A piece of black humour in the middle of yesterday’s Irish Times business news: in the middle of page 20, amongst the reports on the stock markets and company news, an advertisement for potatoes. The first truly blight resistant potatoes, it declares, and goes on to say this is what Irish gardeners have been waiting for since the famine.
Not a few sitting reading the page would have felt that being at home in their garden planting potatoes might not be such a bad way of passing the day; the prospective gains would be small, but any gain would be better than day upon day of losses. When everything around is disintegrating, reverting to basics seems attractive.
Reading J.M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K late last night against the background sound of corporate fraud and the tailspin decline of the national economy, questions arose about what would be left when everything else is gone? Michael K lives in a country torn apart by civil war, uncertainty is the only certainty; he reverts to a primitive life, living off the land, whatever he can catch, whatever he can grow. It is life at the level of mere survival, life as it was here in the Famine years.
Ireland’s economy will not collapse, the membership of the European Union and the single currency will ensure a floor is found. We will not be like Iceland, where middle class families were reduced to queuing for charity food handouts, but maybe the Irish Times advert should prompt questions about the essentials and about the level of income necessary to have a reasonable life.
If one was starting from Michael K’s place, sitting in a shelter on a hillside living off plants and wild animals, what would be on the list of things necessary for a good life? If we were starting from scratch instead of from where we are, what things would we buy and what things would we think were not worthwhile?
When everything is added up, the levels of expenditure on the unnecessary and the pointless are astonishing. Life would be more than tolerable at much lower spending levels. Even expenditure by a plodding Anglican parson has bits that could go without any great loss – like the money from his car allowance he spends on going skiing and the cost of attending nine pop concerts last year.
If my life depended upon growing potatoes sold through the Irish Times Readers’ Offer – what things would I work for? If I were to manage to sell a few potatoes at a farmers’ market, what would I spend the money on?
It would maybe not be a bad exercise for me to do sometime.