Magazine article The Spectator

Shocking Centres

Magazine article The Spectator

Shocking Centres

Article excerpt

THE fortitude of the British shopper has seldom been more strikingly displayed than in these dark days. A spokesman for the vast Bluewater shopping centre on the south bank of the Thames near the Dartford Crossing, which has 330 shops and restaurants and 13,000 parking places, said on Monday that its customers `don't seem to have been affected at all' by the destruction of the World Trade Center, and business since then has been `incredibly buoyant'.

This was certainly my impression on a visit a few days before, when not one of the two dozen people I interviewed expressed any intention of reducing the amount they shop, several pointing out that with the summer holidays over it was time to start getting ready for Christmas. Darren Barnes, a steel erector, said that he would be happy to help rebuild New York, and would also want, as a British patriot, to join the army and go and fight in Afghanistan if we found ourselves at war. But he had just bought some lingerie for his girlfriend and was not going to let the crisis affect his spending: `Out in America they've got to think about it, but we can turn a blind eye when we need to.'

His friend Scott Hawkes, a barman, agreed. `It will not stop me shopping. I think life goes on, mate. For us, the small man, any decision we make is not going to affect what goes on up there. You might as well just get on with your life.'

A third man, a 26-year-old manager of a restaurant that does most of its business during the day, said that whenever he had a bad time at work he went out afterwards and spent about 200; on a Gameboy, for example, which he would then play that evening in front of the television, which was a good way of `switching off. The notion that there might be a recession on the way, in which he might lose his job, so it might be worth saving the money for a rainy day, was not one that he would entertain. He agreed that America could well be entering a recession, that the Internet boom was already over, and that several large companies had already gone bust; but he could not see this affecting him.

The determination of millions of Britons to defy every sign of impending slump by continuing to spend, spend, spend has puzzled many observers. There have been spending booms before, but the success of the huge new shopping malls such as Bluewater (which is only two-and-a-half years old) leads one to ask whether the inability to understand that thrift might have something to be said for it has ever been quite so widespread. My own form of incomprehension is rather different. I dislike almost all forms of shopping, but I particularly hate shopping in places such as Bluewater, where the diversity of the goods on offer is vitiated not only by the overpowering banality of the surroundings, but also by the knowledge that the selection of shops is almost the same as you would find in any other large shopping centre. Behind the pretence of individuality lies extreme conformity, with all sense of place abolished. You could be anywhere.

I looked about me, and saw some who walked like zombies and others who, like me, were desperate to get outside, if only to the carpark. But I also saw many others who moved purposefully, as though within their natural element, like hunters confident of their prey. We are two nations, shoppers and anti-shoppers, between whom `there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets'. …

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