NEW CASTLE DIVIDED

So, as one Utopian experiment dies before our eyes – i.e. the United States of America – following the first unedifying debate between two corrupt cadavers (and all those hoping Trump cops it are as much a part of that slow death as the man himself), another kind of Utopia gradually vanishes whilst nobody’s looking. This one is part of an ongoing process to erase a uniquely 20th century concept of Utopia from the landscape, and the latest chapter will be underway once the bulldozers belatedly move in to begin a demolition that has been on the cards for the best part of a decade – that of the perennially-controversial eyesore known as the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre. Even if this particular precinct isn’t personally known to the reader, it represents a specific shopping experience familiar to anyone born and raised in any British city during the first half-century of the post-war era.

The Elephant and Castle seems to have specialised in retail outlets for a hundred years or more. Before the Second World War, it was a highly-regarded destination for shoppers, nicknamed ‘the Piccadilly of South London’; it boasted several cinemas, a branch of Burtons, and also had its very own illustrious department store, something which – much like malls in more recent times – no neighbourhood claiming to be a leading shopping epicentre could be complete without. However, as was the case with great swathes of the capital, the Blitz laid waste to the locality and Elephant and Castle was earmarked for redevelopment; along with new housing, the planners intended to provide grandiose leisure facilities which were inevitably dominated by that ubiquitous addition to the post-war urban landscape, the newfangled shopping centre complex.

London wasn’t unique when it came to these concoctions, but it being London, everything had to be on a far larger scale than anywhere else. Belonging to a generation of architects inspired by the futuristic – if impractical – cityscapes of Le Corbusier, the designers of Elephant and Castle’s contribution to the concrete jungles of the New Elizabethan Age weren’t short on ambition, even if predictable budgetary restraints somewhat diluted the drawing-board sketches. Opened for business in 1965, the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre shared similar hopes for housing a dozen old streets of shops under one roof as Birmingham’s equally optimistic Bull Ring Centre around the same time. Both suffered from a scaling down of their original vision. Pre-opening hype at the Elephant and Castle may well have boasted of 120 shop units on three levels, but by the time it opened, only 29 were filled; the Bull Ring faced the same problems, with the high rentals there dissuading the old market traders from relocating indoors.

Even a Brutalist enthusiast – and they do exist – would be hard-pushed to make an aesthetic case for the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre. It’s a tatty sow’s ear of a building that no amount of tinkering over the years has managed to transform into a silk purse. It has no real architectural shape or form, with the various tacked-on ‘improvements’ having enhanced its irredeemable ugliness whilst failing to improve upon what photographs show was far-from impressive even at the time of its initial opening. As with the simultaneous decline and fall of the neighbouring Heygate Estate – another product of well-meaning but poorly-executed post-war town planning – the Shopping Centre gradually acquired an unsavoury, rather grubby reputation that deterred the big chain-store names from investing in it. However, the one unintended benefit of the precinct being shunned by high-street giants was that it enabled independent traders to plug the gaps, creating something of a community ambience, especially for the area’s notable Latin American population. So, in a wholly unexpected way, the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre eventually became that which it was originally intended as – a community hub for the community that live in the area.

The motivation behind so much of the 1960s housing and retail stock that is disappearing from view with remarkable rapidity was undeniably laudable; if WWII air-raids could be said to have had any positive impact on Britain’s cities, they at least forced councils and elected representatives to address urban environmental issues that had required urgent attention for decades. Not only was there a concerted attempt to improve the nation’s homes, high-streets and road network, but it was a project in which the lives of everybody were included. As with the political consensus that lingered until the arrival of Thatcherism, this hangover from the One Nation approach required to repel Hitler meant the great housing schemes of the era were built to provide homes for anybody in need of one, regardless of social demographic league tables. That so much of this ambitious and brave concept failed to deliver really is something of a tragedy.

Cut corners, cheap materials, shoddy workmanship, poor designs, diminishing budgets and behind-the-scenes corruption all played their part in the collapse of this admirable Utopian operation, as did the almost manic verve with which perfectly sound streets, houses and civic buildings were bulldozed not because they were bomb-damaged or decrepit but simply because they were old and didn’t fit the master-plan. A blend of old and new complementing each other would have been the best solution, but local councils and politicians became drunk on redevelopment and saddled any Brutalist building with the same undesirable label as those that were the worst, most unloved examples of the school – which is why so many of them have gone in the past couple of decades.

The Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre closed its doors for good at the end of September; the whole area is to be redeveloped yet again, with the ominous spectre of ‘gentrification’ looming over the locals. Many of the traders that served to give the kiss of life to the Shopping Centre have not been offered units in the emporium scheduled to replace it, but I’m guessing the usual suspects will move in to make its replacement just like every other mall anywhere on the planet. Southwark Council have promised 35% of the dwellings accompanying this new retail hub will consist of social housing, but one can’t help but think non-dom Chinamen, Arabs and Oligarchs are probably already top of this particular housing list. At least the 1960s redevelopments, however much they got it wrong, were designed with ‘ordinary people’ in mind. Today, the plebs have to be content with whatever scraps are leftover from the rich pickings overseas investors at the head of the queue get their hands on.

Many similar heroic failures have bitten the dust this century – the old Bull Ring met the wrecking-ball almost 20 years ago whilst Portsmouth’s equally-ambitious Tricorn Centre (described by Prince Charles as ‘a mildewed lump of elephant droppings’) was demolished in 2004. Love them or loathe them, such buildings embodied a vision sorely lacking today. They may have become – like the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre – distinctly shabby within a very short space of time; but they had character, something that 21st century redevelopment does its damndest to smoothly iron out.

© The Editor

THE NEW NORMAL

I’m not going to deny it; as a gentleman with no loved ones and no responsibilities, I’m liking the lockdown. Yes, I’d be buggered if I was hospitalised, what with no next-of-kin to nominate; but unless we go out in the fatal crash of a packed passenger vehicle, we all go out alone anyway. Sod it, then. I’m only venturing outdoors a couple of times a week at most, but after a month of this, I’ve noticed the slightly unnerving ambience of the initial alteration to the standard structures of society has been superseded by classic British stoical acceptance. The panic-buying hysteria that opened proceedings has mercifully abated and the supermarket shelves are stocked again; you still have to stand in line to get indoors, but the queues aren’t as long as they were and everyone appears to be absorbing the social distancing guidelines without much in the way of fuss. The no-cash policy at Sainsbury’s means I’ve also become accustomed to the self-service system and I suspect I’ll stick with it when all this is over.

Mind you, I reckon a lot of things won’t simply revert to how they were pre-lockdown. There’s been much discussion this week of what will happen when some of the restrictions might be relaxed a little in a month or so. I suspect all those public venues most rely upon for unwinding won’t necessarily pick up from where they left off before the country closed down; after a month of such a dramatic change to social habits, I’m guessing business will be slow to gather pace again as people express understandable reservations about gathering in large numbers. Small business-owners undoubtedly have a case for a pivotal role in a cautious and measured re-opening operation, however; they certainly deserve preferential treatment over billionaires remortgaging their private islands as a means of seeking a tax-payer bailout for companies that don’t actually pay them, for one thing. Boo! Hiss, beardy-weirdy!

As jellyfish infiltrate the Venice canals and hopefully persuade the governors of that uniquely aquatic citadel that their waterways have an appeal to tourists beyond the usual boat traffic, a slightly different but no less aesthetically appealing transformation of the urban environment has been something many city-dwellers here have taken note of. Living as I do on what Google, no less, has certified as the most congested main road in the metropolis come rush-hour, last week I was nevertheless able to stand smack bang in the middle of said thoroughfare around noon and take some snapshots of Her Majesty’s deserted highway. I did so to a chorus of languid lunchtime birdsong ordinarily inaudible above the din of a dozen infernal combustion engines, and noticed another pedestrian with a camera engaged in the same activity. The novelty of the scenario is something many feel needs to be captured before it vanishes as a collective hallucination. But will it?

With the weather being so inviting for those fortunate enough to have gardens, my window has been open to neighbours in possession of that particular luxury item. A few days ago, I could hear what bizarrely sounded like someone enacting a 1970s edition of ‘Play School’, seemingly addressing an infant audience by singing nursery rhyme-type numbers in the kind of RP that naturally takes the ears back to a time when the accent was compulsory at Shepherd’s Bush. I eventually got up to look and saw a lady a few doors down performing with hula hoops whilst dressed like Mary Poppins. No, I wasn’t pissed/stoned; it happened. It looked as though she was going through her odd act before a camera, so she may well be uploading the end result to YouTube or Instagram as a means of entertaining the young ‘uns. If so, good luck to her. Like many in a neighbourhood with a nomadic population, I have little contact with the ever-changing roster of those who share the street, so I’ve no idea who she was; but she momentarily returned me to the happy days of ‘Hickory House’ and all those other pre-school shows that the BBC and ITV used to produce at dinnertime, so that in itself was a characteristically surreal side-effect of the strange days we inhabit.

Residing within a short walking distance of a substantial high-street, I don’t normally have to go far to find what I want when it comes to a shop, though ever since all this started the only stores still open for business are Boots, Superdrug, Wilkos, Sainsbury’s and a chemists; a little farther afield, the odd non-chain-store café is selling on the doorstep to loyal customers, which is a pleasing sight in the face of the small business apocalypse. However, as someone who regularly likes to decorate his windowsill by counteracting the overpowering dominance of two Triffid-like rubber plants with some fresh lilies, I must admit I miss the local florist. A survey unveiled yesterday revealed garden centres lead the list of places most would be happy to visit again without fear of infection in the event of the lockdown being lifted or at least eased a little, so the perilous backlog of unsold plants and flowers might be spared the skip after all.

I appreciate this is probably the worst period in recorded history for burglars and I acknowledge many keeping their homes safe by occupying them 24/7 are struggling and finding the situation difficult; but, as I’ve stated before, doing what I do means I’m used to self-isolation and going days without seeing or speaking to a soul. The main difference between the norm and now is that I generally tend to operate in a bubble; yet at the moment, I venture outdoors and discover my own peculiar form of social distancing is being mirrored by the majority, which isn’t usually the case in a neighbourhood in which the relentless sonic intrusion of police sirens shape an intolerable soundtrack along with the bowel-shuddering bass-lines of in-car sound systems, car alarms, slamming doors and people talking as though addressing a public meeting. Is it any wonder I’m relishing the sudden retreat into the village roots our big cities sprang from?

Of course, simply making the best of an unexpected and unprecedented development when in a position to do so isn’t something some are content with. Under the smokescreen of ‘holding the government to account’, the mainstream media (and particularly the BBC) seems intent on focusing wholly on the negatives of the lockdown and finding endless fault with the approach of containing the coronavirus so far. Okay, yes, in a democracy – and especially one with such an ineffective opposition (regardless of those showering Chief Auton Starmer at PMQs in desperate praise) – government does need to be questioned and challenged. But it’s a fine line between that and relentless contrarian bashing of a kind that chimes with the Guardian narrative about the nation. Boris is still recuperating at Chequers as we speak, so the new normal seems set to be prolonged for another fortnight at the least. I wonder if it’ll be missed when it’s gone?

© The Editor

8 DAYS LATER

When it comes to high-street discount stores handy for basic toiletries and the like, Studio 54 doesn’t immediately spring to mind. However, the notoriously stringent entrance policy of the exclusive New York nightclub of the Disco era – in which the only guaranteed name on the list would usually be that of Andy Warhol – came into my head this morning. I had no choice but to wait in line as a makeshift doorman at my local branch of Wilkos wouldn’t allow any shoppers in until another shopper had exited the store. The oddness of this particular shopping experience was compensated for via the purchase of my first pack of loo rolls in a fortnight; but it wasn’t unique to the expedition.

Sainsbury’s has also instigated a new queue policy whereby shoppers need to stand several feet apart – though when I recall some of the BO I’ve been forced to inhale in tight-knit shopping queues over the years, I can’t say I mind too much. That said, this system does invite unknowing queue-jumpers who see a wide gap and assume there’s no queue at all. We’re all adapting, I guess. It’s now cards-only at the manned tills too; cash-carrying peasants were redirected to the automated self-service machines. Having slipped into a routine whereby I venture outdoors every four days, I notice the changes more on each occasion I brave the pavement; the way things are going, I can’t help but feel it’s only a matter of time before supermarkets convert to a drive-through method ala McDonalds. Bit of a bugger for those of us without cars, mind.

