A processed non-sequitir

Urban Fresh Fruit (Strawberry). Image: brandonblog.wordpress.com

For months now I’ve been interested in the possibility of an idea of ‘simple urban contentment’, expressed in the same way as ‘simple country contentment’. The latter is a firmly established mythology, especially in urban areas: its signifiers are open fires, cider, ale, stew and bread. The former not so much – possible signifiers that have been suggested to me so far range from curry to sushi to takeaway coffee. But is there really no such thing as ‘simple’ happiness in the city? And is it not a little demeaning to assume that there is such a thing in the country?

Then I came across the Allestree-based company Urban Fresh Fruit. Now, these people seem to have a clear idea about what makes a food ‘urban’: this fruit may have been ‘picked from wherever the sun is shining’ but, decisively, it is then baked and sealed in a bag to make it ‘a lot more convenient’.  It  a removal from, and a romanticised yearning for, ‘Nature’. ‘Our awesome apples’, claim the Derbeians, ‘are from a beautiful and mountainous valley in south Africa only accessible via mountain passes that take your breath away’. The ‘Urban’, more’s the pity, is very rarely allowed to stand up for its own virtues.

by Luke Healey


5 responses to “A processed non-sequitir

  1. This is a really interesting piece; your consideration of how space functions in our collective cultural conscious, as filled by the urban and the pastoral respectively, is fascinating. I agree that the marketing of Urban Fresh Fruit, as typified through their manipulation of the concept of ‘nature’ and the juxtaposition of descriptions of beautiful exotic landscapes with praise of wham-bam convenience culture, all seems a bit weird, maybe even nauseating; not a marketing strategy which is conducive to eating fruit.

    However, by judging the urban through its potential to allow for ‘simple contentment’, you are judging it by the criteria of the pastoral, and as such, disallowing the city to ‘stand up for its own virtues.’ After all, as you yourself suggest, equality does not equate to homogeneity. Rather, the question we need to ask is not ‘can an urban environment allow for “simple contentment”?’, but ‘what does the city offer in place of “simple contentment”?’

    In order to tackle this question, we must first consider the differing mythologies of the two locations. The cosy image you describe, of stew, cider, and an open fire, is most certainly a well embedded element of the mythology of the country. However, your signifiers of the urban location (sushi joints and paper coffee cups) are not symbolic of the city, but of capitalism. While the two are of course related, they are not as one; if someone were to suggest that the primary symbols of the rural are incest, fox-hunting and racism, we would perhaps be more inclined to point out the mono-dimensionality of this claim. Thus, while we could consider the urban environment as a modernist dystopia; a place of capitalism, crime and claustrophobia, this would be to culturally and symbolically undervalue the city. However, this may, as you suggest, be because the mythology of the city is not so well established.

    In order to explore the, perhaps under-represented, cultural status of the city, we must examine it in its own terms, and define its cultural value as such. Only then can we establish what the city offers in place of the ‘simple contentment’ of the countryside. There is something which is at once magical and human about the urban landscape, and while ‘simple happiness in the city’ may not exist, this is not to say that a mythological status akin to that of its rural counterpart is unattainable.

    The beginning and (especially) the end of this clip portrays the city in a way which might just rival your belly-full-of-home-cooked-stew feeling about the country. While I’m aware of the irony in using a clip produced by a company which makes an annual net profit of around $4.5 billion per year, to serve my argument as to define the city by criteria other than the capitalistic, I think it makes a stronger case for the city, as a positive space, than I ever could.


  2. Yes, sushi bars and instant coffee are symbols of capitalism, but I don’t think it was those connotations that Luke had in mind. Instead, another characteristic that connects them is convenience, and I think it is this quality that makes them the closest equivalent to symbollic contentedness in the city.

    This jarrs with our usual definition of ‘content’, but it should be stressed (though it is not needed) that the lifestyle of the country is different to that of the city. Now, i’m not sure that I agree with this distinction myself, but broadly, time is seen as more precious in urban settings, (‘time is money’ etc) and with this as a backdrop, anything that appears to save time will become an positive symbol of this lifestyle.

    Does this equate to contentedness? Not quite, but it represents an alleviation of the pressures of urban life, and that seems closely related.

    I have to disagree with the notion that the company’s allusion to Nature in some way undermines it’s claims to be a specifically urban product. In fact, it seems only another example of the convenience offered by instant coffee or sushi. In both cases, they take something distant (coffee beans, fish) and make them instantly available. Similarly, the Urban Fresh Fruit take fruits from distant settings, prepare them, and package them for your instant convenience.

  3. David, the idea of the link between sushi and take-away coffee being convenience is still a link of capitalism. The idea that ‘time is money’ is the pure desire of capitalism: it is reducing everything to its economic value. Linked in with the idea of ‘time is money’ is the mistaken belief that with any amount of money you can acquire anything, hence the idea of convenience as a right. By reducing the very essence of life itself into economic terms, anything is economically permissible.

    I think that the marketing of this product is just another farcical and grotesque attempt to appeal to the yuppie classes. It is to appeal to people whose idea of the countryside is the lie of ‘traditional pastoral’ England. It perpetuates the bourgeois myths of pastoral England that functions to assert the hegemony of the urban classes over the rural. The romanticised and nostalgic view of the countryside is as false as the conception that the city is the place where dreams come true, the place where with a bit of luck and a lot of hard work you can achieve anything. It is, in essence, a lie told to the population by the ruling class to control them.

    Both the desire to define the ‘pastoral’ and the urban are functions of Bourgeois ideology. There is no way you can attempt to define them without resorting to tired, old clichés. There is no way you can attempt to define them without disguising the true nature of life that occurs there. It is a fallacy to even attempt this.

  4. A couple of thoughts:

    It’s a bit reductive to dismiss English pastoralism as a controlling ‘bourgeois myth’. This claim requires a more nuanced analysis of the myth’s (assuming there is one) various origins; something we can only happily hint at here. For example, and to indulge in some idle speculation, I wonder to what extent the celebration of the English countryside in the ways you have all described became especially pronounced as a reaction against Industrial Revolution, when urbanisation would have been in the interests of the powerful manufacturers and politicians hoping to realize the ‘greatness’ of Great Britain through wealth and technology. The virtues of simplicity may not have been as valuable as those of strident modernity, though there is another discussion to be had on the soporific aspects of myths of leisure in urban societies.

    To return to the initial question, and as suggested by the previous comments, it’s difficult to discover an ‘urban simplicity’ due to the sprawling and heterogeneous nature of ‘urban’ environments; just as ‘rural’ environments are highly varied. It’s probably quite easy to imagine what constitutes a myth of suburban simplicity (though if indeed a myth, this is personally very much a lived and fully enjoyed myth), but I suspect that this would be too close to that of the rural to be recognizably ‘urban’. What might inner city simplicity look like?

    It might be a mistake to see ‘simplicity’ as having to follow from ‘homogeneity’, though. Paradoxical as it sounds, perhaps there is such a thing as simple enjoyment of, or in the midst of, the complex (assuming, of course, that this is not itself to perpetuate a myth of the city centre – as distinct from the inner city – as pluralistic, dynamic, etc). You might find something like this in an unexpected wrong-turn on a lunch-break wander, or a momentary comic glance shared between yourself and a complete stranger on a crowded bus (this happens to me relatively frequently). Personally, the simplest pleasure in a vast metropolis is always to hear ‘Mind the Gap’ on the Tube.

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