The severity of austerity

During a recent phone conversation with my mother (about the outrageous perfidy of the Greeks) she mentioned how she’d been considering withdrawing a large sum of money from her bank and hiding it in her house.

She lives alone in a small village in France and had been reading the advice column of a chartered accountant in her local paper who’d been saying that if the French banks went into meltdown it would become virtually impossible to get your hands on ready cash, so people (like my mum) should prepare themselves in advance by amassing little, precautionary nest eggs at home.

My mother’s concerns centred chiefly around the well-being of her awful cat (Harry – who’s a little shit and never lets her stroke him). I told her to build up a larder – a small store of basics – like my gran had done during the war.

The prospect of my mum and a larder full of tuna and tea-bags really brought home the new dawn of the Age of Austerity in a way that no number of screaming news headlines could. But while it made me feel poignant – even slightly panicked – the truth is that I like to think I already have the whole austerity thing down pat (in so far as real austerity is something a relatively solvent western tick sucking complacently on the dwindling flesh of the world’s capitalist buttock can comprehend).

This is because I am deprived (on health grounds) of virtually everything I truly relish. In brief, I’m partially deaf (no birdsong, no sticky-beaking on buses) a type-two diabetic (no puddings, booze or sweets), a vegetarian (no flesh, no gravy) with additional gluten intolerance (no bread – no fast-food) and a chronic allergy to virtually all natural and unnatural fragrances (no perfume, no pampering), have a kinked spine (strict yoga regimen) a sleep disorder (no casual dozing) and two dogs (no lie-ins, no spontaneity, no foreign jaunts).

As you can imagine, I am a pure joy at dinner parties.

In my extensive experience, the most dangerous thing for a person who lives austerely is a break in routine. I have recently finished a book (the past 18 months without a proper day off) and am now officially “on holiday”. Holiday time, alas, is a challenging and dangerous time for the austere. I have to be constantly on my guard against any kind of “fun” or “indulgence”. In fact, since being “on holiday” I have been in a terrible mood and have started to long for a time when I no longer have to pretend that I am “enjoying myself” and “relaxing”.

In general, the best way to endure a sense of constant (resentful) privation is to force the brain to ignore the things it can’t have and focus creatively on the few things it can. But herein lie still new dangers. A few years ago I listened to a radio programme about how the people of Bolivia celebrate the potato. This struck me as hilarious. They have an “engagement” potato, for example, and a “wedding” potato.

Nowadays I find that a large portion of my day is spent dwelling obsessively on potatoes (one of the few foods I can eat with relative ease). The start of the Maris Piper season brings an atmosphere of dizzy celebration to our home (it’s so versatile! So fluffy!) while the accidental purchase of Marfonas by my bewildered partner, Ben, generates nigh-on a hysterical breakdown (“How could you?! They actively resist fat, you insensitive lunk!”)

My two male French bulldogs have been exhibiting aggressive tendencies of late, and several people have suggested I get them neutered. This has spawned still more inner turmoil on my part because watching their little round testicles jiggling as they trot along the road is one of the few pleasures in my day that has no palpable impact on my blood sugar levels.

It gets worse. By a bizarre and cruel twist of fate I have discovered that I am able to wash my hair with “sensitive scalp” Head and Shoulders (so long as I rinse ferociously and pull my hair away from my face on the first day post-wash). Ben enjoys the rare aura of forbidden fragrance this brings to our puritanical home and has taken to commenting on it, jauntily, from time to time.

Last Friday (second week of “holiday”) he wandered past the bathroom as I was rinsing and muttered, “Nice smell!” in passing. This promptly generated a half-hour argument (me dripping, gesticulating, enraged) because I don’t actually like the smell of Head and Shoulders and felt that being constantly complimented on it was something akin to an insult. Ben consequently promised faithfully never to compliment me on it again. This then made me feel like compliments were yet another damn thing I was going to be obliged to give up.

Hmmn. How does that saying go about hell being a prison of our own devising? Maybe I haven’t got the whole austerity thing quite down pat, after all.

Nicola Barker’s eight novels and two collections of short stories have all just been reissued by 4th Estate

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