The world's first pop-up shopping mall

Is clothes browsing inside refurbished shipping containers in east London as hip (and non-corporate)

It's midday, and I am walking along Shoreditch High Street headed towards the northern end of Brick Lane. I turn into Bethnal Green Road. There is a lot of activity going on -- lots of young people of various nationalities purposefully moving stuff around while others stand back and survey the results of their endeavours. I wonder what's happening as this is normally a dead area -- except on evenings at weekends, when the affluent young people of London and their counterparts from overseas come out to play and move between the various bars, clubs and restaurants in Greater Shoreditch.

The reason soon becomes clear. There is a line of grey recycled shipping containers, adjacent to the pavement area, which have been turned into retail outlets. The brand names, all in the same style of lettering, are flagged up above the entrances: Calvin Klein, Farah Vintage, Levi's, Original Penguin, Marimekko and Puma. There is even an Amnesty International shop selling "limited edition" jewellery, stationery and prints for the festive season.

This, as I later find out, is Boxpark, described in the PR as "the world's first pop up mall" in the "coolest part of the coolest city in the coolest country in the world", which opens today.

It certainly seems a world away from London's other recent, purpose-built shopping centres like Westfield London in Shepherd's Bush and Westfield Stratford City, as well as older models like Brent Cross; enclaves detached from the surrounding area with shops like John Lewis, Debenhams, WH Smith and Mothercare offering customers of all ages a very safe and mainstream retail experience to the sounds of George Benson, and the like.

But how different is Boxpark? My first reaction -- from the sheer number of well-known brands targeting young people and the clever symmetry of the double-storey assembly -- was that this is not the usual activity of small, independent retailers that have colonised parts of Brick Lane and the Old Truman Brewery site in the last six or seven years.

Such places have transformed the western edge of Tower Hamlets -- the second poorest borough in London and third poorest in the country -- into a zone of "ultimate cool" for the middle classes.

The space where Boxpark now sits was earmarked for some serious retail and leisure development, but the global economic crisis has put paid to that, at least for the time being.

It turns out that one of those backing Boxpark is Charles Dunstone, the former public schoolboy who turned £6,000 worth of savings into a fortune through the Carphone Warehouse. Always on the lookout for new investment opportunities, he and his partners (although they don't always get it right; witness the recent closure of the Best Buy electrical megastores) might well have found a crock of gold at the end of Shoreditch's rainbow: a huge influx of visitors will visit east London for the Olympics next year and, it is hoped, thereafter.

Irrespective of the PR behind Boxpark, it has to be pointed out that the concept is not totally new.

Refurbished shipping containers have been used in several parts of the world -for example, the Puma City in Chicago and the Illy Café in New York -- and there are even plans to create a space for a church in the US. Moreover, Dunstone and his partner, Roger Wade, chief executive of Brighton-based Consultancy Brands Incorporated, are now looking further afield for another site in London to use the containers to develop a leisure complex.

So it looks like this is just the beginning of a new wave of innovative retailing, which will make the traditional high street shopping experience for many very old fashioned indeed. Perhaps the government's retail guru Mary Portas, whose review of the future of the UK high street is due for release any day now, should take note.

What does all this mean for London in general and greater Shoreditch in particular? Undoubtedly, Boxpark's arrival is yet the latest sign that the centre of cultural and economic gravity in the capital is moving inexorably eastwards. My guess is that the pressure will continue to build up and it is only a matter of time before permission is granted to build an airport in the Thames estuary.

As for E1, Boxpark can stay for five years. Then, assuming the UK economy has returned to some sort of growth, it will vanish; preserved only in memories and digital photographs. However, unless the urban planners and members of Tower Hamlets Council put some very creative hats on, the probability is that something more mainstream will take its place.

The coolest part of the world won't be quite so cool anymore. But that's progress for you.

Dr Sean Carey is visiting lecturer in the Business School, University of Roehampton

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories