It sounds like a gene programme or a new skincare brand but the latest craze among urban foodies is altogether more earthy than that. In biodynamics, the form of farming favoured by the likes of Liz Hurley and Kate Moss, food is grown and harvested for immediate consumption at times dictated by the lunar pattern. Think Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall meets Russell Grant.
This thirst for greater wholesomeness and the ability to source products back to their roots is the starting point and sine qua non of a new approach to urban living. The distinguishing feature of the movement’s supporters is their willingness to use their purchasing power to buy freedom from the things that they don’t approve of. In an attempt to keep up, many urban supermarkets now set aside a whole counter devoted to foods which are “FREE FROM” a lengthening list of taboo ingredients. Though they would scoff at the label, we might call the footsoldiers of this movement the new puritans.
At the London marketing consultancy the Henley Centre, they have invented a flashy name for this new vogue for purity: “authenti- seeking”. Tamar Kasriel, an associate director at the consultancy, argues that it is fast becoming an instrument of social competition. Inevitably, she says, “the breadth of provenance is narrowing all the time: a high-end olive oil, for example, might not just be traced to Italy, but to a particular estate in one of the nicer regions of Tuscany”. For the new puritan, a bottled water whose label denotes its origins as French is not enough. The best ‘and most expensive’ waters now come from near a particular mountain within an area of France. There emerges, according to Kasriel, “a contradiction between the search for the simple life and the effort required to find it”.
The new puritanism, however, stretches far beyond what we eat or drink. Arguably, it began as a formula for the written word. Four years ago, in their book All Hail The New Puritans, a group of British writers led by novelists Nicholas Blincoe and Matt Thorne published a 10-point manifesto aimed at reinvigorating the art of British fiction. Inspired by the notoriety achieved when Lars Von Trier published his similarly austere approach to filmmaking, Dogma 95, the group aimed to “strip fiction down to its basics”, renouncing rhetoric, authorial asides and flashbacks. The manifesto was more of a marketing gimmick than a real literary movement and quickly spluttered into insignificance. The problem with the literary new puritans was always their unremitting negativity But that is all of a piece for the new puritans, who are more interested in saying what they won’t have than what they would put in its place. In the cosmetics industry, for example, Tamar Kasriel points out that new high-end beauty products tend to be sold as much on the basis of the purity of their naturally extracted ingredients than on their amazing science. More generally, the rise of the purification phenomenon to encompass everything from face creams to interior design is eerily reminiscent of religious puritanism. Rather like the old-fashioned puritans, it is tempting to think of these new purification rituals as a secular route to the cleansing of our souls.
Big companies and brands are rapidly making concessions to the new puritans, if only because this lucrative constituency frowns on arrogant large organisations. The new Coca-Cola campaign, for example, features an unknown British singer who ambles along a high street handing out bottles of Coke as she sings a Nina Simone track – and then giggles in the end, as if to show that the event has not been staged. The ads, produced by the shockingly trendy ad agency Mother, are part of Coca-Cola’s global “real” campaign and are designed to bring the brand back to its roots and show its human face. The manufacturers of other fast-moving consumer goods are following suit. Kasriel gives me an example: Persil, she says, recently added Aloe Vera to one of its washing powders in an attempt to connect with the new puritans – and vastly increased its sales as a result.
The typical new puritan would prefer to live in the country. But since to do so would be financially impractical and socially ruinous, they make do as best they can. They are also the same people who are busily reinventing domestic rituals. From the kitchen wizardry of “domestic goddess” Nigella Lawson to the phenomenal popularity of home bread-makers, the new puritans want to recapture the atmosphere and the smell of a domestic idyll. Under the patronage of the new puritans, the low-tech arts of knitting and gardening are re-emerging with a trendy new constituency: Vogue magazine, for example, has even launched its own knitting magazine.
They were also in the vanguard of the Slow Food Movement. Born in Italy in 1986 with a mission to celebrate earthy ingredients as well as the joys of mealtime togetherness, the International Slow Food movement has grown to boast 70,000 members in 40 different countries.
Unlike their predecessors, who were encumbered with a protestant work ethic, the new puritans are militant about freeing themselves up from the demands of work as far as possible. As a result, they are exiting the rat race in their droves. Once the preserve of eccentric middle-aged couples in search of the good life, the idea of “downshifting” or “protiring” in search of the good life is making a comeback among young, formerly high-powered urban professionals. Recent research from Datamonitor estimates that some 2.6m Britons are “downshifters”, up from 1.7m in 1997, when the “quiet revolt against the culture of getting and spending” began. The movement is now so well-established that Datamonitor predicts we will have 3.7m downshifters by 2007. Across Europe, it estimates there are now 12m downshifters, up from 9.3m in 1997.
Not content with having redeemed themselves, the new puritans are now advancing to take control of whole communities. Late last year, a minor revolt began percolating through the drawing rooms of Parisian society. In an orchestrated series of attacks in the popular press, citizens and community representatives banded together to bemoan what they took to be the gravest threat to the health of their city: the city’s new metropolitan elite and its quest for a blissfully quiet life. The arrival of the new “quietards” into an urban area was invariably accompanied by campaigns for traffic restrictions, noise control and speed limits, making it harder for shops to receive deliveries and people to travel. “In these quiet Paris areas,” the president of the Paris chamber of commerce and industry told one journalist, “we are also going to have a quiet economy – very quiet.”
The metamorphosis of the new puritans into a social movement – dedicated to a pared-down approach to modern life, free from both artifice and interruption – is hardly limited to France. Rather, it is a spectre which seems to be enveloping much of western Europe. In Italy, the success of the Slow Food movement gave rise to the movement in favour of Slow Cities – dedicated to slowing the expansion of Starbucks and McDonald’s, to reducing noise and to pedestrianising whole areas. Since its origins with the Rome manifesto five years ago, 33 Italian cities have signed up to the League for Slow Cities and another 16 are still awaiting approval. The movement’s top brass are now considering applications from budding “slow cities” in Brazil, Greece and Switzerland.
So who are the British new puritans, and where do they live? While there is evidence of a growing band of new puritans in London, many seem to be deserting the capital in favour of smaller and less polluted cities. The first British city to elect to become a “slow city”, it is instructive, was relatively humble Ludlow in Shropshire. David Boyle, author of the recent book Authenticity: Brands, Fakes, Spin and the Lust for Real Life, argues that those he calls the “new realists” tend to congregate “in a circle around the outside of the home counties, where the population is growing the fastest”. Other commentators point to the “bohemian triangle” of Oxford, Brighton and Bristol as ideal holding centres for the new breed. If the new puritans are indeed massing in certain areas of our regional cities, then the UK government’s recent move to devolve the power to enforce smoking bans to local authorities might well throw up some interesting data on their location and their behaviour. Even before the government’s announcement, the powers-that-be in Brighton were keen to implement a city-wide ban. Last year, for example, the Brighton and Hove Primary Care Trust declared publicly that smoke-free zones should be the standard rather than the exception. In the same year, Brighton and Hove City Council was one of a number of local councils to pass a motion opposing the fluoridation of local water supplies.
The new puritanism, Kasriel believes, is the successor to the explosion of “stress envy” at the beginning of the early 1990s. Soon after that, she says, people decided that it was cool to cope after all. Shopping for purity, she says, is only the next stage in our evolution as consumers. I’m sourcing all the right ingredients, it says, and I know exactly how to manage my life. There is, however, very little that is pure or authentic about baking your own bread in a consumer gadget, and very little quality in a life whose highest priority is a bit of peace and quiet. Likewise, the insistence of the literary New Puritans that writers concentrate on writing the truth dispenses with much that is valuable about the literary imagination. The suspicion here is that the new puritans desire to be bewitched by a good story has fallen foul of their mistrust of the storyteller – that their need for purity is no more than an expression of their inability to trust.
In a world which they perceive to be accelerating out of control, the new puritans seem determined to put their foot on the brake, to keep the outside world at bay. Kasriel suggests that the logical conclusion of the search for urban purity might be the establishment of gated urban communities. But in their quest for the perfectly simple life, the new puritans should be careful not to throw everyone else out with the clutter.
HOT YOGA… AND 15 MORE WAYS TO SPOT A NEW PURITAN
1) Has thrown in a professional job, or gone part-time. Or downshifted completely and persuaded their partner to stay on at work.
2) Mix and matches items from thrift shops with more usual designer apparel. Particularly the British designer label Voyage.
3) Keeps a ready supply of high-end self-help books – anything, for example, by The Barefoot Doctor. Or novels with a spiritual uplift, like Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.
4) Has built an urban garden, complete with a wormery for composting.
5) Has sold up and moved to the painfully trendy Crouch End area of London, Jericho in Oxford, Montpelier in Bristol, or Seven Dials in Brighton.
6) Shops locally, preferably at a farmers market. London now has 12 different farmers markets to choose from. For info, contact London Farmers Markets on www.lfm.org.uk
7) Boycotts the multinationals wherever possible. Reads labels when in the supermarket.
8) Has abandoned the daily Kit-Kat for quality purveyors of organic chocolate, Green & Black’s. The latter’s chocolates are, according to company promotional material, “farmed organically under the shade of the indigenous rainforest trees”.
9) Holidays on The Greek island of Skiros, where so-called “arts and crafts” breaks provide excellent cover for single new puritans in search of a mate.
10) She has started a knitting circle. He has taken up DIY.
11) Has turned up the heating to practise Hot Yoga (the popular label for Bikram yoga), which aims to detoxify the body by encouraging it to sweat buckets.
12) Has joined local currency or barter scheme. If nothing else, the fact that it is untraceable makes it an excellent tax dodge.
13) Has a food intolerance. Talks about it.
14) Talks about real music by ostentatiously gritty and non- commercial artists such as The White Stripes, or Ani diFranco.
15) Drinks vodka and cranberry juice – the purest form of alcohol, according to the new puritans, and the least likely to do damage to your body.
16) Grumbles about how expensive it is to have kids these days. Borrows a dog at the weekends instead.