Ah, ‘heritage’ – the El Dorado of marketing – it’s everywhere, isn’t it? All those dinky jars of jam with the word ‘cottage’ somewhere on the label and a bit of gingham on top, the gardening tools (made in China and bend the first time you use them) that look like props from Downton Abbey, the stripy tomatoes, the claw-foot bath, the retro kitchen equipment, and of course the finishing touch for those lovely old stone cottages (utterly unattainable by the modern labourers and artisans whose whose forebears once lived in them): phlegm-coloured woodwork*.
I was out on my bike when I saw this bag, less than a mile from Helmsley on the way up to Bransdale, lying on a verge that I’d last picked the week before, not-coincidentally slap in the middle of the Easter holidays. After a year of crapfairying I can’t say it surprised me – it’s the kind of thing that you expect around here seven days after a Bank Holiday Monday, the fresh deposits of plastic bottles, cans and sandwich packets a dismal parody of Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs, marking the trail of the Foraging Consumer in pursuit of The Countryside. And since I’m writing this in the middle of the May Day weekend, I expect I’ll be out there picking another lot up again soon.
It’s not hard to understand why we’re so hungry for heritage – look it up on Wikipedia and the entry reads like a cri du coeur from post-modern humanity, a wish-list menu for the famished soul. Here’s an extract:
“Heritage refers to something inherited from the past. The word has several different senses, including:
Natural heritage, an inheritance of fauna and flora, geology, landscape and landforms, and other natural resources.
Cultural heritage, the legacy of physical artefacts and intangible attributes of a group or society: man-made heritage.
Inheritance of physical goods after the death of an individual; of the physical or non-physical things inherited.
Heredity, biological inheritance of physical characteristics.
Birthright, something inherited due to the place, time, or circumstances of someone’s birth.
Kinship, the relationship between entities that share a genealogical origin.”
See what I mean? You could weep.
But what can a person do these days to assuage the nagging sense that something’s missing, that something’s got lost somewhere along the road to ready-mashed potato and Help To Buy To Let? And what have you got to turn to, to help you get it back? Well, if money’s the only measure that counts, then that’s the only tool you’ve got – and you know what they say about tools: if the only one you’ve got is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.
Jaded and cynical?
Here’s something you can afford.
Worn out and wondering what the point is?
Can’t sleep for worrying?
Feel like crying?
Catch yourself thinking “It didn’t use to be like this in the old days…?”
“… back in the golden past when there were apple-cheeked farmers’ wives baking bread…”
“… and housewives in aprons bought beef brisket from a real butcher. When ordinary people knew what beef brisket was, come to that. And how to cook it themselves.”
And if you should by any chance spend a bit too long thinking about how the life you’ve got is not somehow what you had in mind, and start to feel a bit sad – and also perhaps a little bit ripped off for some reason… Well, don’t let’s go there! And don’t you worry because all you need to do is get your purse out again and all will be well!
After all, happiness for the price of not even (quite) half an hour of your cleaning job – what a bargain!
The trouble is that in the real world, happiness is such a slippery concept – arriving unpredictably in missable moments and often only noticed looking backwards. Likewise innocence, vitality, hope, serenity, and all the other qualities of living that, if they come at all, come fleetingly and often incognito in the hurly-burly. The marketed versions, though, are super-signals of the qualities they tout: unambiguous, clearly labelled and promising easy satisfaction. Their images are bigger, brighter, shinier and perfect: pornography for the soul.
Hardly surprising, then, that it actually degrades and devalues the thing that it commodifies: who cares about slinging a Coke bottle out onto a bit of boring grass verge when you’re on your way to consume your fill of The North York Moors™? And although the posh branded bag is of course a valuable part of the actual Heritage-buying ritual (or else how would you even know that your fudge was really Heritage after all and not just 100g of fat and sugar in a plastic wrapper?), ten minutes later, when you’ve eaten the contents and you’re sat there waiting for the good scenery to turn up – well, let’s face it, it’s just a piece of rubbish.
Finally, on the theme of commodification, here’s a picture I took a couple of weeks ago – it was such a classic that I knew it’s time would come, and it has: fresh air in a can. Still full, by the way, as it lies randomly deposited by the side of the A170.
The colours of nature? Umm, no. Not really. The grass and the vetch and the dandelions are that. And fresh air doesn’t smell of lavender, it’s just… fresh air. Isn’t that good enough?
It is good enough. Open the window and fill your lungs.
* Not that it doesn’t look nice, of course – it does. Very chic. Very Heritage and everything. Just a bit… bronchitic, that’s all. Sorry.
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