representative of a successful historic response to economic crisis and austerity’ (Hall and Jayne 2016, p.216) Not only this, but they typically romanticise, or even reject, the uneven classed and gendered hardships that austerity previously and currently presents.
To redress this balance, we focus, in this piece, on ways of making do and getting by in austere times. In this context, everyday practices of making, doing, putting up and getting on may acquire new meaning, but they are nevertheless also markedly ordinary. To do this, we draw on our combined research experiences to date. In project one (Holmes) ‘Makers Make Do And Mend‘ involved 30 household interviews and on-going ethnographic work with 10 third sector organisations in the North West of England; alongside a Mass Observation Directive on the subject of ‘being thrifty’. Project two (Hall) involved two years of ethnographic research (2013-2015) with six families and a community in Greater Manchester, UK, exploring ‘Everyday Austerity‘. We show that, while contemporary forms of exchange and circulation are being reimagined and reframed for the post-crisis generation, for many these practices and the crises with which they are bound up, remain a mundane and relatively unexciting – not to mention painstaking, heart-breaking and energy-draining – part of day to day life.
Austerity then and now: posters vs. coasters
Ideas about austerity typically hark back to a time and place connected, but slightly out of reach and rhythm, with the ‘here and now’. In the UK, returning fashions from wartime Britain are seen as thrifty and quirky, hobbies as resourceful and useful, and music as patriotic and hopeful. In recent years we’ve seen the recalling of these material and cultural elements, as well as the discourses of austerity – the values, languages, associations and imaginaries that proliferated previously austere times. We are ordered to KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON, reminded that WE CAN DO IT and encouraged to MAKE DO AND MEND, whether by joining your local WI (Women’s Institute), baking cupcakes for the school fete, or knitting your own winter woollens (also see Bramall 2013). Not only are these discourses romantic and ridiculous in that they gloss over the sheer hardship, misery and strife that millions of people endured at a time of war; by their presence and popularity they also remind us that the impacts of austerity are not evenly spread.
The wartime posters, or more recently the coasters, pinnies and tote bags, that BARK OUT these instructions, presume particular identities, histories and skills in their audience. One that is predominantly female, that has the ability (and responsibility) to turn time and hands to an array of activities requiring different competencies, and also one that ultimately has the resources and freedom to decide (also see Holmes 2015). Many people need not be reminded to carry on, make do or get by, because it is what they do all the time, and out of necessity, not choice. The function of these orders is to reinforce the individualisation of responsibility for social inequality and poverty and so too therefore the responsibility of citizens, rather than the state, to address these problems within their own everyday practices.
Ordinary austerity: the whole sheep and the half lemon
Making do and getting by is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, strategies of self-provisioning are as old as human society. Academics have long held an interest in how families, neighbours and communities operate non-monetary systems of reciprocity, mutuality and exchange of goods, services and support (see Pahl, 1984). Rather than being symptomatic of harsh austerity measures these activities are part and parcel of everyday life. We by no means intend to make light of the difficult financial circumstances many households have found themselves in since the impact of neoliberal austerity, but more to stress that practices such as making, doing, putting up, and getting on are central features of ordinary household provisioning; practices which are often changed and reshaped by the peaks and troughs of changing family finances. Whilst these practices are neither in any way discrete entities, nor do they do justice to the full range of ‘getting by’ activities that households undertake, we consider them to be a useful way to explore ordinary responses to austerity.
Taking each of these in turn, we have experienced the influence of ‘making’ in numerous contexts from community sewing circles to homemade alcohol production, through to the upcycling of old furniture into something new. Old bedding used to make a skirt, excess home grown rhubarb turned into Friday night’s chutney or Saturday night’s wine, a CD rack transformed into storage for children’s shoes (see accompanying photograph).
Through the framing of ‘doing’ we have attended clothes swaps, women’s support groups, and community cookery classes, all of which illustrate the range of active changes people make to bolster their networks and skills and provide for their families.
