Familiarity breeds contempt: The town mouse, right, appalled by the country mouse’s straw house
Aesop’s fable of the town mouse and the country mouse is a simple tale. A proud town mouse visits his parochial cousin and is so horrified by the meagre fare offered for supper that he hotfoots it back to the big city. He invites the country mouse to visit, intending to show him all the splendours of cosmopolitan life. A banquet is prepared showcasing the riches and abundance of the city. But at the last minute a swarm of threatening rats looms, and the country mouse runs away back to his rural haven. The moral of the story is that it is better to be safe with limited means than to have possession of the horn of cornucopia at the price of personal liberty. It is the outside danger that is the moral black spot, not the profusion itself.
But abundance per se isn’t necessarily a good thing either. In London, you can get anything you want, at any time. Craving Vietnamese food at two o’clock in the morning? No problem. Have an obsession with vintage horology? There’s a shop for that. Fancy an Iranian film followed by a Thai massage, then Hawaiian-inspired lunch? Easy-peasy. But easy access to even the most niche interests isn’t doing us any good: we are all struck by choice fatigue.
Abundance breeds familiarity, which in turn breeds contempt. We are constantly scrabbling for a new sensation, but, like hardened junkies, each successive hit is less mind-blowing than the last. We become jaded, sneering at ceviche as being desperately passé (pokē is the new thing: they are almost identical) rather than questioning whether a plate of raw fish is really what we hunger for, and why on earth it has become the fashionable thing to eat.
The expression FOMO (“fear of missing out”) was coined to explain the alienating feeling that everyone around you is having the time of their lives while you are merely subsisting. There is nowhere lonelier than a city. And there is something unsettling about them, too. Anthropologists say that the ideal social community size is around 150 — no wonder we feel overwhelmed in metropolises where millions of strangers are crowded together. It is unnatural to live in conurbations so large. Much dystopian fiction is informed by this unease: witness the recent film adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High Rise, a nightmare in a tower block.
Yet for the first time in history, more people are living in cities than in the countryside. More people are turning their noses up at the simple pleasures of a country walk or a local cinema. Friends who came to stay with me in rural Devon recently were astonished that you couldn’t buy coriander on demand. It would seem that being spoilt is now so normal that even gentle, civilised people simply cannot comprehend that there is a world beyond the city where entire communities can function without pomegranate molasses and immersive performance art. The rats of our own greed are chasing us: but instead of running away to nature, we are allowing them to gobble us up.