When I was a child the old expression, “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” was a common observance by adults. Having a young literal mind I would wonder why anyone would want a purse made out of a pig’s ear in the first place. Secondly it seemed quite obvious to me that you couldn’t make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear! As an adult I find the phrase occasionally running through my brain, although today’s political correctness prevents one from verbally stating it in many of the situations where it would be an appropriate observation.

On hearing it recently I was struck by the notion of how the current recession has effectively been the result of the exact opposite. While you definitely can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, Ireland Inc has had remarkable success in making a pig’s ear out of a lovely silk purse. From a thriving economy and being listed amongst the “richest countries in Europe”, we have quickly descended to poor house conditions with spiraling national debt, growing unemployment, and, once more, the prospect of mass emigration. Suddenly economising is the new spending. We are being encouraged to shop around, buy less, haggle for big ticket items, cook at home; the list is endless but not necessarily new. Our grandparents and great grandparents would laugh out loud at our idea of hardship and how pathetically soft we have all become.

While doing some research for a project I stumbled across some copies of the English Times newspaper from 1914. They were from the period when World War I had just broken out and The Times was swamped with letters from readers either asking for or offering advice on what civilians could do to help. The letters were compiled into a series entitled, “How to be useful in wartime”. Most were about economising and there are some interesting suggestions in there like, “don’t starve your servants in an effort to save money”. While starving the servants may not be a common concern today, other items on the list made a great deal of sense and have a resonance for what could be considered an economic war. The list is below and anywhere you see the word ‘war’ in the following lines just substitute in the word ‘recession’ and you will see what remarkably good advice it is.

Tips from The Times 1914

How to be useful in wartime (recession!)

First and foremost, keep your heads. Be calm. Go about your ordinary business quietly and soberly. Do not indulge in excitement or foolish demonstrations.

Secondly, think of others more than you are wont to do. Think of your duty to your neighbour. Be abstemious and economical. Avoid waste. Do not store goods and create an artificial scarcity to the hurt of others. Remember that it is an act of mean and selfish cowardice. Do not hoard gold. Let it circulate. Try to make things easier, not more difficult.

Remember those who are worse off than yourself. Pay punctually what you owe, especially to your poorest creditors, such as washerwomen and charwomen. If you are an employer think of your employed. Give them work and wages as long as you can, and work short time rather than close down.

If you are employed remember the difficulties of your employer. Instead of dwelling on your own privations think of the infinitely worse state of those who live at the seat of war and are not only thrown out of work but deprived of all they possess.

Do not starve your family or your servants. Everyone needs all the strength possible. Give plenty of food, but plain, hearty fare.

There are certainly plenty of advantages to living in the 21st century, longevity and sanitation being at the top of my own list. But in our pursuit of progress and knowledge, we may have lost some plain old common sense. Our sense of poverty and destitution is largely exaggerated. There is no tragedy or hardship in not having the cash to buy new shoes if I own several other pairs in perfectly good condition but for the fact they may not meet the criteria for cutting edge fashion. The same goes for clothing. There is no shame in holding on to a car that while old, is roadworthy and there is certainly no suffering attached to not going abroad on holiday. I have heard grown adults (not teenagers) lamenting the fact that they can’t do such things at present and holding them up as examples of how ‘tough’ life is in the current climate. They talk in battle tones about, “Soldiering on in the face of it” and “It has to come good again”. A professional I bumped into recently told me, “I haven’t worked as hard for so little in years!” The air of shell shock emanating from every fibre of his being was almost tangible.

World War I ended, things got better but then in the late Twenties the stock market crashed. Just as the world was recovering World War II broke out. When that finished things started to improve again but that cycle too ended in recession. History teaches the simple lesson that what goes up must come down and go back up again eventually. But whatever position you are in remember; don’t starve the servants in an effort to save money!