I was out not long after 10.00am and had to pinch myself that it was Saturday morning, which is normally the busiest shopping day of the week. I must have passed no more than a dozen people, and even the traffic on what is usually something of a bottleneck was minimal to the point of invisibility. A main road generally impossible to cross without summoning assistance from the green and red men was today witness to the kind of casual pedestrian strolling unimaginable at times when society hasn’t been turned upside down. Even the post office – which we were informed would remain open – has closed its doors; and that was the main destination which prompted the excursion. One week and one day on from the moment most doors closed to the public, the public is being made very aware that the only place to go is home.

Part of me thinks I should carry my camera with me, to capture the refashioned urban environment while it lasts; but images of congested streets as they were before the lockdown increasingly look stranger than what is now the new norm. I’ve experienced numerous times in my life when my fellow man has consciously avoided me as though I were contagious, but this has suddenly become commonplace for everybody. On one hand, the sight of it could be mistaken for polite courtesy as two people on a collision course step aside in a manner that would demand the raising of hats were hats in place; yet everybody is now so hyper-aware of how apparently easy it is to become infected that a bizarre dance can be seen up and down supermarket aisles and on pavements. You can’t help it. Every individual you spy heading towards you is accompanied by a sonorous Central Office of Information narrator informing you that person could be infected; pass too close and you could be infected too. I wonder how long it’ll take before people stop being scared to come into contact with other humans again.

It’s certainly a weird experience being out after four days of being in, and my only real concern when it comes to this whole isolation & distancing thing is that I personally find it harder to re-engage with folk the longer I’m deprived of their presence. Have no doubt – I can cope with my own company; I’m more than accustomed to that. But reverting to social skills when they haven’t been used for a while is for me a bit like restarting inactive machinery that has been switched-off during an industrial dispute; it ain’t like riding a bike, trust me. Skyping is the next best thing, I guess; and I’ve done a fair bit of that over the past week or so. And it’ll have to suffice for the time being. At least it’s better than it must have been during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918; the best most could manage then was to send a few telegrams.

So, we’re left with our imaginary TV schedule whenever the printed page and the soundtrack have momentarily exhausted their appeal. If you don’t subscribe to streaming and all those other newfangled means of accessing escapist entertainment, there’s always the humble DVD. And what, you probably won’t be asking, has kept me entertained since Boris issued his command? Well, it may not be the most comforting of programmes to revisit, but it’s undoubtedly timely; I’m talking ‘Survivors’, Terry Nation’s dystopian BBC drama from the mid-70s. I might be a masochist, but I couldn’t resist coming to the series again with such an unexpected new perspective.

Just the opening titles struck me as remarkably prescient. Brilliantly summarising what the show is about by using that visual exposition characteristic of opening titles back then, we see a Chinese scientist in a surgical mask drop a test tube we instantly know contains a lethal chemical that then explodes in slow motion. Cut to repeated shots of planes zooming across the screen as we see said scientist collapse in a crowd whilst a sequence of passports are stamped with the names of the planet’s major capital cities. Okay, so within 30 seconds we learn some sort of biochemist from the Far East has accidentally released a new killer virus that is spread around the globe via air travel. And remember, this is 1975, not 2020. Yes, the programme’s 45-year vintage is evident as the rapid deterioration of society is portrayed with echoes of the Three-Day Week, fuel crises and fear of right-wing militias seizing control typical of the period; but the sudden collapse of the infrastructures keeping everything ticking over courtesy of a plague originating in China is hard to watch now without every recent news bulletin re-entering the viewer’s head.

In ‘Survivors’, a band of good guys eventually come together and form what is essentially a pre-industrial agricultural commune as a means of rebuilding the world for those who survived the plague. They do so whilst regularly fighting off less community-minded bad guys – and one thing that dates ‘Survivors’ is the fact that the bad guys are always working-class, as a counterpoint to the middle-class heroes. But that’s just a sign of the times in which it was produced, as is the absence of a patronising diversity quota amongst the cast; indeed, the main character whose progress we follow throughout the first series is female, and a tough, resourceful one at that. And Terry Nation created her without having an edict imposed upon his creativity from on-high.

