Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The cost of living

The other other day I decided to buy some diesel. The tank was 1/3 full, but as I was near a petrol station it seemed a good idea to top it up. Even with the recent hike in fuel prices I was only expecting to pay around £30 was appalled to see the counter whizz past the £40 mark before finally stopping at £49.89.

Later I drove to Tescos. I hate them and would love to follow Tom Hodgkinson’s advice and buy all of my food from local shops, but their prices are at least a third more and I’m completely skint. However, even Tesco is now becoming expensive. Yesterday I saw an organic chicken on sale for £9. The two other choices were a value range one for £2.82 and another that looked identicle, but had a suppposedly reassuring photograph of a farmer on the label, for nearly £5. I gritted my teeth and bought the Dave Pelzer chicken.

The obvious answer is to eat more vegetarian food which, in addition to reducing my food bill, will also lower my carbon footprint and make me less likely to develop cancer. However, even eating vegetarian isn’t quite the cheap option that it once was. Rice has more than doubled in price and the fruit and veg section is becoming more expensive by the week.

As for wine, it is no longer possible to buy anything remotely drinkable for less than £4. Every week Tesco has half price offers, but these seem to involve hiking a fairly indifferent wine up to £8 beforehand to create the impression of value. Perhaps the occasional bottle of Chablis would be better than a regular intake of something that tastes like a fermented urine sample.

To a wartime Londoner these complaints would seem ridiculous. I’ve just read a fascinating book called London Under Fire 1939-45, by Leonard Mosely (no relation to Oswald). It is a comprehensive history of the Blitz and in addition to the usual military and political overview, it includes a lot of material from the Mass Observation movement. Although I knew the basic facts about rationing, it is only when you read first hand accounts that you begin to understand what it was like to live on such meagre amounts of the basic foodstuffs.

According to Mosely’s Mass Observation accounts, most Londoners suffered from a constant, gnawing hunger. Mothers would queue for hours in an attempt to buy enough to feed their families, often with limited success. Even the boring old apple became a luxury item.

Today we are told that people ate healthily during the War, with fewer dental problems and virtually no obesity. However, the Mass Observation accounts describe a city of undernourished people who are constantly suffering from colds and flu. We have a long way to go before we reach that stage, but there is always that worrying theory that we are only four meals away from civil disorder.

These days we eat a lot of imported food. That’s because it’s usually nicer. However one of the reasons why British people didn’t starve to death during the War was because there was enough home-grown food to maintain the necessary minimum daily calorie intake. If countries are going to survive rising fuel prices and disruptions to the supply chain, then perhaps we should aim to become a little more self-sufficient once again.


JRSM said...

A follow-up book you might enjoy: the fascinating 'An Underworld at War: Spivs, Deserters, Racketeers and Civilians in the Second World War' by Donald Thomas, all about the criminal life of Britain during WW2. It's especially interesting as the food shortages, etc, which you refer to had the effect of criminalising almost everybody, as a lot of people felt they had no choice but to buy and sell on the black market.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Well it's only in recent years that meat-every-day has become fashionable. In the old days it was a Sunday Roast every Sunday with the leftovers of said roast being used for various other purposes during the week.

Perhaps we'll all end up reverting to WWII cookbooks and 'Digging for Victory' again! Mind you, the nation was apparently a lot healthier during rationing, even than we are now.

Personally I'd rather have quality than quantity. In all things.

Steerforth said...

I agree, although I wouldn't fancy going back to the bad old days of British cuisine.

I shall have to get An Underworld at War' - it sounds fascinating.

John Self said...

The problem is that we have become used to unrealistically cheap food. In the 1960s, the average family in the UK spent 25% of their monthly outgoings on food. Now it's 9%. The increase in prices we have seen recently is simply the beginning of a return to more sustainable prices.

Brett said...

Another good Blitz book, "Few Eggs and No Oranges", the war-time diary of Vere Hodgson.

I found this blog after searching for comments on Warwick Deeping, whose novel, "Corn in Egypt", I found in my library's book donation recycling bin. (Go figure, librarians look in the trash for something to read.)

Published in 1941, It is about an accountant who, having received a legacy, leaves his job to go back to the land as the clouds of war gather.

Steerforth said...

That's an interesting statistic about food expenditure. Mine is nearer 40% of total income, which could be interpreted several ways!