The quest for authenticity

Cool hunting is a waste of time, MTV and Twitter put pay to that. For the middle classes the quest for authenticity has become the new way to lord it over the neighbours.

“Hey Jones’s — no-one cares about your new car”
(unless it’s a low-emission-eco-hybrid that runs on biofuel derived from your own compost).

Joking aside, everywhere I look I’m seeing folk with a yearning for a simpler, more honest way of life. They want to know the provenance of the goods they buy and how ethically they were made. They want to know if the transportation was eco-friendly.They want a bicycle hand-crafted by a man in a shed.

But is what we’re getting really authentic? Or just the same stuff packaged up retro-style and marketed to a generation who have never known financial hardship, yet are in love with faux austerity? I’ve recently been mulling this over and I’m beginning to wonder if we’re being honest with ourselves, getting the real deal.

Things wot my Nan did to get by

I’ve noticed my London peers are increasingly engaging in activities and hobbies traditionally seen as necessities to previous generations. Keeping chickens, making and mending, knitting, growing your own food in an allotment. My store-bought salad is regularly outclassed by the neighbour who rocks up with hand-reared micro herbs and charcuterie.

My Nan did these chores out of need; a hand-knitted jumper was cheaper than a bought one, you mended things because you either couldn’t afford a new one or there wasn’t one available.

Now everyone can afford store-bought goods, they’ve lost their cachet. We’ve come full circle and we want to make things ourselves. Get our hands dirty.

Well sort of.

We want to make things whilst wearing a stay-pressed hemp apron, using box-fresh, virgin tools from vintage packaging whilst our friends post photos of us on Instagram. Nan 2.0, only without the oldness or the hassly bits.

Is the cappuccino more authentic if the store is independently owned?

A hip looking coffee shop recently opened near me; reclaimed brick walls, brightly painted mismatched chairs, menu lovingly scrawled on chalkboards behind the counter by a cardigan-clad skinny chick. Located directly next to a Starbucks and a couple of doors along from Costa, it shone as a beacon of cafe authenticity amongst the evil corporates infiltrating our high streets.

I found out it’s all just a trick. Harris & Hoole, despite being a dead ringer for an independent local business is a fraud, owned 49% by the UK’s biggest retailer Tesco. Tesco have opened 18 Harris & Hoole stores in the south east of England since launching, generating annual sales of £5m.

Yes, the coffee tasted nice and the cakes offered organic, gluten-free goodness but the experience left a bitter taste. I felt duped. The perceived value of authenticity is clearly not to be sniffed at.

Ye olde pop-up shoppe

It’s pleasing to see recent trends showing consumers abandoning the giant hypermarket in favour of their local high street. The provenance of our food is more important than ever and we’re keen to verify that the chicken on our plate had a happy life.

Break free Great Britain from the tyranny of the Ginster’s Pasty!

If we’re keeping it real however, I think we need to appreciate how fortunate we are today and stop romanticising the past. I regularly wander London’s Spitalfields Market and am lured in by the vintage shops with gold facades selling Mother’s Ruin Gin and tins of Campbells Tea. Verde & Co at Spitalfields with its hanging baskets. ‘Village shop in the City’ A Gold who sell old fashioned sweets, handmade biscuits in hessian bags and my favourite ‘Camp Coffee’, the chicory alternative used in the war when coffee was rationed.

French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was quoted as saying “If you seek authenticity for authenticity’s sake, you are no longer authentic.”

I can’t help feeling that this is the case. Imagine how much mornings’ sucked without coffee. I doubt the folk buying Camp Coffee during the 1940s did so with a tin of Illy sitting in their pantry and Ocado on speed dial. What are we really buying here, other than a nicely packaged view of a sanitised past that never really existed?

Manor House Grey

Like many Londoners, I live in a Victorian terrace. We bought it as a student hovel that had been raped of all original fittings and set to work recreating our noughties version of an authentic Victorian house.

I spent weeks combing wreckers yards for authentic stairclips and even took a moulding of the cornicing so the builders could recreate the authentic ceiling. We agonised over Victorian Farrow and Ball paint colours. To this day I can run past a house and tell you if they’ve used Mole’s Breath or Smoked Trout in their hallway.

During the course of my research I came by an account from a scullery maid who worked in a house in our terrace. Our open plan kitchen extension was traditionally a scullery. It had a stone floor, was unheated in winter apart from the coal range that made the room unbearably smoky. Unlike us, they clearly did not benefit from underfloor heating and a German-precision downdraft extractor.

As much as I like to kid myself, my home is about as authentically Victorian as my iPhone.

Keeping it real

I’m glad we’re making steps towards a more authentic life, one that is more morally and socially beneficial. We are finally asking where our trainers came from, who made them and under what conditions. How many miles our food has travelled to reach us. The true human cost of that £1 Primark t shirt.

We’re starting to appreciate the value of craft over mass production and see value in handmade. It’s a joy to finally cut through the crap.

But I can’t help feeling like we are viewing life through the retro filters of a smartphone app. We need to demand authenticity from ourselves as well as the things we consume. Only then will we be truly keeping it real.