Perhaps reflecting the broad brushstrokes of BBC drama in 1975, I’ve also recently been re-watching the first series of ‘Angels’. Maybe the incessant focus on the NHS at the moment prompted me to return to this prime-time serial about student nurses, one that is another well-written and well-acted example of the era. One only has to watch an episode of a mainstream series from 40-odd years ago and then do likewise with a contemporary equivalent to witness how low standards have sunk in all departments. The last time I saw an episode of ‘Casualty’ about five years ago, it was like revisiting every shit daytime Aussie soap you’ve ever seen. Not so ‘Department S’, which is gloriously far-fetched Swinging 60s ITC adventure at its finest – and it gave the world Jason King; what more do you want? That’s my other current vintage televisual aid. None of these were planned viewing; the situation demanded them, so I submitted. These are mine; feel free to enjoy your own.

© The Editor

SHOP TILL YOU DROP

As I’ve stated on more than one previous occasion, online shopping has been a Godsend for me, liberating me from having to make the dreaded trip ‘into town’ – especially this particularly appalling time of year. Only this morning, dashing down the aisles of my local Sainsbury’s in search of something to invigorate my jaded appetite, I received my first exposure of 2017 to the soundtrack that pumps out the same old seasonal songs on the same old loop until any lingering nostalgic affection for the individual tracks in question is finally, belatedly, obliterated. Yes, even ‘Fairytale of New York’, perennially held-up as the ‘Cool’ Christmas song, is beginning to grate after 30 years and is now firmly settled alongside Noddy, Roy, Greg and Jona as an earworm only marginally less unwelcome than the Radio 1 ‘mix-tape’ my new neighbour plays at 4.30am every weekend to obscure the bottom-spanking sex sounds emanating from her flat door.

I rarely make the journey into the nearest city centre now; until I stopped smoking I was mainly making the journey solely to purchase cheap tobacco from a small shop I frequented for the best part of fifteen years – baccy that supplemented the 40 cigs a day I was addicted to. Since I switched to vaping, I’ve been spared the fortnightly trek, and now I have no reason whatsoever to set foot there. A recent conversation with a friend on the horrors of physical shopping made me realise that I literally have nothing to venture into such an arena for anymore. All the shops that lured me there for the majority of my adult life have gone.

Memories of childhood city centre shopping outings mostly consist of being reluctantly dragged around ‘mum stores’ such as M&S and C&A, sterile feminine emporiums with little or no appeal for a bored boy; appeasement came as a reward before the bus-stop, when the bookshelves of Boots or WH Smiths would provide momentary portals to more exciting alternatives.

Once free from the maternal jackboot, locations that would provoke exasperation in mothers were ports-of-call on adolescent wanderings around the same square-mile – second-hand record, book and magazine shops situated down seedy side-streets off the previously beaten path, emitting intoxicatingly musty odours and manned by grubby geezers or shady ladies with mouths as foul as the enticingly archaic stench produced from the piles of yellowing 70s NME, Sounds and Melody Maker issues or LPs from record collections offloaded in the wake of the thirty-something CD exodus that such shops specialised in. Emerging from these divinely dark caves, one’s fingers were as dirty as the neglected corners of the town they were hidden away in.

The mainstream choices weren’t really mum-friendly either – mainly Virgin and HMV, which were initially as deliciously ‘alternative’ as the aforementioned independent specialist shops in the first half of the 80s, at least. If there was a colour scheme, it was sex-shop black; even the staff looked like they should be in bands, albeit The Specimen or The Slits; one pink-haired vamp was a particular personal incentive for making Virgin a regular haunt of bunking-off sessions during the last desperate days of school – sessions that would sometimes inadvertently lead to encounters with other truant wastrels dressed in uncharacteristic ensembles that would never be permissible in the place we were supposed to be attending. Of course, I didn’t ‘chat-up’ the pink-haired vamp behind the counter; I didn’t know how. But I occasionally wonder what became of her.

