Authenticity means real food, real culture, real community, real medicine, real stories, real schools ...

A FRIEND OF mine recently told a group of us why he had bought a flat in Paris. It was, he said, "because they have real shops there." Thinking about it afterwards, I realised that this was not 'real' in any of its conventional definitions, yet everyone knew immediately what he meant. He meant tiny, colourful, family-owned stores, full of evocative smells and baking on the premises, in neighbourhoods where the customers might be known by name by the shopkeeper.

This was more evidence for me that something peculiar is happening around the word 'real' at the moment, not for everybody but among enough of us to matter. Although we may not be able to define exactly what we mean by 'authentic', we know exactly what it is when we see it, whether it is real food, real culture, real politics, real schools, real community, real medicine, real stories...

And although many of us feel almost alone in this — perhaps just us and a few friends railing against the world — there is actually a sizeable minority in revolt against what is fake, spun, mass-produced and manipulated. Very quietly, and below the radar of the cultural com­mentators, they are driving the rise of farmers' markets, slow food, real ale, reading groups, organic vegetables, poetry recitals, complementary medicine, unbranded fashions, and much else besides.

Despite all those predictions by technocrats and globalisers, we are not taking our food in pill form as we were told we would. We haven't had the genius machines, able to think for themselves (predicted in 1970); or human embryo packets in shops (1966); or robots to look after the elderly (1983); or the disappearance of kitchens (1970); or artificial moons instead of street-lighting (1968). We haven't handed over our futures to virtual teachers or doctors — much as the establishment would like that to be the only option for those who don't pay extra.

We are increasingly demanding food that tastes of something, does not involve the genes of fish for temperature control or human hair to make the dough stretchy, and comes from a real place somewhere on the map. Far from losing our regional identities in a global world, half of the UK population now live within a thirty-minute journey of where they were born. That isn't exactly globalisation.

An estimated twelve million Europeans are now downshifting by cutting salary or hours in search of more 'authentic' living. Another two million have given up the rat race entirely. And we are seeing the slow decline of the big brands like McDonald's and Coca-Cola as they desperately portray themselves as 'local'. HSBC and Interbrew have even been battling over the legal right to call themselves "The world's local...".

I KNOW THIS sounds optimistic. The resources and control of the big corporations are truly unprecedented, and most of the governments of the world seem terrified to embrace any alternative vision. And now that the first UK child has been named after the furniture store Ikea, we should remember that not everybody sees the world like this. Yet the very power and ubiquity of fake has spawned an increasingly powerful trend in the opposite direction.

Those who see themselves on the side of authenticity may not commit themselves to reality the whole time. They may often be too exhausted for anything except fast food; they may welcome the convenience of virtual shopping. But they are also increasingly enraged at the prospect of losing the authentic option completely — because GM crops threaten existing species, or because narrow exam curricula threaten a holistic understanding of the world. The past few months have seen a new debate around the word 'authenticity'. My own book on the subject and Neil Crofts' Authentic came out within a few weeks of each other, and though the debaters have emerged from very different sec­tors, they do seem to be talking about the same phenomenon. When we call something 'real' these days, we are claiming that it is rooted in human ethics, in nature, in geography — that it comes from somewhere particular. That it is honest and beautiful because of its simplicity. It seems that poetry is now almost the only public discourse that is not trying to manipulate and cajole in some way. Authentic means that it has some depth to it: that it is three-dimensional, not glossy and superficial.

I have realised since publishing my book that this understanding may not be as new as I thought, thanks to the republished edition of H. J. Massingham's 1943 book The Tree of Life. Like an Old Testament prophet, he set out the consequences of flying in the face of "God, nature and reality" and pointed even further back to the 1930s to execrate the symptoms of fake. "Before the war we had become an ersatz people," he wrote, "a seething proletarian or suburban mass controlled by the wage-system and financial dictatorship to produce shoddy or produce nothing, enervated by the clockwork hedonism of mass-amusement, living by the senses from the headline, but the body from the tin-opener and by culture not at all, existing in warrens of derelict industrial cities or along miles of mean or pretentious boxes strung along highways, like racing tracks, upon the face of a country either desecrated or tumbling into wilderness."

"Was this living?" asked the agonised Massingham. "Was this England?" Massingham saw the war as one of the consequences of fake. He did not live to discover that it was actually just a prelude to the apotheosis of fake that we have seen since.

THE CONSEQUENCES OF this are potentially devastating to humanity, in the environmental collapse we are beginning to witness, the violence and insanity that follow from the destruction of cultures, and the misery that results from the official embrace of untruths. And the devastating ways in which those with power try to enforce their lies. Like the declaration of the European Commission that the small-scale family farms of Poland are uneconomic, when they make a perfectly good sustainable living, providing healthy local food. Then they try to shift reality, by paying US factory-farm corporations, purveyors of grey mush to the world, to set up there and price the small farms out of existence.

That's what happens when you fly in the face of authenticity, and Massingham predicted it. But he did not live to witness the sheer strength of modern marketing. McDonald's, for example, sold an average of four Happy Meals to every American child aged between three and nine within one ten-day period during its Teenie Beanie Baby promotion in 1997. This is the shiny, unreal world — with giant amoral, faceless corporations looming but unseen behind the friendly logos and cartoon characters — and it's another kind of lie.

Massingham was writing just as John Betjeman was predicting our fake future in his poem Slough: "Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans/Tinned minds, tinned breath" — all of which were uncomfortably correct. We may choose to accept it, even revel in it sometimes, but we are all of us increasingly able to recognise fake and falsity for what it is. "In a virtual world, we will cling to reality even more," wrote the philosopher Robert Nozick, and he was absol­utely right. People are not powerless.

Authenticity is not a conservative force, harking back to a disappeared world, as its critics claim. It is forward-looking, trying to adapt traditional wisdom for modern life. Nor is it a hopeless dream of the unattainable. Authenticity is a process, a progressive revolution. A generation ago, colourful and cosmopolitan foods from all over the world on our supermarket shelves were able to satisfy people's demands for authenticity; now people increasingly want what is healthy and local. Nor is it necessarily doomed to defeat by the economic system. There is certainly a battle to be fought, but there are enough of us out there — around forty per cent in the UK — who are begin­ning to seek out authenticity, to drive a revolution in the structure and methods of business.

Above all, authenticity need not be a puritanical disapproval of other people's lives — it must not be, or it will fail. If we take authenticity too literally, or narrowly, we will simply fall into the caricature of us that the technocrats peddle. This is one of the biggest lies of all: there is nothing more puritanical than their demand that we should all work hard, buy hard and never question their shiny lies. Demanding what is real has to be fun. Our power lies in our humanity, in our ability to question and to play. Authenticity doesn't pretend it is somehow possible to work out unambiguously what is true in this world. It doesn't forget the understanding and tolerance that came with information, science and knowledge. But it isn't stuck there any more. It moves on, looking for something we can be sure of to blaze a trail out of post-modern paralysis — something we can use to measure everything else against. Authenticity measures products, institutions and companies by their humanity and their human scale, but humanity rooted in nature and created by God. That is what gives authenticity tolerance and power.


Authenticity: Brands, Fakes, Spin and the Lust for Real Life is published by Flamingo. Buy it here

This article first appeared in the May/June issue of Resurgence.

© Resurgence 2004