I was very sad to hear that Richard Briers has passed away. I can’t say I much remember watching The Good Life when I was little, but when watching it as an adult, it’s not just funny but very relevant to my life.
For those who aren’t in the know, Richard Briers played Tom Good alongside Felicity Kendall’s ubër-cute Barb. On his 40th birthday, Tom quits his day job and decides to turn his detached house in suburban Surbiton into a smallholding, complete with goat. I model myself after Barbara Good. She was a woman before her time.
It reminds me that this whole ‘back to the land’ theme is nothing new, and being frugal might be the fashion in this age of austerity, but it’s all happened before.
It’s funny, because it’s a kind of comedy version of some of my life – quitting ‘the rat race’ and going from being a ‘thing’ consumer to someone who only gets clothes for Christmas. Plus, it’s nice to see that other people – if only characters in a 40-year-old sit-com – get enjoyment out of a rotary cultivator and a chicken laying an egg.
I think the show was a bit ahead of its time, but the ‘make do and mend’ attititude certainly seems to have resurfaced periodically throughout the last hundred years.
It’s funny that we probably have all grown up in various ages of austerity – whether it was the war and post-war rationing, the 70s or post-2008. The ideas are the same, the sentiments are the same, whether it’s the Joads talking about the faceless anonymity of the banks who can and do act with complete impunity, granted powers to do things like charge you 250€ for going overdrawn, but not bothering to notify you because they’re coining it in until you realise (not me, by the way…) or insurance companies who, when you have had everything taken from you in a robbery, quibble over payments and locks and bolts, despite the fact they are among the most profitable companies in the world. You can see what drove the Joads crazy.
And it’s the same with work. Like Tom Good, you spend your life working hard on some pointless commercial whimsy, whilst the arse-lickers like Jerry Leadbetter get the offices and confess that they don’t work as hard. Anyone with ethics and values and morals better choose not to go to work for a corporation.
I’m not quite so gung-ho as Tom and Barbara. I took a kind of middle road, working less (though I know I’ve just spent the best part of six weeks slogging through fourteen- or fifteen-hour days, I get a ‘rest’ now – consisting of gardening and housework!) and being more frugal. I stitch up holes in socks. I repurpose clothes. When jeans are no good for wear, they become gardening attire. When they’re no good for that, they become dusters and glass cleaners. Then I wash them and shred them and they fill my Moroccan stools.
One thing I have realised, though, is the trashy quality of cheap French clothes and shoes. In England, you can buy a perfectly good outfit in the supermarket for less than £50, including shoes. Some of my best shoes came from outlets and cost less than £10 and have been worn to death. I got two pairs of Clark’s shoes from Kendal for £10 each and they’re still good. Practically the only shoes I ever had to throw away were a cheap pair of slip-on turquoise shoes that I wore to death and then they stank and fell apart. Here, I bought a pair of trainers that cost me 20€ – the cheapest pair I could find – and they’ve peeled and come unglued. If it were just glue, I could cope with it, but it is not. The upper material has fallen apart. That was November. I’ve probably worn them four or five times a week and never out for walks because I always wear my boots. I don’t know why France’s cheap products are not as well-made as English ones.
I’m pretty sure the French would pass scorn on English cheap clothes, pointing out that they’re ethically indefensible and suggesting, like the horsemeat scandal, that we don’t care if corners are cut. I wouldn’t mind but just as many French and Italian products have been taken off shelves. If English things are made in Romania and China and cost less but last, why are they different from the French things made in Romania and China that cost more and fall apart?
Luckily, Asda and Tesco deliver clothes to France now for £5, so you know I won’t have to spend 10€ on three pairs of ill-fitting, uncomfortable underwear that last 2 weeks as I did last time I bought ‘French’ and I can instead buy the Asda underwear that I’ve been using these last five years. Sometimes, going global is not a bad thing.
I wish that some of the English ethic could have come to France with me – things that make it easy to avoid being ripped off. Price comparison sites for a start. If I want to compare insurance, I pretty much have to go to four or five brokers and compare, like I did in England in the 70s I guess. There’s no such thing as a quick quote. The appointment will take 20 minutes or so. Just for a quote. There are some price comparison sites, but they aren’t accurate and they don’t include some companies, so they’re practically useless. And there’s no supermarket comparison site. With a recent study in France of the average trolley of groceries (over 200€ worth!) my local supermarket was the cheapest in the region, and Casino at Gond-Pontouvre was the most expensive, with another 20€ on each trolley full.
I’m sure I’m either the poorest person in France, or the most frugal. My weekly shop is never more than 40€, including animal food. I watch everyone else rack up triple-digit bills at the checkout and it hurts my eyes. They’re not even buying bottles of whisky or 500€ bottles of St Emilion, just the standard, usual things. 200€. Wow. I know what Tom would have said and done.
So, I will continue to live like the Goods, eating boiled eggs for tea and spending my days in the garden. Like the Goods, it might be a naïve and innocent and amusing to some, but at least it’s honest.
And bless Richard Briers. Few men had a twinkle in their eye like he did.