Sunday, March 9, 2014

Ashley Sterne Punch 1915 Life on a Halved Income


A comic story of economics in 1915 Britain by Ashley Sterne.  My quick perusal of the Internet failed to reveal why the British government might have encouraged people to live on half their income during The Great War.

Punch, v149, p. 436
November, 24, 1915


Life on a Halved Income

My efforts to live on half my income have not hitherto been very encouraging.  To begin with, my income is already half my income; that is to say, it is exactly half what it was eighteen months ago; and the attempt to live on a quarter of the income to which I have been accustomed has shown me with appalling clarity the hopelessness of my outlook.

As matters stand at present I feel I am ploughing a very lonely furrow.  People upon whose co-operation I confidently relied are not helping me a bit.  They don't meet me half-way.  They don't even half-meet me half-way, which is the least they could do if this half-income business is intended to be at all reciprocal. For  instance, last week I sent my landlord a cheque for my somewhat overdue Michaelmas rent; not for the full rent, but for half.  As I pointed out to him in my letter, if I was expected to live on half my income, it was clear that I could only afford to pay half rent; and as he too was doubtless living on the same principle, it would save him a lot of unnecessary book-keeping if I only remitted the half he was morally entitled to spend.  On receiving his reply I was agreeably surprised to find my own cheque enclosed.  "Good!" I thought.  "He 's a sport.  He's going to live on no income at all.  He's not going to do things by halves."

This latter part of my surmise proved to be correct.  My landlord demanded a cheque for the rent in full, failing which he threatened to put a man in possession — a whole one.

This was not a very comforting start.  I then sent for my cook-general, and via the inclement weather, her asthma and the increased cost of drugs each topic cropping up out of the other with perfect naturalness I adroitly introduced the subject of a reduction in wages.

And now I am wondering whether her emphatic "Not 'alf " was a cordial acceptance or an indignant repudiation of my suggestion.  I wish I were better versed in the actual meaning of catch-phrases.  Meanwhile I don't know whether she will expect thirty shillings or three pounds at the end of the month.  I shall begin by giving her thirty shillings, and then if she raises her eyebrows, her voice, Cain, or anything else indicative of acute indignation or disappointment I shall pretend I made a mistake.

In the interim I am doing my best to halve everything possible.  The other morning the cook-general was laid up in bed, the inclement weather having brought on a bad attack of asthma, which, owing to the increased cost of drugs, she had not taken the necessary steps to ward off.  As I had to get my own breakfast I thought it would be a good opportunity to try to poach half an egg.  This was harder than it sounds.  I found I could poach the yolk alone, or the white alone.  To isolate either was. a simple matter.  But when it came to severing the conglomerate mass into halves the egg slid all over the dish, and ultimately found a destination on the hearth-rug.  However, I succeeded in retrieving most of it, and put it into the poacher, though from the subsequent result I am still very hazy in my mind as to whether I have really effected an economy in half-poaching a whole egg instead of whole-poaching a half-egg.

My next attempt was in the matter of boots.  I possessed a pair, one of which was worn out, the other with many months of useful service before it.  I can't explain why they should have been in this uneven condition, unless I have unconsciously formed the habit of walking more with one leg than with the other. Be that as it may, I went to the bootmaker's and an order for one boot.  He wouldn't listen to me.  The more I placed the order the less he listened.  Finally, in desperation, I invented a purely mythical child who, I said, had been born with only one foot, and was now threatened with total bootlessness.  He became so far interested as to inquire the size.  I told him an eight.  "Eights for a child?" he exclaimed, glaring at me fiercely and suspiciously.  "Yes," I answered.  "You see, though I said the child had only one foot, what I really meant was that it has Siamese feet — joined together, you know. That's why I must have an eight."

But my attempt was (pardon me) bootless.  Lastly I found that what a contributor to Punch has already affirmed that dentists are not reducing their fees is correct.  I went with the intention of getting the dentist to stop a runaway bicuspid which had been annoying me.  "How much are you charging these times?" I asked when I had told him what I wanted.  

"A guinea," he replied.

"But," I said, "I am attempting to live on half my income.  Can't you meet me in the matter of your fee ?"

"Certainly," he said.  "My fee for total extraction is half-a-guinea — just half; and you may take the tooth away with you if you like."

Thus for a hideous five minutes I had the melancholy satisfaction of living at half my normal rate of expenditure.


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