The shop sold videos too! ‘The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle’ was on sale in there – and they’d never broadcast that on the telly. It’d cost you around £25 to see Sid Vicious strolling through Paris and offending the natives, mind; and you’d also have to wade through the VHS/Betamax debate in order to work out if your primitive family VCR would play the bloody thing. It was all academic, though; the tape was way out of your pocket-money league, so all you could do was study the packaging and wish YouTube into existence 20 years early.

By the time the HMV morphed into just another mall monstrosity aimed at game-boys, and Virgin briefly became known as ‘Zavvi’ – or the more common nickname, ‘Spazzi’ – there were other reasons to venture into the city centre, such as bookstore Borders. Books, CDs, a café, and another alluring female member of staff to moon over – that was a good enough reason to make it an essential stop-off point on a circuit that remained a fortnightly routine. And then came 2008. In a matter of months, the small list of shops that still made shopping bearable for me suddenly vanished. The disappearance of the traditional singles chart display in HMV and ‘Zavvi’ had already curtailed a 30-year habit that made 2007 the final year I bought a physical single, but now all the other stores that had constituted the map of my shopping ceremony had gone.

The news that Toys R Us are preparing to close a quarter of their 106 UK stores, leading to the loss of hundreds of jobs, is the latest casualty of online shopping’s ascendancy almost a decade on from the 2008 crash. Although it wasn’t a shop I frequented, the announcement marks the latest development in a seemingly ongoing saga in which the ease of purchasing goods via eBay or Amazon has supplanted the undesirable experience of mulling around stores with one’s ears polluted by archive Xmas ditties and one’s person constantly confronted by the fat, sweaty crush of other people. It’s one more sign of our changing times, but one I don’t necessarily mourn the loss of. I left it all behind a long time ago.

© The Editor

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mr-Yesterday-Johnny-Monroe/dp/154995718X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1510941083&sr=1-1

STREET OF SHAME

When it suits some, the Brexit factor is certainly a convenient one. It’s surfaced as an excuse of late in a handy round of pass-the-buck that covers a few questionable tracks. Local councillors and business leaders in Staffordshire haven’t blamed the decline and fall of their high-streets on the sunshine, the moonlight, the good times or even the boogie, but on the Brexit. Unhelpful city centre parking facilities, extortionate rents for shop premises, out-of-town retail parks and internet shopping all pale next to the Brexit factor – at least according to the good burghers of Burslem in Stoke-on-Trent; there’s also the small issue of the demise of the town’s world-famous industry, one that enabled places like Burslem to thrive and prosper, and how it hasn’t been replaced. But blame it on the Brexit.

We’ve seen this before, of course. Britain’s traditional heavy industries – whether the mines, steelworks, or the potteries – employed the communities that sprang up around them; when the industries died, the communities died with them. What’s left behind is a sorry shadow of what once was, and Burslem is officially the country’s premier ghost town when it comes to commerce; the shop vacancy rate there is thrice the national average of 12.2%, standing at a dismal 31.5%. One in three empty shops does not a busy town centre make, and Burslem is home to 11,000 people who are being so poorly served that they drive to neighbouring Newcastle-under-Lyme or Stoke itself rather than circumnavigate the maze of double yellow lines or cough-up for an hour’s worth of parking if they actually find a space when they might only want a packet of fags.

The Local Data Company compiled their depressing survey by visiting 2,700 towns and cities and found a trail of abandonment that was hardly unique to Burslem; it just happened to be the worst. In fact, I have it on good authority (i.e. from someone who lives there) that our very own City of Culture – AKA Hull – has its fair share of boarded-up shop fronts that hardly exude the spirit of a bustling commercial hub, let alone a cultural one. This all predates Brexit, but Brexit will suffice as a reason when councillors are confronted by the casual neglect of town and city centres that stretches back years. There is now probably at least one generation that has never associated the shopping experience with the high-street; theirs has been shaped by the mall.

For the traditional high-street, the mall was a monster it couldn’t compete with. As the big name stores gradually vacated their cramped old premises and moved to expansive new locations in the mall, town centres slowly embarked upon an agonising descent into dereliction, losing the motorist as a customer and leaving the pedestrian shopper with an increasingly limited choice. The remaining high-street supermarkets resorted to desperate measures, expanding their value own-brands, loudly promoting the ‘Buy one, get one free’ special offers, and introducing the most contentious development of all – maximising the sale of cheap alcohol, something that helped fuel the craze for ‘binge-drinking’ and also undercut the already ailing local public house.

