Feb 22

Who needs money?

Forget splashing the cash. Happiness now lies in austerity.

If you buy anything this season, let it be one of these: a Recession Survival Box produced by the School of Life, a tiny social enterprise that opened recently to promote ideas for “living wisely and well”.

Your box, which has been compiled lovingly under the remit “reject the common assumption that a high income is always necessary for happiness”, contains a copy of Walden, Thoreau’s memoir of living in the woods, more books on side-stepping consumer culture and living for free, a Make Do and Mend pamphlet by the Ministry of Information, a water flask and mothballs.

You probably won’t take it to the hills with you when the apocalypse comes, but reading the books beforehand could be helpful, and the mothballs will make sure your clothes stay in decent nick. And it’s awfully in keeping with the times, which are being described in such slogans as “the new modesty”, “the new sobriety” or, as Sabine Heller, the editor of Asmallmagazine.com, Asmallworld’s new online magazine (readership: the best-connected overachievers in the world), describes it, “a cultural return to sincerity”.

Because, these days, it’s non-U to say you’ve just splurged at the shops, isn’t it? Along with all kinds of other activities that once seemed worth bragging about, but now hang about like dirty underwear. Such as throwing open the doors of your rented Ibizan villa to 400 people you barely know. Or blowing £40 on two glasses of dodgy bubbly in a rubbish, overpriced bar.

How quickly the rules of cool have changed. In the space of six months, ideas that once smacked of anarchy now seem not only perfectly reasonable, but also courageous and imaginative. As unemployment figures climb, people are throwing their hands in the air in resignation and jacking it all in. One friend who lost his job is converting a camper van in his parents’ garage and taking it on the road for the summer. Fashion girls are retraining as yoga teachers — the same women who were cat-fighting at the Christian Louboutin sale are now morphing into self-styled spiritual entrepreneurs advertising yoga holidays in the Ardèche. Or doing charity bike rides. Or going on protest marches.

According to Alnoor Ladha, a trend forecaster at the ad agency Mother, if, in the 1980s, you were distinguished by your wealth, and in the 1990s by how much you’d travelled, then in the late Noughties you are defined by your social value, the impact you have on the world beyond yourself. Sign up 100 friends on Facebook and you win a few cool points. Volunteer for a children’s day centre or start a grass-roots movement, and you’re laughing.

And in our leisure time, with little cash about, the way we entertain ourselves is undergoing a rethink. My friend Amelia has invited her mates for a stroll in Epping forest for her birthday. Having chums who can play the sitar or recite verse are the new status symbols. It’s a good life we’ll be chasing, but it’s a different sort of good life — less of a great fat pose. This summer, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is organising picnics to which everyone is encouraged to bring home produce. Expect egg-sandwich wars, allotment cress and home-baked bread. (Who will win? Grannies. Grannies know about such things.)

For my money, Bristol is where it’s at. In Britain’s most ecofriendly city, they’ve always known that blowing £600 on a third Marc Jacobs handbag is demented. The money could be better used building your eco-home in the country. The Wild Bunch — those boys from Massive Attack, pushing 45 — now live in houses with comfy sofas bought from the fruits of years of following their hearts. They cook dinner for friends, make music, relax and are very content. No posturing, no upward mobility and no pointless accumulation of stuff.

Was it only last month that Karl Lagerfeld announced we are now, officially, post-bling? That same week, I found myself sitting next to the head honcho of Dom Pérignon at a charity dinner. With uncommon openness for the chief of such a ritzy brand, monsieur executive president told me that as soon as he and his wife started a family, he’d given away all his possessions. “What did I need when I was surrounded by all that love?” he shrugged. I didn’t quite believe him, but he had my heart for a moment.

Jessica Simpson, Sunday Times, 22/02/09

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