My six year-old daughter's eyes saucered in horror. Grandma was explaining that after the Second World War ("Has daddy told you about war yet?") food was rationed in Britain, and that sweet afterthoughts to meals in her young world were rare. The idea that cakes, chocolate and sponges could ever be restricted was, to one little girl at least, honestly shocking.
I laughed at her naïvety, but I was just as guilty. I added that petrol was also rationed after the War, to which Meredith asked, "How did anyone drive?" When I said people couldn't and they had to get the bus, grandma noted that people, in general, didn't have cars in the forties. That there was a recent time in Britain where private vehicles weren't freely available hadn't even occurred to me.
This was over the Christmas break, and my stupidness gave me pause. I consider myself to be relatively mindful of my wealth in global terms, but I've apparently been so lavished with middle class luxury that I've started to take the near-lunatic comforts of my life for granted. I'm far from alone.
The holiday period is one of unbridled excess in many western households. The present-opening sequence of Christmas morning, in particular, can take on a gruesome air. I love my children dearly (I have three kids, my daughter and three year-old twin boys), but the depredation of their attack on the obscenely large pile of glittering boxes under the tree made me wince this year. A friend confessed the same misgivings in a call a few days later, saying his son goes into a pseudo-intoxicated greed-loop, asking for more and more presents while the gifts he's just opened are left on the carpet and ignored.
Our commonplace privilege is ludicrous. Will Self, writing for the BBC over the break, noted quite correctly that many people in the UK have forgotten what hunger even is. When was the last time you were hungry, when your tummy rumbled and your head lightened? When was the last time you missed a meal through anything other than busyness?
Other aspects of our entitled lives should be causing us a similar disquiet. In the main, we're warm, clothed, drunk, stoned, wealthy, fat babies who have nothing better to do with our time than to whine about not getting an iPad on December Present Day. Many middle-classers consider themselves poor if they can't have exactly what they want whenever they want it. Contemporary western society has extrapolated the consumeristic exuberance of the fifties to abstraction: our general impecuniosity is now measured in terms of whether or not we can cherry-pick our vapid whims anywhere, at any time, at will.
War, I told little Meredith, is when countries, or groups of people, fight and kill each other. War, I said, is really bad. The reason there were few puddings on British tables in the late forties is that sugar was rationed from 1940 to 1953 thanks to a principal Axis strategy of attacking food imports. I explained that families lived on a small, allocated amount of food. "I don't like" didn't feature. My mother-in-law ate what she was given or she was hungry.
Less than 70 years ago, putting a spoonful of sugar into a cup of tea was a luxury in Britain. Today, a great many of us westerners have everything we could possibly want, but have been so numbed by money and peace that we have little frame of reference for the concept of "need".
I'm not suggesting parsimony, but maybe one could occasionally check on the fact that many of us strut around in Blade Runner suits bawling our recalcitrant toddlerisms into magic smartphones, and imagine a world where you walk into a food shop and there is no food. If you haven't explained the notion to your middle class children yet, middle class parents, you probably should.
Because if spoiled brats are invisible in the west thanks to spoiled brattish normalism, the needs of the less fortunate will never be understood. Don't give up the puddings, but at least recognise how lucky you are to be able to eat them.Suggest a correction