Thursday, 3 November 2011

Keep calm - and waste not

I bought a waste paper bin yesterday.
I didn't set out to buy one, but every now and then, in lieu of holidays, I take a day off and scarper. It's a great way of shimmying down from the edge when life is shoving you in the back.
Yesterday was one of those rare and joyous days. And while I was out, I bought a bin.

Oh wow - 'be still my beating heart', I hear you cry.
Fair enough. Not the most exciting of purchases. (I did buy one or two other things, but the bin is the one that stands out.)
It's one of those British retro-style items, reminiscent of the World War II era.
It's pillar-box red with a stylised crown and a slogan on it.
The slogan reads: 'Keep calm and carry on'.
I would have preferred 'Keep calm and eat cake', or even better 'Keep calm and have a gin & tonic', but sadly neither of those were on offer.

How thrilling is that?

I could have had 'Waste not, want not'. In fact that was the one I picked up first, but when it came to it, I just couldn't do it.

Daft really.

If you are my age, then your parents were either war-youngsters, or actually took an active role in WWII.
If you are a bit younger, then maybe your grandparents lived through the war.
If you are younger still, then you won't have a clue what I'm on about.
But the rest of us know that anyone who lived through the war can't throw away so much as a length of string or a candle stump.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not knocking thrift, even thrift that to the uninitiated smacks of parsimony..
But where thrift is concerned, initiation does help.
Unless you've lived through the war - any war, probably - I don't suppose you can ever understand what chronic shortage really means. I certainly don't.
It's hard to imagine, after the surfeits of our own times, but in Britain, people were allowed just 1 egg, 2oz (not quite 60g) butter and 2oz cheese per person per week - less if it wasn't available. And meat, sugar, flour, jam etc etc etc were all rationed too.

And it wasn't just for the six years of the war - rationing didn't end until 1954!
I seem to spend a good deal of time scratching my head wondering what to make for dinner.
Can you imagine trying to feed a family back in those days?
And it wasn't just food. Clothes were rationed too. Try telling the average girl today that her clothes were going to be rationed from now on. Seriously rationed. No more Saturday afternoons in the mall.

Not everything was rationed. Some things were simply unobtainable.

So you can't exactly blame the older generation for hanging on to stuff - understandably, waste not, want not was their credo.

I was lucky enough to grow up in an era and environment of plenty, but old habits don't die, so I was brought up with the concept of 'reduce, recycle and reuse' long before the ad men turned it into a slogan to save the world.

Of course, it wasn't just me. Lots of people were brought up that way.
Buy hey - no one's perfect! Every generation kicks back at the one that brought them up.
It's a great concept. It's even a great slogan. I love the idea of it, and I wholeheartedly support it. And gees-louise, we surely do need to adopt it because over the last 60 years we have totally messed up.
But I don't hang on to every bit of string and candle stump.
Instead I live with a virtual wagging finger, with a shadow of disapproval falling over me every time I chuck a plastic bag, dump a perfectly good paper carrier, scrunch tin foil, scrumple up gift wrap or ditch the fag-end of a bar of soap.

But the greatest sin of all is to throw food away.

I may not be squeaky clean on the tin foil and plastic bag front, but I really baulk at binning food.

Apparently (in the British Isles anyway), - if everyone threw one in three of their carrier bags away as they left the supermarket each week, that is how much of their purchase - on average - they are going to waste.

You don't need to be a war-baby to be utterly appalled by that.
What happened to 'left-overs'?
What happened to 'Ort Pie' - something delicious constructed from whatever happened to be left over in the fridge?
Well, ok, an attempt at something delicious! In the name of culinary inventiveness or, failing that, pure unadulterated skint-ness, it's got to be worth a try.

Nothing - well, practically nothing - well, very little is ever thrown away in our house.
(How's that for self-rightousness?)
Before I fall off my own pedestal, I'd better confess.
For one thing, we are both based at home, so if something is left over from supper, it can be made into lunch the next day.
For another, I do have a battery of  back-up options. There is a strict protocol governing anything rejected by humans. First refusal = dogs. Second refusal = cats. Third refusal = hens, and if all else fails, final refusal = the bird table. I have to say, not much makes it that far down the line. Occasionally I by-pass the line and make an outright donation to the hens or the bird-table. Bread, for example, that has turned silently to the texture of old plasterboard. Ends of cheese that have transformed into transluscent plastic. (How does cheese do that?)

Second refusal = cats

And then - while I'm still in the confessional - there's the fungus-y stuff. The container in the back of the fridge that you pull out and look at and think - that needs eating. Um - maybe not tonight though... So you put it back. And back. Until eventually it feels so unloved it grows its own comfort blanket.

There are some things that have to be thrown away.

Speaking of comfort blankets and disposal, I had an interesting experience recently. I was away for a week, helping my brother move house. Lovingly - rather virtuously, I thought - I made a large casserole to keep the troops going for a few days in my absence. I left it on top of the oven.. About a week after I got home, I rooted in the cupboard for the casserole dish and fished it out. Gosh, I thought to myself, this old pot is even heavier than I thought it was.
When I opened it, there was the stew. Or rather, there were the mountains of the moon, comprising several species of fungus hitherto unknown to science.
Don't even ask...

(But yes, by some miracle, we are still co-habiting. Acceptance is just one of the many marvels of the human psyche.)

But for all our sins and oversights, there is very little that gets thrown away (or buried in a deep hole, far from the prying noses of rats and foxes).
Something of the make-do and mend of my childhood has lingered in there somewhere.
Probably just as well, with all of us the world over, teetering on the edge of serious shortages of money and food and resources. I can't see anyone in the first world taking very well to rationing though.
Hopefully it won't come to that. But maybe the shadow of it still hangs over us. Like some sort of genetic imprint.
I guess that's why 'Waste not, want not' was just a step too far. A truth too close to the bone.

I'd rather stay calm and eat cake. But if I can't do that, I'll opt for staying calm and carrying on.

Stay calm and eat cake


  1. A great post, Lorely. I love the idea of the unloved food growing its own comfort blanket!

    Despite being of a (slightly) different generation, we operate a similar tight ship in this household. A Sunday roast runs through to mid-week (and beyond) in the form of risottos, patties, stir fries etc and plates never get scraped into a bin (we have nothing as glamorous as your recent acquisition!).

    We also want the next generation to appreciate the value of what we do have which sometimes means repressing the groans of "Not left-overs again?!".

    I am so glad to have found your blog and will certainly revisit for pearls of wisdom and reminders of that lovely part of the world!

  2. I'm with you on all of that - it took years to overcome the urge to save string etc. and as Barbara will testify,it is only a partial success...

  3. Thanks for taking the time to comment! Glad to know there are other frugality-junkies out there!

  4. Candle not cast them out!

    Save them up, melt in a pan and dip pine cones in them. Make wonderful fire lighters. Good chrismas gift for the man who has everything!

    End of the food waste chain in our house is the wormery.

  5. A little story about the slogan on the cup. A woman was on the BBC's Antique Roadshow this weekend with 20 original posters with that slogan from WW2. The expert reckoned she was probably holding the World's only stock of originals. If she had only one poster and sent it to auction she would get about £1000. But because she had 20 that figure would be reduced to maybe half of that for each one.

    1. I saw that on the AR the other night! Wasn't it fascinating! They looked in such good condition, the posters she had - and very beautiful, with their bright, matt red. I wondered if there might have been other people up and down the country sitting up and going: 'I've got one of those somewhere!' (Ah, but where?)
      Thanks for your comment!


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