I studied medieval history at sixth form college. After starting the course, a book called The Medieval World appeared on my father’s bookshelf. This was odd, I remember thinking at the time, because my father preferred more recent history. It stayed there on the bookshelf, unread.
Only now, 24 years later, I realise that my father bought it for me – but never told me. So now I’m reading it.
It features chapters about different sections of medieval society – monks, merchants, mothers, soliders. I imagine there’ll be a chapter about pilgrims.
Pilgrims went on journeys to see relics, on the offchance that they’ll be on the receiving end of a miracle. Despite arduous journeys full of lice, dyssentry, banditry and interrupted sleep on meagre rations with no employment, pilgrimages were a triumph of irrationality: none of that mattered. What matters was that they had a shot, because there were no other chances.
Think about that: what matters was that they had a shot, because there were no other chances.
Apply the same logic to people who buy lottery tickets, or gamble, or pile up enormous debts on credit cards and consolidated loans. In post-crisis UK, what matters is that we have a shot because there are no other chances.
Is it surprising that what magazine editors and PR people like to call authenticity looks similar across the globe? From Williamsburg in New York to Fitzroy in Melbourne to Peckham in London there are an awful lot of people being authentically artisanal, local, independent and counter-cultural. There are even more people who can no longer afford to live in those places. So how can it be? Maybe authenticity is merely a set of tropes to increase prices and exclude the urban poor, hiding behind masks stolen from the urban working class. Maybe, just maybe, “authentic” doesn’t mean what people use it to mean.
These days we insist on authenticity. Politicians are told to be more like ordinary people: Donald Trump made his apparent outsider status a key part of his election campaign. We want to keep it real. Locally-sourced, “natural”, “traditional” food, drink, clothes and even cosmetics (because 18th century peasants genuinely cared about what they stank of); musicians, event organisers, hoteliers and bookshops all try hard to market themselves as the real deal: “independent” has become a magnet of discerning cash. The anachrony of all of this authenticity stares awkwardly beneath every advert, flyer and website.
Meanwhile, society simultaneously seeks out ever-diminishing returns on the cheapest rates for housing, transport, fuel bills, insurance, banking – all those invisible purchasing decisions we can keep hidden from view. These savings free up the cash to buy more authenticity, those purchases that display something of who we are: so we can pay £32 for a 750ml glass of imported beer (At the Draft House in W1, in case you don’t believe me) from a menu written in authentic calligraphy.
Authenticity costs because authenticity is a perverse form of capitalism. It’s the cost of inefficiency. Whilst hand-reared cows may be far more sensitive on the environment, may be far more humane, create more pleasant work environments and whatever other myriad benefits it may bring, if we care that much about those things to pay three, four or five times as much as an “inauthentic” equivalent, then why on earth do we carry on in the other 99% of our lives to destroy the environment through our homes and cars, support inhumane practices with the rest of our purchasing, fail to join trade unions and vote for governments that would try far more systematically to regulate for pleasant work environments etc?
The answer is in the same way that no-one actually reads poetry or blogs, no-one actually cares about what authenticity is meant to be authentic to. “Authentic” is simply a badge that whacks up prices for us to wear on our sleeves in order to display our assumed identities: or more specifically, our purchasing power, and therefore our wealth and status. It has nothing to do with being true to our sense of belonging, identity, personal history or roots. Our real selves are shit-scared, traumatised, insecure and miserable: but to admit that is to be weak, and to be weak makes us prey. So we create alternative assertive, positive selves through our social media profiles, with our tattoos, with our slogans on T-Shirts, with brands, with our commodities, commodities, commodities, to mask the stench of our real selves. £32 craft beer is the equivalent of powdered wigs from the 18th century.
To me, authentic should mean indigenous culture. Working class culture. Proletarian culture. As in the contemporary cultural expression of the majority, of the average – not as in authentic jellied eels or authentic folk music from the fields in the 1920s or bread baked in authentic ovens from the 1800s. Authenticity is not nostalgia, it’s what the kids are up to now.
