DEFYING HOMOGENOPOLIS

The picture heading this piece up is one of several I took of a guy dancing to the music a talented saxophonist was playing, as he busked outside a store that had closed in the centre of Nottingham. A new shop has replaced the failed one, with peristaltic inevitability. Just don't ask me what it is. All I can tell you is it's one or other of the branded stores that you can find anywhere round the world, for the convenience of consumers who believe that a familiar logo will present them with peace of mind in whatever transaction they want to make.

A brand is a promise and a promise is a lie, more often than not. Back in the day, if you wanted a pair of shoes you'd go to whoever made them in your area. There might only be one provider, and hopefully they'd know what they were doing. Maybe there was more than one, each offering something the other couldn't. Now, it's a different story - and remember that word story. There are many shoe shops in town, differentiated by arcane marketing methods according to the demographics of the area. Somewhere down the line, data has been crunched and a customer profile concocted, and lo and behold - you're no longer a fully fledged human being. Instead you're a consumer, noteworthy only for how you spend your money, and funneled by the full panoply of advertising and marketing techniques to the right shoe shop for members of your tribe. You could be in Brussels or Los Angeles, and much the same would apply.

This process of homogenisation is predicated on a lie, remember?  Brands promise consistency - of service, of outcome - when neither are possible in the world we inhabit. We want to believe that, and to do so we get involved in creating distortions, using additives to ensure our company's sauce has the same colour and flavour throughout the year even though the provenance and quality of the ingredients changes. I read recently about some customers of an American food chain called Chipotle complaining about leaves in the food they ordered. Which there were. Bayleaves. To create a particular flavour. I wonder if Chipotle will acquiesce and remove the bayleaves or use a powdered form in future, so customers aren't troubled by reality. The customers themselves are blameless - it's not typical in the experience of eating at a takeaway you're presented with bayleaves. Bit by bit they've disappeared from popular consciousness, like the rosemary bush that grew outside the McDonalds near where I live and then wasn't there one day.

I don't know what store has replaced the one in the photo. I do know I'll remember the saxophonist and the dancer for a long time. They made me smile. They were a beautiful interruption to my day. A spark of humanity and humour, something unprogrammed and all the more delightful for that. Sure, the busker was asking for money - but he wasn't promising or implying that my earnings would increase as a result, that my cholesterol would decrease, that relationships within my family would improve. That's the branding lie, the one we hear countless times every day here in Homogenopolis.

There's a book. Spirits of Place, edited by John Reppion. And it explores a whole variety of places, from Rajagiriya in Colombo, and the various places in Iceland where elves are discussed with more seriousness than they tend to be elsewhere, to the sea forts of Southend and the streets of Mexico City. It's a rich and rewarding collection of essays from a variety of contributors, the most celebrated being Alan Moore. Thanks to this book I'm now eager to explore more of the work of Vajra Chandrasekera, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Damien Williams and others. In very different ways, they all succeed in excavating the intertwined histories and mythologies of areas they have a connection with, and how those intricate stories affect the way people do what they do, irrespective of the ravenous ticktock of the branded world.

You are who you are in large part because of where and when you are. Pay attention to the pulse of what's happening around you. We've been deceived, told that what is presented on screens by some or other organisation that you matter to only as a consumer is more important than what's unfolding at the end of your road. And it's simply not true. Not far from the end of my road is Rachel, who in the course of running a charity to support women and children refugees vulnerable to sexual exploitation has made media appearances. On a tv show she spoke on Rachel was asked not to say words like terrorist and ISIS, which limited what she could speak about and made her message more generic, less likely to scare advertisers or bring truth into someone's midday viewing. 

It might seem that Starbucks has existed forever, but it's just another coffee shop among many. Go there by all means, but ask yourself why you've chosen that place to have your morning pick-me-up and not the cafe nearby run by a local family. The fact that Starbucks occupies a lot of your cognitive real estate doesn't actually make the coffee there any better. Maybe the local cafe will write your name on the cup, if that really matters to you. And sometimes locals will find a way to adapt the branded world to the way they like to do things. Cigarette papers are used just for that by everyone I know. But for some griots in Africa, putting a cigarette paper in the neck of their instrument gives kora strings a touch of distortion that's effective in some songs the wandering storytellers play

Interesting that one aspect of service Starbucks hit on was that - personal attention is something people will pay for, even if the truth of the matter is more complex. There are a couple of cafes in town which trip all the switches that say handcrafted and unique, but are owned by a conglomerate that's realised the value of not having a brand. And that McDonalds, which used to have the rosemary bush outside? Walking somewhere helps to stir my thinking, and sometimes it's to the McDonalds. I've spoken to a few people there, and heard their stories, like the woman who was planning her brother-in-law's funeral and turned 60 the same week.

A blue-haired teenager works there, with bright eyes that drink the world in. She grew up in Dubai, to an Egyptian/Palestinian father and Welsh mother, going to an international - ie American - school where when she left the librarian gave her a censored copy of 1984 with all the references to pigs and pork whited out. She saw me reading Spirits of Place, and liked the cover, and she was fascinated, growing up part of several worlds as she has, and with a copy of Bulfinch's Mythology at home. I popped in a couple of days back, and she told me she expects her copy of Spirits of Place to arrive any day. The rosemary bush is gone, but not the memory of it - the herb improves memory after all - and next time I see her I'll tell that tale, and ask for one of hers. It's what people do, and when we do it just because we can, and not with an eye on profit, we recover a little bit more of our humanity outside the reach of spreadsheet entries or MRI investigation, and which might lead you too to dance outside a vacated shop one day when you hear music that makes you shine.

When the weather is good, I walk further up the road, to a Portugese cafe, and though the original owner has moved on it's still a place I treasure, and remember my father taking her by the hand and dancing with her as Frank Sinatra played. Next time I tell that story, I might instead say a rhumba was on the radio, and that's fine too. Part of the beauty of stories, is that - unlike brands - there's never even the pretence of consistency.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us (and a quotations website reminds me) "consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds". Think about that next time you pass another shopfront promising familiar names at a newly opened store in Homogenopolis.