The cheap booze policy may have kept several supermarkets in business, but the high-street of the 21st Century, peppered with bargain basement pound-stores and charity shops, is a depressingly uninspiring location. Gone are many of the familiar old supermarkets and gone are the old all-purpose stores like Woolworth’s, whose once-unique selling points can now be found in a dozen different shops under the roof of the mall or in the retail park warehouse. At the dawn of the economic meltdown that the 2008 banking crisis spawned, dear old ‘Woolies’ went to the wall, the first in a series of high-street names to vanish from the landscape in a matter of weeks, including furniture giants MFI, bookstore chain Borders, and Zavvi, the short-lived record shop chain that had purchased the old Virgin stores – all of which left the high-street more decimated than ever. What replaced them hardly instilled the high-street shopper with confidence.

The multi-purpose nature of malls also dealt a blow to other long-standing town centre fixtures. Many old picture houses, having survived the popularity of television and home-video by the skin of their teeth, finally succumbed to the changing climate when massive multiplex cinemas began to establish themselves as key ingredients of the retail parks. These glaringly impersonal and aesthetically unappetising arenas of artifice were nevertheless the ideal environments to showcase the merchandise trailers masquerading as movies that Hollywood has invested in from the 90s onwards.

But throwing all retail eggs in one basket can have catastrophic consequences for the towns that gleefully discard their high-streets, as has already been shown across the Atlantic. There have been several cases in America where malls have actually closed their doors for good, becoming so-called ‘dead malls’, whether due to changes in the social demographic of the residential areas surrounding the mall or because the owners of the establishment have decided to relocate their operations elsewhere. When this occurs, a town that had allowed its former high-street to decay as all leading business had decamped to the mall is suddenly left without any notable shopping areas for its citizens; although this has yet to happen in the UK, the recession that descended upon Britain in the wake of 2008 suggests that such a devastating event is not beyond the realm of possibility, and looking at the ghost towns many British high-streets have become in recent years doesn’t auger well.

Perhaps hope for the high-street lies with those who have chosen to set-up shop in Britain from foreign climes; just as Asian immigrants saved the corner-shop from extinction in the 60s and 70s, maybe the migrants from Eastern Europe who have colonised some British high-streets with cafes and bistros that specialise in their own exotic cuisine point the way forward to a future in which the high-street can be reborn as a cornucopia of choice that even the mall can’t compete with. And why attempt to compete, anyway? Make the high-street a separate entity, a true alternative to the mall, and maybe it’ll build up a clientage unique to itself.

© The Editor

THE STATE OF THE MARKETS

supermarketA story related to me yesterday proved something of a belated realisation of how choice – that buzzword so beloved of the Thatcherite mindset – can actually kill competition rather than encourage it, narrowing the field as opposed to widening it. Supermarket staff collected the day’s newspapers into a bundle, ready for return to the distributor, and commented upon the fact that not a single copy had been sold all day. Now, one could view this as yet another sign of how Fleet Street’s physical produce is increasingly redundant in the face of online news-surfing, especially when a rapidly dominant generation have grown-up without the daily paper as part of the household furniture; or one could view it as a telling comment on the paucity of good, authoritative and expert journalism in an industry that has pensioned off its veteran scribes in favour of zero-hour interns who source their scoops from websites; or one could even suggest it was simply a quiet news day, wherein tiresome scaremongering over Brexit or freak weather conditions or the Duchess of Cambridge’s new dress just weren’t intriguing enough headlines to warrant a purchase.

However, perhaps context played its part as well. The supermarket as an emporium of everything can subconsciously place every item on the same uninspiring level, so that a newspaper is no more essential or important than a can of alcohol-free lager or a dishcloth or a Pot Noodle – all mass-produced packaged products on display in an indistinguishable parade of mediocrity. The illusion given – and one that was often regularly noted by those raised in Eastern Bloc Communist countries of old when they first shopped in the West – is a dazzling selection of choice that is done with the customer in mind. Every item is available in half-a-dozen different brands, for one thing. But it only takes a few cursory trips up and down the aisles for one’s senses to be battered into choice overload, so that each brand actually blurs into the next and the overall effect is counterproductive for the manufacturers.

