April 11, 2020
In times of adversity we should remember how our parents and grandparents managed in difficult times. Most of us have heard about the impact on society of the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Second World War which followed.
Those cruel years followed the 1920s, a decade of frivolous indulgence for many following the horror years of World War One and the subsequent influenza pandemic. Like Covid19 that pandemic also required social distancing and the closure of gathering places like dance halls and movie theatres.
Then came the collapse of economies around the world. Times were tough, we were told, and people had to be self-reliant and resilient. My parents, like those of most of my generation born in the final years of World War Two and thereafter, often told of how they went without many of things us children took for granted. There was no money for anything beyond absolute essentials, and even some of those were unaffordable to many families. Communities however were strengthened by the need to work together for the common good. Skills were pooled and while they were poor, so was everyone else around them. Those who were skilled at knitting and sewing often made and mended for several families and those who knew about home butchery did so for others. Nothing was wasted and few things were thrown away. Flour bags were made of a fine linen and used for childrens’ underwear and sugar bags were embroidered and used for oven clothes, laundry aprons and even lounge cushions. That generation retained those skills and attitudes for the rest of their lives, but subsequent generations seem to have shunned them.
Without the money to pay tradesmen, working bees were a common event covering almost everything from filling sheds with firewood and getting the hay cut and stacked to painting the local school and even building a little house for a retired district nurse. We listened, we heard but how much notice did we really take and how much have we forgotten?
We are now facing our own test of resilience and community cohesion and, while the reasons for our difficulties are different to those of previous generations, the impact is very similar and the need for communities to look after their own has never been greater.
Already there are stories of heroic efforts and astonishing generosity by hundreds of people to help the most vulnerable in society. There are also disappointing tales of foolish risk taking by a small number who care nothing for those around them and an increase in the activities of scammers and cheats attempting to take advantage of the situation. There were similar selfish people in the 1930s.
It is fascinating to see how reliant many people have become on what a previous generation would have seen as unnecessary luxuries. In the past week we have heard of people who have not been able to go to a hair dressing salon and some hairdressers even advising against people cutting and colouring their own hair. Really? Home hair dressing is relatively easy provided good sharp scissors or proper clippers are used rather than a blunt kitchen knife!
I still have the hand clippers our father used cut our hair, usually on a Sunday afternoon, to give us the traditional short back and sides look. Those instruments of torture pulled out as much hair as they cut but everyone was the same. In our teenage years the girls we took to dances gathered at one of their homes to do their own hair and, I recall, they looked as glamorous as the women who pay a fortune for a visit to one of today’s saloons.
There are many things that are nice to have but not really important in the overall scheme of things. The tragedy is that a whole generation has grown up not knowing how to provide the basic necessities of life for themselves. Basic things like knitting, sewing, managing a vegetable garden and preserving surplus seasonal fruit and vegetables were once the common skills handed down the generations. Home butchery was also a useful skill but today is only practised in rural communities. It is a fortunate teenager today who has parents or teachers to show them these things.
The lessons we learn and adjustments we make over the next few weeks should be permanent so that we are in better shape to deal with the next emergency. If we can do without it for a month, it is probably not very important. If we can do without it for several months we probably never needed it to start with. If we can do without it for a year, we will probably need to be reminded what it was.