The Greenest Generation

Dig for Victory PosterThe May Bank Holiday has to be one of the cleverest innovations that the British government has produced. Winters here can be long and depressing: they’re dark, soggy with rain, and their chill is worsened by the omnipresent moisture in the air. It’s very rare that we get a covering of snow to enliven the scene: an artist would have difficulty painting the landscape without resorting to shades of grey, black and brown.

This makes Spring all the more remarkable: the fresh green leaves and blossoms are a surprise, an explosion of colour where once there was nothing but bare branches. Furthermore, nature in Britain appears to optimised to provide attractions and exhibitions: as I was driving home the other day, I noticed that a small grass divide had suddenly become overrun with wild daisies. The Bank Holiday gives us a chance to be delighted by this without the static hum of work getting in the way.

Britain’s experience of Spring is not altogether dissimilar to the place from whence I came, namely, the suburbs of New York. Winters there were also damp and grey: as I think of it now, the sound of water slowly dripping off the roof of my grandparents’ home springs to mind. Spring then came out of nowhere and washed the scene clean, daubing it in shades of green, yellow, bright orange and deep azure. My grandfather, resplendent in a Norwegian cardigan which was unbuttoned for the first time that year, would then potter out to the garden to plant his seedlings and tend to his perennials. He always looked up before taking that first step off the porch; he squinted at the sun, as if he needed that hint of light and warmth to confirm that Spring had truly arrived.

My grandfather kept an extensive garden right up until the day he died. The habit was ingrained: he was slightly too old to go fight in World War II, however, he worked for the Navy as a labourer. As a result of this wartime ethos as well his inherent Scandinavian frugality, he took the motto of “Dig for Victory” seriously; my grandmother followed suit. I can still recall the flavour of fresh raspberries, the tangy bite of gooseberries plucked just off the bushes, the taste of home grown rhubarb in pies and jams. My grandfather also grew tomatoes: this was his primary crop. He used to take old orange juice cartons, cut them in pieces, and used the cardboard to create a perimeter around each seedling to protect them. Nothing was wasted. I recall picking tomatoes as a young boy, the ripe produce so large that I could barely get my small hands around them, and the slight acid scent which indicated they were full to bursting with juicy flavour.

It is tempting to think of environmentalism or greenery as something new and trendy; the terms “green” and “carbon footprint” have been so frequently utilised that Lake Superior State University felt compelled to suggest that they should be sent to the naughty corner of the English language. However, when I recall how my grandparents lived and how their generation survived, it becomes apparent that being “green” is actually a very old way of thinking with its emphasis on frugality, thrift, and its common-sense contempt for waste. Because of that generation’s triumphs in the Second World War, they’ve often been labelled “the Greatest Generation”; however it is also fair to call them “The Greenest Generation” too.

This moniker applies on both sides of the Atlantic. My grandfather was probably unaware of the British Minister of Food for much of the Second World War, a gentleman named Lord Woolton. I was introduced to him through an episode of “The World at War”, which featured a film urging the populace not to be wasteful. Lord Woolton, a dapper man with a smiling countenance said the following:

“If you eat what you need, rather than what you like, if you avoid waste…then you are helping to win the war!”

I liked him immediately. I found out that he had a dish named after him entitled the “Woolton Pie”; apparently, he had enlisted the chefs of the Savoy Hotel to create a dish that would make the root vegetables being cultivated in gardens throughout Britain somewhat more palatable, even have a touch of class. That said, not all of the reception to this recipe was favourable: a critic once stated that it was a shame that such a wonderful man should have such a terrible dish named after him.

However, the spirit of avoiding waste went beyond merely trying to jazz up the food that was available; much of British wartime propaganda was focused on defeating the “Squander Bug”, a rather nasty looking cartoon character which had swastikas dotted all over its bloated body. People were urged to “make do and mend”; rather than buy new clothes, they took their old ones and refashioned them.

My grandfather didn’t need to alter his clothes in such a manner; rather, he focused on preservation. I recall his clothes closet reeking of cedar; he would wear suits in the Eighties that he had purchased during the Truman Administration. He was buried in one that was purchased before the Beatles were a gleam in Paul McCartney’s and John Lennon’s eyes.

Like the war time British, he was careful about consuming fuel too: even during the grey, dreadful midwinter, he preferred to put on a scarf or extra sweater rather than turn up the thermostat. He was also the first person I knew to purchase energy saving light bulbs: in those days, it must be admitted, they weren’t particularly good. Each bulb had a flicker and hum that was annoying, even headache-inducing. However, he regarded each low energy bill as a personal victory; he was intense on squeezing value out of every last penny.

At this point, it might be tempting to think that this austerity is the result of an austere personality. My grandfather was nothing of the kind; he was an imaginative and colourful story teller, and my passion for writing is directly attributable to this trait. The same generosity of spirit holds true for the war-time British; in 1995, there was a celebration of the anniversary of the war’s end, and the “Greatest Generation” had an extended party which rolled through the streets of London. At Buckingham Palace, the Forces’ Sweetheart, Dame Vera Lynn sang “We’ll Meet Again” for the Queen Mother. In my part of West London, I happened across a pub where Vera Lynn’s and Gracie Fields’ songs were being played on an out of tune piano, while characters with nicknames like “Diamond Lil” were singing and dancing along with mugs of warm brown ale in hand.

I never asked my grandfather, nor the revellers in 1995, if they felt that the world they built after the war was to their liking; I’m not sure. My grandfather was openly contemptuous of waste, however, up until the very end. Thus, I regard my “greenery” as a torch passed from one generation to the next rather than anything new; perhaps it is a reflection of a statement once made by a Russian poet: “Oh let us return to the past, and what progress there will be!” While the application of this principle cannot be universal, at least we have a shining star by which to navigate our present lives. Like the Greenest Generation, we can and should be focused on eliminating waste, being self-sufficient, and finding our joy in things other than consumer culture. As their lives prove, and the arrival of Spring shows, there are pleasures to be had that lay outside gain, outside ambition, and outside relentless materialism, if only we care to look for them.

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