The first supermarkets I remember were the old-school sort – Hillards, Fine Fair, Safeway – small, proto-convenience stores that essentially specialised in tinned food. If you wanted a newspaper, magazine or comic, you had to go to the newsagents; if you wanted to read something more substantial, you had to go to a bookshop; if you wanted something to listen to, you had to go to a record shop; if you wanted something to wear, you had to go to a department store; if you wanted booze, you had to go to the off-license; and if you wanted a pint of milk, you had to wait till the milkman deposited one on your doorstep in the morning.

By the 1970s, television advertising and the supermarket were established enough fixtures for a generation to have risen with precious little knowledge that their pre-eminence within the culture of the country was a relatively new development. A clear sign that the supermarket was going from strength-to-strength came when the high-street was regarded as an unfit environment for containing the ambition of newcomers to the brand, such as Asda, a company originating in Leeds. In the early 70s, Asda began to open a string of huge superstores or ‘hypermarkets’ away from the cramped clutter of the high-street and geographically isolated from the competition. Just as the high-street supermarkets had undercut the corner-shop, the new superstores undercut the high-street supermarkets by offering an even greater range of goods at even cheaper prices. The ‘hyper’ prefix to these awesome retail monoliths came from the fact that they combined the traditional food-based stock of the supermarket with the wider selection of a department store, creating venues that housed all of the average shopper’s needs – needs that had always necessitated a trip to numerous different shops in the past – within the confines of one huge multi-purpose establishment. They were effectively a king-size corner-shop.

Whereas shopping had once been a daily tour of the high-street for the housewife, the social changes that had taken place within British society in the 60s and 70s had spawned the need for a new kind of shopping that catered for these changes. The superstores being erected on out-of-town land some distance from the high-street meant many were only accessible by car, and as most cars were very much boy’s toys at the time, hubby’s participation was required. Thus was born the weekly family shop. A full week’s worth of shopping couldn’t be carted home on the bus in a couple of carrier bags as the daily shop had, so a car was necessary to transport the amount of goods back to where they could be consumed.

It took a while for the arrival of the British hypermarket to seriously damage the high-street; even in the 70s, car ownership was still relatively small, and those lower down the social scale remained dependent on a shopping trip that could be undertaken on foot or by public transport. For the time being, high-street supermarket chains retained their place at the heart of the community, the place they had stolen from the corner-shop. The deregulation that went hand-in-hand with privatisation in the second and third Thatcher Governments, however, had a beneficial effect on the high-street supermarkets in that it enabled them to remake and remodel themselves as small-scale versions of the hypermarkets, expanding the range of choice available so that even pedestrians or users of public transport could theoretically purchase the same variety of goods as the motorist.

What this sea-change in choice did for specialist shops that previously had a monopoly on goods that had been unavailable in accessible-on-foot supermarkets was nothing short of disastrous. There is one remaining newsagent in my neighbourhood, whereas I can list perhaps half-a-dozen supermarkets off the top of my head – everything from Proles paradise Aldi to the Snob’s retail Nirvana, Waitrose. And I cannot remember when I last saw a pint of milk on a doorstep.

By contrast with the friendly, chatty ambience of the sole surviving newsagents I use, the supermarkets I know have an impersonal, disorientating effect on me; standing in line for the check-out whilst a pensioner dithers over her lottery tickets can end up being an existential exercise in pondering the futility of life, the universe and everything; and while I appreciate that could just be me, I surely can’t be alone? The supermarkets are now so huge and so powerful that they can not only threaten dairy farmers with bankruptcy by demanding their produce be sold at such a low price that profit is minimal; they also contribute to the overall homogenisation of the physical shopping experience and minimise the opportunity to enjoy the personal touch that the specialist shop can still give the customer if they’re allowed to keep trading. But I realise the masses like the convenience; and if it’s convenient for them, it’s convenient for everyone. That’s choice.

© The Editor