Ever since the banks crashed in 2008, austerity has had a bad press. The politicians hijacked the word and used it as a shorthand for a particular economic policy characterised by public spending cuts. “Austerity” has become a euphemism for “poverty”. This seems to me to be a misuse of language. I don’t care for poverty, but I’m a fan of austerity.
For instance I like austere music. Do you know the music of Edmund Rubbra? English composer, 1901-86. Nobody does austere like Rubbra. I’ve just looked him up in my Britannica (1991 edition) and he’s not there. He has no entry, and he’s not even in the index. I find that quite astonishing. He composed eleven symphonies. My favourites are Nos 7 and 8, but with the approach of Easter I particularly mention here No 9, the Symphonia Sacra, opus 140, completed in 1972. It is subtitled “The Resurrection”, and tells the story of Jesus from the crucifixion to the ascension. It is very beautiful. You never hear it.
As you get older, austerity becomes more and more attractive. You lose the urge to material acquisition. Towards the end of her life, whenever my mother was presented with a gift, a look of horror would come over her face and I knew exactly what she was thinking: oh no, not another mantelpiece trinket, another item of apparel, more plate, more bric-a-brac.
I passed a jewellery shop yesterday and paused to look at the wrist watches in the shop window. Some had a price tag of £6,000. Clearly some people aren’t suffering from austerity. Why on earth would you spend £6,000 on a wrist watch? Maybe such a timepiece is fantastically accurate, like an atomic clock. But no, it’s really a piece of bling. You wear it like a badge. It’s a statement; it says something about you. You probably also drive an expensive car.
Other commodities can have fantastically inflated prices. Dinner at a posh restaurant, real estate, wine, Art. You can generally tell you are about to be ripped off if the language of the sales pitch becomes absurd. When the menu describes your fish and chips as “Fillet of halibut enjambments in a cataclysmic farce of coulis-drenched pommes frites compotes (£32.50) – mind your wallet. Occasionally you hear in the news of a disgraceful junket when a dozen public officials go out to dinner and you and I pick up the tab at £50,000. What could possibly taste that good?
Well, it’s conspicuous consumption. There is that marvellous line in Jonson’s Volpone:
“Could we get the phoenix, though nature lost her kind, she were our dish.”
Acquisitiveness is surely a form of addiction. The appetite can never be satisfied, you can never get enough. I feel sorry for politicians who get stung by undercover media people posing as Chinese businessmen buying lobbying favours. Anyone who feels they need (or are “entitled to”) £5,000 for half a day’s work is surely in thrall to something from which they can’t escape. How can the rich be helped to break free? They need the help and guidance of the poor, After all, we’re all in this together. It’s such a liberation to come to the realisation that you have enough; you don’t need any more stuff. Let it go. Pare down. Embrace austerity. Listen to Rubbra 9. Take the walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus.