Monday, 07 November 2011

Picnic and community About ten or twelve years ago I stopped using the word ‘community’ on its own, a slightly fussy but I think justifiable reaction to the way it is abused. That abuse is not neutral or harmless, but is often part of the contaminated media rhetoric that sustains power relations. I must have been building up for a binge. Later this month I’ll be publishing a quirky essay on the nature of community - Picnic: order, ambiguity and community - which may seem to compensate fully for the years of abstention. In 2009 I was asked to evaluate a ‘community picnic’ organised for the Wellcome Trust in north London. As I spoke to some of the older participants about their experience of organising small-scale social events and issues like eating in public, I was struck by the way the practice of picnic and attitudes to ‘community’ have changed. A bit of historical research allowed me to reflect on the theme of order and disorder, using picnic as a sort of metaphor. The essay uses reportage, social history, sociology, and poetic imagination to explore the problematic way that contemporary understandings of social life try to suppress disorder and present antiseptic, highly-organised models of community, insisting on some mythology of unbreakable harmony. And I got lucky. Mentioning to one or two people that I was writing a text that was crying out for illustration, I got a virtual introduction to a young artist, Gemma Orton. I was astonished at Gemma's light-touch treatment of some of the main tensions – organisation and disorder, comfort and inconvenience, control and expression - that I was skirting around. Each new version of the images sent me back to the text to try and improve it. This collaboration has been a new and very rewarding experience for me. I also took advantage of my connection with Diffusion, and we’ve used their marvellous Bookleteer publishing process. It allows the publication of crafty handmades, high quality printed booklets, and electronic versions. We’re selling a standard edition for £10.00 and a signed limited edition in aid of Crisis, for £30.00. I chose Crisis because I want to point out the tasteless irony that homeless people eat out of doors much of the time, but are denied the pleasures of picnic (and often the benefits of community as well). More here about the publication, and you can order copies here.
All potential puns in the title of this post have been rejected Many years ago I had a conversation with someone in which I remember saying I took value from preparing food and handling vegetables. She responded with a look of utter incomprehension: as a modern urbanite she seldom prepared food and couldn't see the point. Why would you do that if you didn't have to? She ate out. As it happens, she went on to become a fairly well-known writer, albeit, you might think, with a fairly limited breadth of experience. I would be ashamed to have so little connection, on a routine basis, with what I was eating. It’s fair to ask how urban cultures have helped millions of people detach themselves from the biologically ineluctable need to convert plant and animal matter into food. For all the fashions of food cultures, there remain questions about a wealthy elite who can’t even service their own bodies. What about the rest of us, facing forecasts of austerity? To the allotments, comrades! Or how about a little animal husbandry? I like this post by Scott Doyon on the New Urban Network blog, referring to US government efforts in 1918 to encourage people to farm chickens in their backyard. Easy to look after with predictable yields, how come David Cameron hasn’t spotted the enormous economic potential here? We should have a UK-wide government campaign immediately. People might start to covet their neighbour’s chickens, but hey, that’s a small price to pay. You can even begin to see a justification for gated communities. The foxes round here would vote for it. And the chickens too, because in so many cases, owners wouldn’t have the heart to do what they’re supposed to do, so the birds might grow old gracefully. They don’t want to be in a pie, they don’t like gravy.

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