Have you heard of the mass observation project? At the end of the Second World War and for some years after thousands of ordinary people throughout Britain kept diaries about their daily lives. While we were in Newfoundland I read a book called Our Hidden Lives in which five of the diary keepers' stories were told. It sounds as though it might be dull but it was oddly compelling and you became fond of them all as you followed them through rationing and failing to win prizes in the allotment competition and buying new hats and riding London buses.
The most vivid and most shocking thing in reading the book was the sense of how little they had and how careful and constrained their lives were: an amount of butter to last a week no more than I put on two slices of toast in the morning; recipes without eggs, without butter, without sugar; terrible food of the sort which sent Elizabeth David stomping off fuming to France and the Mediterranean; no waste, no packaging, no consumerism. And yet they are so close to us still, their vanished world still clearly England.
Reading it reminded me of my grandmother who died a few years ago at ninety. She had been a young mother and wife in the war years and the even more austere years straight after, married to a hardworking man who earned very little, working as a cleaner at her local chapel and taking in mending and sewing at which she was astonishing good. She saved and reused everything (even the apocryphal "Pieces of string too short to be of use") and nothing ever went to waste. She made peg bags and aprons as presents out of dresses which were outgrown and had been passed down so many times they were thin and soft with washing: pretty prints which would have inspired Cath Kidston. She turned collars on shirts and turned sheets, moving the sides to the middle so that they wouldn't wear out where you slept. She made stews which cooked for hours and transformed meat with names like scrag end and neck of lamb into the kind of meal where you need a piece of bread to wipe every last trace from the plate.
For the last ten years of her life she lived with my parents and, my father's mother, drove my own mother near to tears of frustration by her refusal to spend any money at all on herself. Her winter coat had been lined and relined four or five times back in the days when she could see well enough to do it and now it was tatty and no one in the family had the skill or the interest to replace the lining for her, which would have been her ideal solution.
"She can afford a new coat. Far better for her to be warm and smart than to have money sitting in her National Savings account for nothing," my mother would say.
Sometimes Grandma would be dragged into town to look at coats but she couldn't bring herself to part with her money. "This will see me out" became a family joke and yet now I see it with more sympathy and understanding than I ever did when she was alive. She had been poor, the hardworking respectable poor with the shining front step cleaned with a donkey stone, but she had counted pennies into jars and clothed her family immaculately with clothes from the minister's wife, cut down and resewn into children's clothes on her treadle sewing machine. She never lost the sense that waste and spending were sinful and dangerous.
It got me to thinking about how different our lives are now: women out to work and two incomes and the fierce pressure to spend and spend on consumer goods. I shop therefore I am. Is it good that women have colonised the workplace and are no longer dependent on their husbands for money, making their mark, making sense of their lives by other means than motherhood and being a wife? I was a seventies' feminist and I fought for that and have lived my life to that creed, aspiring to freedom and equality, frantically balancing children and career, knowing that much of what I am really good at needs a wider stage than home. I would have been an impossible 50s housewife and mother. I love my freedom and my heart lifts when I get in a car and drive away by myself, when I made a decision that is mine to make because I have the financial freedom which drives so many other freedoms.
And yet what has happened to the skills of my grandmother's generation? Oddly, perhaps, in view of all the career stuff, I have them although I am not the Olympic champion my grandmother was. But I love to cook and sew and garden. When I talk to my daughters, though, I find that many of their friends can't cook, don't care, don't sew or knit or homemake in any way. Their mothers were too busy working to teach them and they live happily on takeaways and readymeals. They think my girls with their competence not simply at cooking but at baking and pastry and biscuits are quite extraordinary (in a good way) but (in their hearts) a little odd.
They were the fabric of life, those womanly skills, driven perhaps by necessity but producing homes which ran smoothly and smelt of baking and held darned socks, homemade curtains, soup bubbling when you came in from school. I don't want to live in a world of fast food and ready meals where housework is something to fall out about or to subcontract to a cleaner you work to pay for and are uncomfortable talking to, yet I also don't want to live in a world where my intelligent and talented daughters can't have the satisfaction that comes from a working life that suits them and uses all they have to offer.
It is all too difficult and I am too confused to make sense but tonight, sitting here at a computer she would hate, most of all I don't want my grandmother's skills to die.