We have also spoken with people who ‘put up’ with damp homes, broken washing machines, and no central heating; things many people take for granted but which for some are a luxury. Depending on the situation, ‘putting up’ with problems can also be because people are at someone else’s mercy. As one participant (in project two) explained;
“I just think, will we ever get to have our own house? Because the landlord’s pissing me off [not fixing problems in the house]. And you feel like you’re sort of… I don’t really want to piss him off too much because I don’t want him to put the rent up.” (Laura, interview, 2014)
Here, we offer a starkly honest example of ‘putting up’ out of necessity. Likewise, we have encountered those who consistently have to ‘get on’ – making resourceful decisions to buy in bulk, to extract the last bit of value from anything they buy. In project one, a participant bought a whole sheep for the chest freezer to last several months’ worth of meals:
“When I buy, I always get a whole sheep. It’s much cheaper than buying lots of different bits. And it goes straight in the chest freezer.” (Haadiya, interview, 2016)
In the Everyday Austerity project, during a day helping out in a community cafe, the researcher was given a mini-tutorial by the other volunteers about the magic powers of a leftover half lemon for cleaning the kitchen sink.
Cuts and pinches
Having said this, we are acutely aware that not everyone can afford a chest freezer or has enough money for a whole sheep. Austerity cuts deeper in some parts of society than others, particularly the poorest, most vulnerable and most excluded. Personal situations can also accumulate and become emergencies, crisis points when something, or someone, tips. The provision of emergency food supplies has increasingly been met by food banks in the UK, though in our own research we know these to also be spaces of shame, stigma, desperation and abject poverty. This manifests itself in everyday practices and relationships, with one participant from research admitting that ‘she lied to her daughter about where the “new food” in the cupboards came from’, so as not to burden her with the knowledge and associated embarrassment (project two, field diary, 2014). By presenting something of the textured landscape of austerity, an uneven typology of peaks and troughs, we do not mean to override or ignore the hopefulness, solidarity or extraordinariness of people who have the emotional energy to make do and get by. Rather, we argue that it is at best insensitive, and at worst insulting, for the experiences of those at the sharpest end of the cuts to become bundled up with either a niggling sense of nostalgia, or to be lumped together with those who are ‘just’ feeling the pinch.
Responses to austerity are ultimately varied. Not everyone has the luxury of enacting thriftiness or resourcefulness as a political act, and those who do may consider it far from enjoyable. We have made efforts here to tackle head-on some of the romantic ideas about austerity that are reproduced by most forms of contemporary media, as well as in academic writing and popular commentaries. Pushing further in our critique, we argue that it is inappropriate and potentially offensive to assume that thrifty, resourceful and frugal practices are tinged with the kitsch notion of a ‘wartime effort’, when living in austerity is a very real and painful experience for many (also see Hall 2015). Instead of being situated as trendy markers of sustainability, minimalism or freeganism – ostensibly fashionable and optional activities – we show how practices of mending, borrowing and revamping are entwined in the ordinariness of everyday practices and responsibilities. Austerity can be ordinary, and the ordinary may be austere, but being hopelessly romantic is the reserve of the privileged few.
Bramall, R. (2013) The Cultural Politics of Austerity: Past and Present in Austere Times, Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke.
Hall, S.M. (2015) ‘Everyday Ethics of Consumption in the Austere City’, Geography Compass, 9(3): 140-151.
Hall, S.M. and Jayne, M. (2016) ‘Make, mend and befriend: geographies of austerity, crafting and friendship in contemporary cultures of dressmaking’ Gender, Place & Culture, 23(2): 216-234.
Holmes, H. (2015) ‘Self-time: The importance of temporal experience within practice’, Time & Society, Online First DOI: 10.1177/0961463X15596461.
Pahl, R. E. E. (1984) Divisions of labour, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Dr Sarah Marie Hall is Lecturer in Human Geography and Morgan Centre member at the University of Manchester. Her research sits in the broad field of feminist political economy: understanding how socio-economic processes are shaped by lived experiences, social differences and gender relations.
Dr Helen Holmes is Hallsworth Research Fellow at the Sustainable Consumption Institute/Sociology at Manchester University. She is currently working on a three-year project exploring contemporary thrift.