Authenticity is honesty. We now – at least in this endless hangover from the 2008 financial crisis – still have access to unsustainable personal debt to mask poverty, decay and catastrophic insecurity. Car loans, mortgages, credit cards, store cards, student loans, personal loans, inter-generational loans (“the bank of mum & dad”) are all sky high because we can no longer afford the lifestyle we want and the world would experience catastrophic recession if we stopped buying stuff we don’t need. Debt is dishonesty. It masks capitalism’s increasing failure to provide education, healthcare, peace, security and clean air and water.
I lazily assumed nostalgia was a yearning for the past, evoked during commemorations, re-enactments, restorations, conservation or just remembering. But it’s more sinister than that. In its worst form, it’s cultural colonialism – the privileging of a cultural moment that was racist, sexist or just different to now. It says “modern life is rubbish”. Whilst modern life may well be rubbish, it’s rubbish not because it’s modern. It’s the only life we have. This is important – the vote to leave the EU, the election of Donald Trump, the potential election of Marine Le Pen seem to me to be expressions of the zeitgeist: modern life is rubbish, and what we need is to do things like we did in the 1950s when women were women, men were men, there was no homosexuality or immigration. Crucially it was also a time when jobs were jobs, and technology was driving economic growth and incomes.
Space has an opportunity cost. A building in one spot means something else can’t go in the same spot. Attention works the same way: despite our pretence that multi-tasking is efficient, our attention given to Downton Abbey can’t be given to something or someone else at the same time. This is what I mean by the privileging of a cultural moment.
Let’s take Listed Buildings. A building (or more often, actually just a facade) is listed. This prevents the redevelopment of the Listed aspects without the consent of the local planning authority. It attempts to fix a point in time in perpetuity. But what about what existed before the building? What about the possibility to build something even better in the future?
Landowners know too well the economic impossibility this puts them in. The world, meanwhile, has moved on. There are now regulations for any redevelopment to comply with. Thankfully, buildings are safer, more accessible, more energy-efficient. But often those are entirely incompatible with the listed building. So they pay someone to torch the building in the night.
The local community is outraged and demands justice. And yet it was the same community that demanded and benefitted from the same regulations that drove the owner to their desperate act in the first place. Which is more important to them? Money talks – we are all complicit.
Today I saw a performance of a piece of music called The Way of a Monarch by Ivor McGregor. The concert notes by the composer that describe the piece is inspired by “the extraordinary story of this unusual monarch” (Charles II). It then mentions “Cromwell’s puritan interregnum” that had shut down many of the performing arts. Another privileging of a moment: what had driven thousands of men to revolt against Charles’s father in the first place? Setting aside the ambivalence the British have to their revolution, this seemingly neutral position is deeply reactionary. Cromwell may well have been a despot, but so was Charles I, James I, James II and the whole lot of them. In an exercise in change management, Cromwell had it pretty tough and failed – that doesn’t mean that the solution is to simply celebrate the status quo and all of its own injustices.
Humans crave narrative, plot and characters. The heritage industry has a raw deal trying to interpret social history in stately homes that were built by particular families in particular circumstances and the wealth of extant unique artefacts connected to them. In contrast the lives of the servants were mundane, everday and typical. I hear very few people who proudly boast of descendants who were domestic servants or labourers. There are many reasons why this is (most probably because our descendants weren’t defined by a single “career” – which is a more modern and bourgeois invention. Pre-industrial work was piecemeal, itinerant and casual), but it demonstrates our inability to accept plurality and complexity.
Let’s try and overcome this inability by recognising that Downton Abbey, Meet the Midwife, any other costume drama, every conserved or restored facade, every blue plaque and every fashion revival displaces something else – and that this displacement is a political one. It says that one is more important that all the others that could exist in its place either in the past, present or future.