“Make Do and Carry On”: What WWII Can Teach Us

Scrolling through Instagram, a reposted Tweet by author and mental health activist Matt Haig made me stop and think about lockdown. For the last fortnight, I had been wishing every day for things to go ‘back to normal,’ to some pre-coronavirus universe that no longer existed. But Haig’s tweet, in response to the looming mental health crisis of lockdown, sparked something in me: “…Can we please stop pretending our former world of long working hours, stressful commutes, hectic crowds, shopping centers, infinite choice, mass consumerism, air pollution, and 24/7 everything was a mental health utopia.” He was so right. I’d been looking at lockdown entirely the wrong way. Why was I craving ‘normal’ when normal really wasn’t that great. For a long time, I had been unhappy in my career, my spending, my eating habits. But we lived in a different world, a fast world. ‘Normal’ was fast food, fast travel, fast fashion. I wanted no further part in that, and it seems that few other people do either.

Lockdown has acted as a shift in consciousness for many people. Whether newly unemployed, furloughed or on the frontlines, everyone held a fear for the future. In seeking comfort, safety, and stability we have shifted the focus from office to home. To the homemade, homegrown, work from home. At home our pace is slower, allowing more time for thought, for family, for food, for self-care, for self-reflection and especially in the face of the current situation, for gratitude.

Couple this with the limitations of lockdown, as our fast culture stopped and whole parts of our towns, cities, and countries closed down. People have been forced into a new time zone. We’ve seen shortages of everything from toilet paper and soap to pasta and flour, viral trends on apps no one had heard of pre-lockdown, and free music and lectures all available from the comfort of your pajamas. Lockdown has been a strange, yet enlightening time. People are moving for change – protests for the BLM movement across the globe are evidence enough, in arguably the biggest global movement of all time. It’s all evidence for the want and need to create a new ‘normal’ because the old one just wasn’t good enough.

With these constraints, have come challenges. People have had to be creative and adapt to find solutions, but they’ve had time to do it well. My mantra for lockdown became ‘Do what you can, with what you have’ and it seems to have been the mantra of many. In time’s past, I’d send my partner to the supermarket to grab extra cheese or a forgotten ingredient. I’d have meal deals for lunch that were quick and easy, but bad for me. I wouldn’t have noticed the seasons the way we have all experienced this year, or appreciate a warm bearhug from my Mum, whenever I got one. Instead, we have found alternatives. An old British World War II pamphlet entitled Make Do and Mend comes to mind. It was a guide on how to be resourceful, to make do with what you had and was filled with clever life-hacks. I think we’ve seen a form of this during lockdown – you only have to look to the banana bread and sourdough crazes to see the uplifting power of creating something from a few simple pantry ingredients.

I don’t believe that these focuses are temporary either. As priorities change, we’ve had months to reinforce these habits and we may have a few more. Food and the way we think about it has changed dramatically. The internet has been inundated with cooking tips and tricks. We’ve seen several recipe trends rise and fall which means more people are cooking who never did before. Restrictions on shops have seen a change in attitude. Run out of bread? Make your own. Don’t have an ingredient? Use a substitute. I discovered the perfect scone during lockdown – having run out of milk, I used plain yogurt instead. Fluffy and light every time. Prepare meals with love and thoughtfulness and discover the joy and therapeutic value of cooking. You certainly can’t get the same fulfillment from ordering takeout on an app.

Others have discovered their green fingers, eating meals prepared from seed to plate by their own hands. Through social media, we’ve seen people around the world re-growing their fruit and vegetables, caring for them as they would a new puppy. Others have made something of their previously disheveled grass plot and created a sanctuary out of their garden. Gardening in the last year has helped many appreciate and reconnect with nature – that’s not something easily forgotten.

DIY has taken center-stage too – as we’ve seen home improvements, upcycling and even haircare, with the help of partners, parents and pals. People have finally gotten round to the jobs they’ve always put off: new shelves here, a painted door there, learning new skills as they go. In fact, new skills have been learned across the board, as beginners learn to embroider, knit, make their own clothes, pick up a book, begin a journal, play an instrument, learn a language, or figure out how their camera works. Others, in the masses, have taken up cycling, running, kayaking, as we all begin to see what a more sustainable world and life could look, and feel like. Our globetrotting antics have been laid to rest for a year, as we discover the joy of holidaying at home, be it in your own flat or staying by the coast somewhere.

We’ve also learned to embrace the virtual – to make do with the tools we have, which we’ve discovered to be pretty incredible. With them we run businesses, complete degrees, have graduations, birthdays and even weddings over the internet. This period has proven that work-from-home works, flying for business is not always necessary and time, money and carbon dioxide can be hugely cut down on in the process. In making do, in other words, we’ve made way for our new approach, going forwards.

5 Tips from the original Make Do and Mend (1943):

  1. Darning Socks! The things that seem the most disposable are often those which are easiest to fix. Darning socks used to be common practice, and for those with favorite pairs, it’s a way of holding on to them.
  2. For clothes that aren’t quite right, the pamphlet contains all kinds of tricks for letting things out, in, up and down! One nifty idea is to create a shirt-insert for dresses and jumpers if other parts of it are worn out.
  3. When garments really are past repair, the pamphlet encourages the reader to re-use the fabric. It includes tricks such as making children’s clothes from old dresses and coats and unpicking broken wool sweaters, washing the wools, and using it for a new project. One unique suggestion is to make a dress coat from two old dresses!
  4. Learning new skills. Free sewing classes were organized by Citizen’s Advice across the country so that everyone had access to the skills they would need to ‘make do and mend’ during wartime.
  5. Encouraging knowledge sharing. The pamphlet encourages women to share their tips and tricks with others, as well as pool materials and make the most of what they have as a community.

-Becca Challis

Image from cover of “Make Do and Mend” (1943)

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