Austerity

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Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
Rome, 1952; from the exhibition ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century,’ at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, through June 28, 2010. For a slide show about the exhibition, narrated by Dominique Nabokov, see the NYR blog.

My wife earnestly instructs Chinese restaurants to deliver in cardboard cartons. My children are depressingly knowledgeable about climate change. Ours is an environmental family: by their standards, I am a prelapsarian relic from the age of ecological innocence. But who traipses through the apartment switching off lights and checking for leaking faucets? Who favors make-do-and-mend in an era of instant replacement? Who recycles leftovers and carefully preserves old wrapping paper? My sons nudge their friends: Dad grew up in poverty. Not at all, I correct them: I grew up in austerity.

After the war everything was in short supply. Churchill had mortgaged Great Britain and bankrupted the Treasury in order to defeat Hitler. Clothes were rationed until 1949, cheap and simple “utility furniture” until 1952, food until 1954. The rules were briefly suspended for the coronation of Elizabeth, in June 1953: everyone was allowed one extra pound of sugar and four ounces of margarine. But this exercise in supererogatory generosity served only to underscore the dreary regime of daily life.

To a child, rationing was part of the natural order. Indeed, long after the practice ceased, my mother convinced me that “sweets” (candy) were still restricted. When I protested that school friends appeared to have unlimited access to the stuff, she explained disapprovingly that their parents must be on the black market. Her story was all the more credible because the legacy of war was ever-present. London was pockmarked with bomb sites: where once there had been houses, streets, railway yards, or warehouses there were now large roped-off areas of dirt, usually with a dip in the middle where the bomb had fallen. By the early 1950s unexploded ordnance had been mostly cleared and bomb sites—though off-limits—were no longer dangerous. But these impromptu play spaces were irresistible for small boys.

Rationing and subsidies meant that the bare necessities of life were accessible to all. Courtesy of the postwar Labour government, children were entitled to a range of healthful products: free milk but also concentrated orange juice and cod-liver oil—obtainable only in pharmacies after you established your identity. The orange juice came in rectangular, medicine-like glass bottles and I have never quite lost the association. Even today, a large glassful prompts in me a sublimated pang of guilt: better not drink it all at once. Of cod-liver oil, urged upon housewives and mothers by benevolently intrusive authorities, the less said the better.

We were fortunate to lease an apartment above the hairdressing shop where my parents worked, but many of my friends lived in substandard or temporary housing. Every British government from 1945 through the mid-1960s committed itself to large-scale public housing schemes: all fell short. In the early 1950s, thousands of Londoners still lived in …

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