The following excerpt is from Simon Fairlie’s new book Going to Seed: A Counterculture Memoir (Chelsea Green Publishing, February 2022) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.
The 1950s was arguably the decade that best matched a decent standard of living to a sustainable way of life. There is some nostalgia within green circles for the 1940s, mainly because the war and subsequent rationing imposed a healthy diet (by modern standards) and very low tolerance of waste. But the forties were austere, and many Europeans spent the first half of the decade trying to kill one another, and the second half hungry. The fifties, by contrast, maintained many of the environmentally benign habits of the previous decade while providing an altogether better standard of living, not for everybody perhaps, but for the bulk of the population. ‘Most of our people have never had it so good,’ Harold Macmillan proclaimed in 1957. This was hardly a radical achievement after twenty years of slump, war and rationing. Meanwhile social attitudes only shifted slowly over the decade and life could be more complicated if you were black, or gay, or female or a child born out of wedlock.
Like 80 percent of British households in the 1950s, my parents did not own a car, nor did they aspire to. Neither of them learnt to drive. This was no handicap even when we lived some distance into the Sussex countryside. Southdown provided an hourly bus service along main rural roads. There were no bus stops; you could hail them anywhere except on a blind corner. They connected with a railway service that had not yet been eviscerated by Marples and Beeching. We could get from our rural home outside Lewes to London’s Victoria Station in about an hour and a half, which is roughly how long it takes today. Most rural kids got to school by walking to the bus clutching a penny-halfpenny for the fare. There was no school bus because there was a regular omnibus; and there was no traffic congestion round the school gates at 9 am and 3 pm because the ‘school run’, which interrupts the day for so many modern parents, didn’t exist.
Meanwhile bulky goods were supplied by delivery. The milkman came daily, the postman came twice a day, and the jolly baker came twice weekly. The grocer, greengrocer, butcher and coalman all delivered to order. A shopping expedition with my mother in Lewes included placing orders at the grocer and the greengrocer, which would be delivered later that day so she didn’t have to lug it back on the bus.
In towns, where shops were closer, deliveries were unnecessary, apart from the daily milkman, and the horse-drawn coalmen, who loaded black hessian sacks of anthracite onto their back from their dray and lugged them up garden paths. Sometimes they took a break at the end of the street, munching smutty sandwiches while the horse ate from a nosebag.
Another daily visitor was the paper boy who brought the news and comment that people now find online, and promptly enough. As a reporter, my father could cable in a story in the afternoon from somewhere like Addis Ababa, which would be recorded by shorthand typists, laid out in letterpress, printed in Fleet Street, sent out by night train, and delivered by lads on bicycles to millions of households the next morning.
The dustbin men came as well, though it is doubtful how much they had to take away beyond dust and ashes. There wasn’t a great deal of packaging and none of it was plastic. Bubble packs, polystyrene fill, and other such pointless irritations didn’t exist, nor did the plastic bags that society is now trying to ban; every housewife had her shopping bag. Dry items were normally sold in paper that could be used to light the fire. Biscuits were sold loose from large tin boxes on display at grocers, from which they were weighed into brown paper bags – a bonus for well-behaved children on shopping expeditions, who might be awarded a broken biscuit by the shopkeeper. Items such as fish and chips, and hardware were wrapped in yesterday’s newspapers.
Glass milk bottles were washed and left out for the milkman. You could reclaim the deposit on beer and pop bottles and soda syphons, though this wasn’t the case with lesser items such as ketchup bottles. Baked bean and sardine tins were much the same as they are now, but items such as coffee, milk powder, tobacco and posh sweets were sold in reusable tins and those that survive now command a good price in antique shops.
Dustmen in those days didn’t do recycling, other than totting, the unofficial recuperation of items of value. In towns, large-scale recycling was performed by another horse-drawn character, the rag and bone man, who would announce his presence outside houses with his eponymous cry, ‘Rag ’n’ bone … any old iron?’ Bones were used for making glue, gelatine, fertilisers and a number of other commodities, while metals were recycled much as they are today. Rags went for rough materials such as blankets and carpet underlay, and also for making paper. The majority of jettisoned clothes were made from natural materials – wool, cotton, linen and silk – and so could easily be recycled, unlike synthetic materials such as nylon, polyester and acrylic, which were just beginning to hit the market. These now result in about three hundred thousand tonnes of landfill and incinerated waste a year in Britain and are responsible for the spread of plastic microfilaments throughout the oceans.
Clothes were also relatively expensive, compared to today, so made to last. There was a fashion industry, but nothing to compare with the neophiliac trends of the sixties and subsequent decades. It was still acceptable to patch clothes when they wore through. Boys wore shorts, because knees mend sooner than trouser legs, while adult men, unless they were footballers, wouldn’t be seen dead in them.
In common with most households, we didn’t have a fridge, yet the amount of food wasted was minimal. Like many women who came of age during the war, my mother couldn’t bear to see food thrown away. Everything that wasn’t eaten was served up again as bubble and squeak, or rissoles. Butter papers were meticulously folded and kept in a drawer for greasing the frying pan. Some molecules of fat in the chip pan were probably ten years old. My mother held that fresh bread, warm from the oven, was bad for you, whereas I reckoned it was an old wives’ tale designed to ensure that we ate up all the old crusts first.
