Austerity and Greenery

Go back a generation to a Britain that had never heard of Tony Blair or Bill Gates, that still kept a packet of candles in case the miners turned off the lights and what would strike you was the respect for the past. In their small way, the British were ‘green,’ although few used the word.

The fashionable guide to high society was Ann Barr and Peter York’s The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook, an exercise in social anthropology cleverly disguised as light comedy. Their Sloanes combined patriotism and traditionalism, believed in the values of the old ruling class, loved the countryside and had no time for the avant-garde. Readers wishing to emulate their style furnished their homes with heirlooms and portraits, for this was a world in which Alan Clark’s sneer that Michael Heseltine had to ‘buy his own furniture’ still made sense. I doubt if one person in 100 understands it today.

Further down the ladder, the middle classes demonstrated their sophistication by watching The Jewel in the Crown or Brideshead Revisited, series as far from today’s critically applauded American thrillers as you can get. The Second World War still cast its shadow and Dad’s Army, ‘Allo ‘Allo! and Colditz were hugely popular. Alongside the historical dramas and comedies, antiques were everywhere, either as commodities or gifts families of all classes passed to their children.

At the time, intellectuals worried that the ‘heritage industry’ was reactionary and provided the cultural background to Margaret Thatcher’s long rule. The Observer’s Neal Ascherson wrote in 1987: ‘One of the marks of the feudal ancien régime was that the dead governed the living. A mark of a decrepit political system must surely be that a fictitious past of theme parks and costume drama governs the present.’

But Martin Miller, who produced the first of the annual Miller’s Antiques Price Guide in 1969, told me that he saw the affection for the old beginning among hippies rather than Chicago School economists. The people he met disliked mass production and the terrible damage the modern movement in architecture had inflicted on the cities. They liked the local and the crafted.

The survival of thrift after the austerity of the war provides a less politicised explanation for the nostalgia boom. Today, if I see cardboard boxes filled with jam jars, screws and half-squeezed tubes of glue that ‘might come in useful one day’, I can almost guarantee that the owners are pensioners who were brought up to make what they had last.

Miller got out of the business and sold his guide for a good price. It was a smart move. For the greater Britain’s professed interest recycling and reusing is meant to have become, the faster interest in preserving antiques has declined.

About a mile away from The Observer’s London offices is Camden Passage. It was the home for 60 or so antique shops selling everything from expensive Art Deco jewellery to battered books. They are closing almost monthly. In their place come the stores and restaurants for the modern moneyed classes: gastropubs, delicatessens and a FrostFrench boutique. The dealers talk of a plot to force them out. But if their antiques were selling they wouldn’t be in trouble. They’re not making enough money because of a decisive global shift in favour of the modern style in the early Nineties.

At a nearby auction house, a dealer reminisced about the good old days when his friends packed off container-loads of antiques to America and Japan. Now, he said, the export business was dead.

Miller thought prices in the domestic market were at their lowest level for 20 years. High-quality goods still sold as investments, but buyers no more admired them than art speculators admire paintings. They were just another means of banking cash. Ordinary pieces were harder to shift. As TV dinners and restaurant eating grew, the price of dining tables has collapsed. Few now want the paraphernalia once associated with eating in middle-class and respectable working-class homes – cutlery canteens, sideboards, ‘mother’s best china’. As for furniture, customers were no more prepared to bid for wrecks and do them up than cook meat and two veg every night. They would sooner buy flat-packed furniture and ready-cooked meals.

Peter York said that if he were looking at today’s London rich, his old guide to the Victorian-revival of late Seventies England would be no help. Indeed, he would have to exclude the English as they barely figure in the top echelons of London society. Today’s high-class style is the taste of the global elite. He sees it in the £100m London flats the Candy brothers have hired Richard Rogers to build for Russian oligarchs and Saudi princes. Instead of oak and mahogany, they have bulletproof windows and ‘panic rooms’. There’s no place for the old in the homes of the new rich and the look is as clinical as a City office.

I can’t say that their preferences worry me overmuch. Nor do I blame a couple who choose to shop at Ikea rather than take a tatty wardrobe from their parents. But greens should be bothered that their apparent triumph hasn’t been matched by a switch in taste.

Politicians, broadcasters, teachers and every other voice in polite society agree that to be green is to be good. Gordon Brown supports newspaper campaigns of dubious environmental value against plastic bags and his ministers promise to stop buying bottled water. Antiques don’t leave a carbon footprint, but the same people who carry organic food in bags-for-life buy furniture from Scandinavian warehouses rather than restore old pieces and shop at FrostFrench if they can afford to rather than wear second-hand clothes.

A green sensibility is flourishing without a revival of the thrifty virtues that ought to accompany it. The incongruity makes me suspect that the movement is shallow. Today’s green policies may turn out to be luxuries the middle classes felt they could indulge in the final years of the long boom, but are ready to discard when the hard times come.

No one buys organic on the dole.

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