Carla Carlisle on the age of waste

If I had seen the crash coming, I would have spent my money on fewer and better things. That’s all I can think about as we get the garden ready for the Easter opening. I certainly wouldn’t have bought the vast flower pots that look like terracotta, but are made of plastic that won’t biodegrade in the lifetime of this planet. Whenever I look at them, I feel a kind of annoyance.

The same irritation that my friend Sarah Jane says she feels with her fake Mulberry handbag. That nice brass clasp has begun to peel ‘and it wasn’t even a cheap fake,’ she snaps. Fewer pots, but real pots. Actually, I reckon we all feel this now. If only we’d known, we’d have fewer shoes but better shoes. Fewer handbags and no fakes. Fewer black coats/black jackets/ black trousers. Less of everything.

The excess of stuff is a relentless rebuke as the news grows ever bleaker. Still, now hardly seems the moment to start clearing the guilty clutter. Who knows how long this crisis will go on? Surely, this is the time to hold on to everything, including fake terracotta, cheap cashmere sweaters made in China, boxes of videos and cassettes. As container ships from China sink into the economic ocean and shopping ceases to be our raison d’être, our mountains of stuff take on new meaning.

The second- hand Folio editions from the bookshop on Churchgate Street will be read. The Radio 3 cassettes of Hamlet and King Lear, bought for car journeys to Scotland, will finally be listened to, although we no longer have a car with a cassette player. At last, all those David Attenborough videos that we got each Christmas will be watched in the simpler, slower, more austere life we will now be living. If we can’t have the stuff we love, we’ll love the stuff we’ve got.

But just as I was reconciling my personal sea of waste, along came Dispatches with How They Squander our Billions, an investigation into the fiscal binge our Government has been on for 10 years. The investigative journalist Jane Moore sees Government waste as a cocktail, a toxic blend of greed, incompetence and mismanagement. Her inquiry is a journey into no-man’s land, from the derelict estate in south London which is army accommodation for families whose spouses are in Iraq or Afghanistan, to the filthy medical centres that the Ministry of Defence has let go to ruin.

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And this is before she adds up the terrifying sums spent on developing helicopters and fighter planes that have yet to be made, the NHS computer (coming in at £20 billion if it ever comes in). Then there’s the Tax Credit scheme, the Miners’ Compensation scheme (half of the £7.5 billion paid out went to the lawyers and ‘administrators’), Building Schools for the Future (an overspend of £10 billion), the atrocious new arts centre in West Bromwich. Called The Public, the building cost millions and remains half empty because nothing inside it works, a beacon of futility not unlike the Dome, in the middle of a town that has no sports centre, no swimming pool and few facilities for children. Dispatches didn’t even get to bank bailouts, gold-plated bonuses and pensions or Olympic projects.

The Age of Waste is over. Not because wisdom prevails, but because we are broke. Busted. Economists at the Institute for Fiscal Studies predict that the belt-tightening will take until the 2030s. If that sounds like light years, it’s worth remembering that it was just over two years ago (December 31, 2006) that Britain made its final repayment to the US for the war loan of 1945. In the days ahead, we will be glad we kept all our back copies of COUNTRY LIFE. They’ll provide comfort and amusement on winter evenings. We have issues that go back to the days of Lend Lease. I’m thinking of keeping them in my everlasting terracotta pots.