It is possible, as, like me, you delve and toil in your garden in this spring sunshine, that you are unfamiliar with the joys of a category of clothing known as gardening cashmere. Let me explain. Clothes in the frugal NorthernReader household fall into three categories in descending order of acceptability upon the public stage: respectable, gardening, and recycling. It follows that cashmere cardigans, so far past their days of glory that they have become felted, knobbly and darned, find their apotheosis as welcome comforters against the crisp spring air. Jeans so old that their colour is now a matter of some debate can still see useful service. Proper leather walking boots, bought some time in the last century, soldier on under loving applications of saddle soap. Swathed in what I hope is the joy of simplicity rather than the smugness of self-righteousness (such a fine line, don’t you think?), I need books to sustain and celebrate the frugal life.
I was brought up on the witty writing of Betty MacDonald, who chronicled family life during the hard times of the American Depression in The Egg and I and Anybody Can Do Anything,a slogan which was pretty much the rallying cry of my formative years. She set a valuable benchmark by teaching me to presume that happiness is not dependent on income. There is no age too tiny to start drinking in this lesson, and the more we feign indifference to our offspring’s plaintive cries of deprivation because they do not have the latest gizmo and (all together now) everyone else does, the better parents we are. Amazing though it may seem, poppets, you really do survive the social death that is not-owning several impoverished countries’ GDP-worth of kit. Trust me.
There is a lot to be said for taking on board the thrifty and resourceful attitude of Mary Norton’s Borrowers, although living under the floorboards in someone else’s house might be taking things a little bit too far. Perhaps we should turn instead to Robinson Crusoe, which, quite apart from much else, is an invaluable source of useful information on the taming and keeping of goats, together with Fifty Things to do with various goaty products. Or, as always, Arthur Ransome comes to the rescue, this time with the trend-setting upcycling of The Picts and the Martyrs.
It comes as no surprise to realise that the supremely materialist Jane Austen sees money as the root of all happiness. Yes, you can make do and mend in a cottage (can there be such poverty?) – and jolly Country Living it all is – but the happy ending comes when your girls marry men possessed of good fortune. Even the uncomfortable fact that the wealth of the Bertrams, Bingleys and Darcys of this world comes from the sugar plantations of slavery is swept under the carpet. Before we get too high and mighty about this, we should perhaps do a tiny bit of mote-and-beam contemplation. Just how big an area is covered by the high moral ground when it comes to money? O dear. Are we going to need to be, not just frugal, but abstemious to the point of ascetism?
If so, we can at least, in this part of the world, comfort ourselves with Bede. Such a good egg. When you are here, you must of course go and visit his tomb, at the other end of Durham Cathedral from the truly astonishing and important St Cuthbert: and you can make your own private pilgrimage of the great churches of the Anglo-Saxon North while you’re at it. But read Bede. An Ecclesiastical History of the English People is a lot more fun that it perhaps sounds, and is packed with little anecdotes. He lived at a turning-point in the history of the church, when England decided not to remain within the austere Celtic tradition and to join forces instead with the might – and materialism – of Rome. We could perhaps turn aside for a moment from our self-imposed frugality to wonder at the splendours of the Lindisfarne Gospel while we’re in the mood.
Back to the simple life. How about Walden? Thoreau’s beautifully-written contemplation of the self-contained life explores his two years of living in the woods by Walden Pond in Massachusetts. We can add to that Neil Ansell’s Deep Country: Five Years in the Welsh Hills. Ansell lived alone in an astonishingly remote and astonishingly dilapidated cottage, retuning himself to the rhythms of the natural world. His book teaches us to look lovingly and with great attention at the small things in our lives. Both these books remind me always of Yeats’s poem ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’: we can picture the small cabin and its bean-rows in the bee-loud glade, the cabin by the American pond and the cottage somewhere in the quiet hills of Mid-Wales. It is good, sometimes at least, to stop and ask ourselves what it’s all for. And good, too, to make a life for ourselves that allows for plenty of time to think, to wonder, and, of course, to read.