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Robert Haupt, “Remember the Dark Ages when people ‘saved up’?,”
The Sydney Morning Herald, June 30, 1984, p. 35.

I was born in the year 20 BC (Before Credit). Those were the dark ages, before we got the modern, improved system in which we spend our whole lives in debt. Back then, we had a procedure called “saving up”. Let me explain.

Dad would look wistfully at the picture of the new Chevrolet in the newspaper and work out that it would be his of only he could amass £500. He would announce that he was saving up, and since the family revenues were communal that meant we were saving up too.

Of course, we never got the new Chevrolet. Better to ask an alcoholic to build up a cellar than us to save the price of a new car. Something more urgent always came along, and that’s how it is with saving up — you never get to buy what you’re saving up for.

Since almost nobody managed to save up enough money for a new car, just about all the cars on the road were second-hand. I swear that even some of the new cars were second-hand.

All over the country, men were tinkering with their second-hand cars to get them to start (or stop) because they hadn’t been able to save up enough to buy new cars. At the time — remember, we’re speaking of Before Credit — this seemed entirely normal.

Nobody went on expensive holidays then. Camping was popular because you didn’t have to save up for it. With enough tinkering, your second-hand car would take the family, the dog, the canvas tent with the wooden poles and the ropes that were always in a tangle, the kerosene stove, the card table and the stretchers that always pinched your fingers when you put them up, to a place far enough distant for you to be able to say that you had been away. You would always come back pleasantly exhausted, certain in the knowledge that a legacy of the trip was another round of car repairs.

There were few repairmen, back then. Couldn’t afford them. After all, if you were saving up for a Chevrolet and the hot-water heater decided to expire, you had to try to protect the Chevrolet savings from the inroads of the hot-water catastrophe.

It couldn’t be done, of course, but your father never wanted to admit that. In the name of his Chevrolet, he would climb into the ceiling and work miracles with a soldering iron to restore the flow of hot water.

Parts would bring him undone — you always need parts. Little by little, the Chevrolet money became hot-water parts money, or car parts money or money for a new valve in the wireless set. Unlike today, back then there were plenty of parts.

All these repairs kept you pretty busy, but, then, there was no television. There were kits to repair shoes; no home was without a pair of hand-operated clippers for backyard haircuts. We all kept chooks. There was generally a good store of bits and pieces lying about, such as a handy fellow could use to make anything from a go-kart to a crystal set. If saving was our religion, our worship was mending.

I think the end of the era of saving up can be dated to the introduction of the Holden. While we jolted around in our square-sided, iron-springed, running-boarded, luggage-rack-at-the-rear second-hand Chevy, people of notoriously insubstantial means lolled about in brand new Holdens.

You only had to look at these curvy, low-slung machines to see that they were the devil’s work. They were almost never painted in the prevailing colours, black and dark blue, and some of them even had wirelesses.

Heavens above, we said to each other, how could you concentrate on driving, when there was a blinkin’ wireless going? Above all — it was an open secret — the Holden was a car that hadn’t been saved up for.

The Holden introduced us to hire-purchase: “I got it on HP,” became an acceptable, even smart, thing to say. In our circle, the line was drawn at the lay-by (always “the lay-by”), a sort of half-way house of credit in which you were given the thrill of purchase but denied the pleasure of consumption.

Women of this era were forever putting twin-sets on the lay-by.

But one thing began to become clear: however much we disparaged people on “the never-never” (as we called HP), they had one great advantage over us.

They didn’t have to tinker with their cars. Hours we spent keeping a decrepit Chevy going they put in racing around the countryside, spraying gravel everywhere and frightening the cows. Flamin’ idiots, we said, with diminishing conviction.

Needless to say, the never-never took over like wildfire. The new car replaced the second-hand car as the dominant form of transport and with that we came to the end of the age of repairs. We began to throw out pants that had only a small hole in them; shoes were discarded after only one half-sole-and-heel job. Chooks vanished from our backyards almost without our noticing.

Within a decade, an entire generation of black-and-white television sets was bought and junked. We had hardly heard of television, back before credit, and I doubt if it could have taken off without it.

If credit hadn’t freed us from the labour of repairs (and keeping chooks, and growing potatoes and baking scones and other activity that used to make a quarter-acre suburban block hum with enterprise), we would never had had time to watch television.

If you think about it, there’s an extraordinary symmetry here: credit giving us new cars, new cars giving us time to watch television, and television in turn doing its bit to encourage us to take out more credit. It really is a marvellous system.

I can’t see saving up ever making a comeback. It’s just not efficient. I’m looking to the future now, to the new era in which a whole country can borrow money to pay the interest it owes to the people from whom it borrowed money in the first place.

It’s like paying your Bankcard bill with Mastercharge. This new age is called AD (Argentinian Debt), and it promises to be very exciting. I can’t wait to try it out on my bank manager. I will remind him of what my grandmother used to say: always give credit when credit’s due.