Other than cooked dishes, the only common foodstuff we used that derived any benefit from being kept in a fridge was fresh milk, and since the milkman came every day, there was no shortage of it. The problem was how to deal with any surplus before it went off: the answer was to make milk puddings. Semolina, rice pudding, custard, junket and flummeries were no accident of English cookery, but the easiest way to use up a perishable surplus, while other favourites such as bread and butter pudding, and eggy bread (pain perdu or ‘lost bread’ in France) incorporated stale loaves into the salvage exercise.
Food was simple and mostly indigenous, in the sense that it could be grown in Britain, though bananas and oranges were plentiful. Fresh peaches were unavailable outside places like the Savoy, green peppers were weird and kiwis and avocado pears were unheard of. Soft fruits such as strawberries, raspberries and blackcurrants were only available in season, making them a treat. Spaghetti was almost unknown outside Hampstead: a long blue packet of the stuff, adorned with medals and Italian script, lay unopened at the back of my mother’s food cupboard for years, along with a dusty bottle of Mazola cooking oil. The fats she used were bacon grease, dripping, lard, suet, butter and Stork margarine.
Most meat was from pasture-fed livestock, because the price of wheat and barley was higher than it is today, so feeding it to animals was extravagant. Chicken was therefore very expensive and a treat that we would only have at Christmas and Easter. Eggs were reserved for Sundays. Pork was more affordable since pigs were partly fed on food waste. But the most common meats were beef and lamb, the reverse of the situation today.
In common with many families, our diet at home was structured on a weekly basis around a joint of beef, lamb or occasionally pork. Cooked and eaten with sacramental reverence for Sunday lunch, along with vegetables, Yorkshire pudding, potatoes and gravy, it would be reincarnated on Monday as cold cuts, on Tuesday as shepherd’s pie, on Wednesday as rissoles and on Thursday as dripping sandwiches. Friday was often fish, and Saturday might be something like liver sausage.
Although most of the meat we ate was pasture-fed, and although a single cut of it was ingeniously eked out over four or five days, there was one respect in which the diet was unsustainable. There was no way in which Britain could produce enough beef and lamb to supply Sunday joints for all of its 50 million inhabitants. How many people in 1950s Britain couldn’t afford a joint, I have no idea; but many who could were buying beef imported from the New World, notably Argentina, or lamb from New Zealand. There was no prospect of feeding burgeoning numbers of global consumers, avid for meat, on pasture-fed ruminants, and in subsequent decades the meat industry turned to the still more unsustainable strategy of feeding grains, fishmeal and soya beans to chickens, and worse still cows.
But the factor that really made the British way of life in the fifties unsustainable was a resource supplied entirely on British soil: coal. Nobody was concerned at the time, but coal emits much larger volumes of carbon dioxide per unit of energy generated than oil or gas, and hence causes more global warming. By abandoning coal in favour of gas, and through improvements in technological efficiency, today we only produce two-thirds as much greenhouse gas per person as we did in the 1950s.
Bravo! This is a cause for rejoicing – until you include the figures for UK consumption (i.e. all the goods we import, notably from China), in which case the figure bounces back more or less to where it was in the 1950s. In other words, despite relinquishing coal, and despite all the improvements in efficiency, and despite the fact that we now generate a fair amount of renewable energy, we are each still causing just as much global warming as we were in the 1950s. Maybe we should be looking at the 1950s way of life and seeing what aspects could be emulated. Perhaps we already are. Note, for example, the return of the shopping bag.
There is a feeling amongst some who can’t remember the fifties that they were colourless and grim. It is true that buildings in cities such as London and Manchester were black with soot, and the programme of scrubbing them up in subsequent decades did a lot to brighten up the urban environment. Aside from London buses and phone boxes, primary colours were in short supply, because few things were made from plastic. Highvis jackets had not been invented and Day-Glo yellow was unimaginable. Flashing neon lights belonged in Piccadilly. The evocation of gloom is compounded by the fact that most photos from the fifties are black and white, whereas colour film arrived in people’s cameras just in time to capture the swinging sixties.
But the sun shone then, as it does now, waves beat upon the white cliffs of Dover, flowers blossomed in spring, corn three-foot-high turned yellow in summer, apples ripened in autumn. Stars twinkled at night, brighter than they do now, and Christmas trees were aglow with real candles. Bells rang in church, juke boxes blared in chrome-lined milk bars and the BBC played Music While You Work. Girls jived in flared skirts with boys sporting loud ties, and choirboys had rosy cheeks and crisp white surplices. There were no punks with purple hair, but well-to-do widows painted their lips scarlet and draped dead foxes round their necks.
Colours shone brighter then precisely because they were not put in the shade by flashing lights, illuminated screens and crude plastic. There is a lot to be said for a restricted palette.
To understand what was best about the fifties, compare the finely crafted illustrations and the urbane layout of Radio Times when it was a black and white letterpress publication, to the garish computer-generated image soup that appears under the same title today, and judge which represents the higher level of civilisation. Less is often more, and that is a lesson to draw from the 1950s.