Monday, 3 September 2012

Living within our means: or, Queen Mary goes shopping

Ever since the banking crash we have been subjected to a lot of propaganda aimed at persuading us to lower our expectations. We have been living beyond our means, we must not have things we can't afford, the deficit (I think this is what we used to call the National Debt - it's not new, by the way!) is all our fault. We must close libraries and children's playgrounds, must work for nothing, must work forever (for nothing, presumably), and must listen to our betters.

Anyone would think that in the past people always lived within their means. To be fair, most of us did. In the 1960s, HP (hire purchase), an early form of credit, was looked down on by many who continued to go without the consumer goods which were being heavily advertised. It's a vicious circle: businesses can't expand if nobody can afford their goods, so if everybody lives within their means it is difficult to expand business.

An acquaintance whose father was a GP before and during the transition to the NHS mentioned that he, like many doctors at the time, feared that the NHS would have a detrimental effect on his income, but that he soon realised that this was not the case: whereas in the past he had treated poor people for nothing, he now got paid for it; slightly less poor people who had very little used to try to pay even if it meant great sacrifices, or if they had no money would pay in kind (the doctor was never short of eggs); but rich people, I quote, "didn't pay their bills anyway". The doctor's bill was treated like the bills of other tradesmen and, largely, ignored.

This reminded me of some of the stories I'd heard from elderly relatives and acquaintances. Queen Victoria, for instance, would (according to my great grandmother) descend on a hotel on the French Riviera and occupy it for the summer with her retinue. Great for business? Not exactly - she never paid the bill. Everything free, essentially, for the whole summer - which would just about bankrupt the unfortunate hotelier.

Rumours abound - too many to mention - of the visits of Queen Mary to antique shops, stately homes, country houses, all culminating with the owners parting company with their possessions. I would love to know whether any of this can be verified: I have heard stories about it from so many unconnected people that it is hard to imagine that it is all untrue. I have even been told that shops in Union Street, Ryde (Isle of Wight) had an unofficial Queen Mary insurance scheme, with boys keeping a lookout and running up the street to warn shopkeepers if the Queen was on her way, so that by the time she landed the shutters would be up and the shops shut.

Only little people pay taxes - or, indeed, pay for anything. Something to bear in mind, when you are being lectured by people telling you to live wthin your means.

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