Each time I stumble across this mosaic in Birmingham city centre I’m a) reminded that I’ve already seen it b) confused as to why I’ve forgotten about it and c) notice that it is disintegrating rapidly. There are several of them in the city centre – they were usually in the many subterranean walkways under the ringroad; sometimes redevelopment of those walkways has meant the mosaics have been relocated, most notably the JFK memorial and the Great Western Railway mosaic.
The Horsefair mosaic is no doubt waiting its turn for some redevelopment scheme to pay for its repair and relocation. No doubt they represent a problem – they remove too much active frontage at street level – no shop windows, no office doors, no advertising space – and putting them above street level brings additional problems. At least they’re still here – I remember the murals on the walkways around the Bull Ring which only survive in photographs now.
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.
Cities are the concentration of capital around dense networks of trade. In very simple terms, the more frequent the transactions, the taller the buildings. All transactions take place in physical space: digital trade will involve a customer, a supplier and many interactions in between, all with a physical presence somewhere. “Cyberspace” is less ether, more a warehouse on motorway junction. So alien is the concept to human minds and so rapidly has the digital economy swamped our capacity to understand it, we would rather imagine Keanu Reaves hopping across grids of blue light.
Urban density is a visible manifestation of capital. It diminishes until it becomes peri-urban greenbelt, dog kennels, horse riding schools and sports clubs before the profits from agriculture are sufficient to justify its retention as farmland.
Capital in the 21st century loves shiny buildings, its medieval hilltop fortresses or monasteries. Outside the edges, are the modern equivalent of the hovels of those eking out a living from the scraps – remember the monastery in the 1986 film of The Name of the Rose. It is a concrete, glass and steel pyramid of the debt that has given us the illusion of rising living standards: capitalists in the penthouses, owning the debt of the desperate edge dwellers eager to get inside the gates far below.
This is a typical sight in a typical city: the fortress where capital is concentrated and its edge, beyond which lies dereliction: holes left fallow waiting until the potential rewards are great enough and secure enough to de-risk investment and redevelop it. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of these edge spaces politely wait and suffer the social consequences, unaware of the parasitic nature of the debt that created the hole, and welcome its redevelopment with yet more exclusionary uses that feed their misery: more consumption and regressive sales taxes using borrowed money, the promotion of luxury and individualism, the slave-ships of offices for “knowledge workers”.