The Seductive Quality of Uniformity

When I first came to the UK back in 2004 the most surprising thing I discovered was “Weatherspoons” pubs. The idea that a pub could be part of a mass-market chain was completely at odds with how I understood pubs and bars, because in my experience up until that point, the defining characteristic of a pub was its unique ambience. Eastside is the completely fatigued student dive, with modestly cheap prices, never well attended. JJ Murphy’s is seemingly designed for conspiracy, with its numerous wood-panelled booths and irregular layout. Different places exist for different social needs – the idea that you can have a chain pub rather implies that one place can fit all occasions.

I should have been prepared for the existence of chain pubs because of my worldwide experience with Supermarkets. Wherever you go in the Western World, Supermarkets are all nominally different while being essentially the same. They are laid out like-with-like, they tend to have fresh produce along one side, starting near the entrance, the bakery section along the rear of the space, and the frozen goods opposite the fresh. In between are the semi-perishables. The design is in some senses intended to be about shopping efficiency, in part that means it runs you past everything in the store at least once, but it especially forces you to go past the high-turnover fresh items. The point is that the experience of shopping is generic and homogenous; when you travel beyond The West, shopping becomes a major tourist activity because it’s so radically different than we experience here. Shopping “at home” is not about an experience, it’s about efficient consumption.

I haven’t exactly hit the Oxford or London pub scenes hard, but I am slowly building up my repertoire. The Eagle and Child is large and spacious, but doesn’t serve any kind of food. The White Horse is cramped. The Three Goats Head is a terrible physical space with a stark and impersonal feeling, but the food’s better than you’d expect. St Aldates is dark and loud, but they’ve got an amateur comedy night each week. What each of these descriptions represents is both local knowledge and an experience going out that was disappointing in an unpredictable way. As I always say, if you gamble, you’ve got to be prepared to lose. In each instance, if we’d gone to the local Weatherspoons, we’d have knocked off one or other irritating flaw in the venue. The only cost is that your experience could equally be in any UK city – a homogenisation of an entire country. Only Oxford has the famous Eagle and Child, and Morse was never seen in Weatherspoons – what would have been the point?

I have been trying to “shop local” in Oxford and London, for the purely ideological reason that I worry about the completion of the mass-market process. When Clare and I were in the American south west, we had some of our best experiences in little local bars or restaurants that had their own vibe and their own micro-culture. The stand-out experience in Mariposa, where they had two little old ladies performing bluegrass music on the theme of their turbulent love lives. There was something tremendously life affirming about the tribulations of the over 60s set in Mariposa: there’s a vitality to it. It’s impossible to reimagine any of the things I loved about that experience in the US version of a Weatherspoons, which is precisely why we went to the “locals” bar tucked down an alley and behind the only street instead of the well-dressed bar that attracted all the other visitors. I haven’t had that experience in the UK yet, but it’s just out of sight, around the next corner.

I’ve been fooled a few times though in the UK. One evening early in my stint in London, I was walking to Marble Arch via the back streets when I came across a lovely little Bistro, playing jazz in French, with tables that couldn’t be bought at Ikea. The place was empty, and the two visible staff were laughing at some joke. I enjoyed a rustic roast vegetable salad on freshly made sourdough bread and thought to myself I’d have to remember this place. A week later I started catching the train, and taking a different route entirely I came across another “Le Pain Quotidean” – I’d been completely fooled, and now I see them all the time. I couldn’t fault the experience in the way I always find Weatherspoons somewhat soulless, but all the same, I suddenly felt cheated of an authentic experience when I saw the second outlet.

Trying out the local places in London, my second home, is one thing, but I’ve been struggling to meet the same level of commitment when travelling for Ultimate. At the end of a day of running, it’s not super-easy to convince myself to take a chance on some quiet back-alley place that might be good or might serve roaches. In the USA, Clare and I had far more disappointments from little TexMex places than good experiences – nowhere we tried touched the little hole in the wall in Left Bank Cuba, or La Boco Loco in Miramar. With any of the big chains, you know what you’re getting, and particularly at odd hours that can mean a lot. One of the most satisfying meals we had was in Flagstaff Arizona, past Midnight, at the Denny’s. A hot meal, even a generic one, is all you want as the snow falls and you contemplate that you have no place to stay that night. Generica often wins because in the end it’s better to stick with the devil you know.

This idea of knowing what you’re getting has some odd implications. For example, Souvlaki/Kebabs are distinctly regional, rather than distinct to each supplier. In Wellington, it’s been sliced off the gyro then stewed to ensure it’s cooked, it comes with lettuce, onion, and your choice of sauces. In Christchurch, gyros are out, so everything is cooked on a skewer – the minority choice in Wellington – and it comes on Pita bread rather than a tortilla. In Athens, it’s sliced directly from the gyro onto the pita, and comes with any sauce you want as long as it’s Tzatziki, with a handful of hot chips and tomato. In London, you’ll find gerkhins. Within each kind of consumer range, it’s basically the same product wherever you buy it, and it doesn’t matter whether that’s the chain Beirut Express, or a guy in a food van.

The truly global products for consumption are media, and their ancillary, politics. In the last couple of NZ elections, the words “Presidential Style” have been bandied about with abandon, and I read those self-same words in the Guardian last week when speculating on next year’s face-off between Cameron and Milliband. A Presidential Style Election is a much easier thing to grasp than a true Parliamentary one. It short-circuits the messy process of party politics, to distil the key issues into the personalities of a lone figurehead. Sometimes this has spectacular problems – in the last NZ election, Labour was basically trounced because Phil Goff was personally less charismatic than John Key. I saw few commentators pointing out that for both parties it was essentially the same small cabal that have been hanging around at the top for 20 years, since the fall of Muldoon so that the choice of party leader is at least partially just hype and window-dressing. It’s far easier for the NZ media, or the UK media, to adopt the language and habits of the most expensive show on Earth, the Presidential Elections. Saves a lot of bother they might have to spend otherwise really interrogating who’s going to do the actual work of government depending on which side wins. In a parliamentary democracy, that’s elected people, rather than the cronies of the President.

I’ve started to wonder whether the push for “National Standards” in education isn’t just the same laziness that has put a Pret a Manger on every street in London, with a Costa opposite. But perhaps that’s just my own parochialism shining through, since Wellington boasts just the one Starbucks in the central city, out of probably a hundred coffee houses.

The basic problem is that “Authenticity” of whatever sort is simply ideology while a reliably affordable and reasonable quality mass-product is simply practicality; we know which of those two wins every time.

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