Why do we mourn the high street? It was never a nice place to be

Let's be honest - online or out-of-town shopping is just less hassle, isn't it?

Let’s not mourn the death of the high street. Unpleasant, overpriced and unfriendly, it’s been ripping us off for years. The only surprise is that it’s lasted this long.

HMV’s decline is a tragedy for all the good people who work there, as is the slow descent into doom of the retail sector. But this is just the latest in a long line of high street collapses that tell us one thing: we’re not prepared to shop there any longer. You can wheel out your Mary Portas retail gurus to spruce up the Hindenburg’s buffet car all you like, but we’re not coming back.

The most obvious reason why the high street is awful is the presence of other human beings. They smoke, they smell, they fart and they get in your way. They carry germs and wheel pushchairs into your ankles. They talk on phones and barge into you. They exist. They live and breathe. The rascals. Why bother fighting your way through a rolling maul of angry nine-to-fivers every weekend when you can sit at home and do your shopping there instead?

It’s not just that, though. The world of stuff, as opposed to the world of pictures on screens, is an expensive place. It tries to pretend that it isn’t expensive, by wafting the weaselly musk of a half-price offer here, a buy-one-get-one-free there, but we know the truth: you’ve been clobbered for the thick end of three quid before you’ve even got out of your car or stepped off a bus. You’re out of pocket before you’ve even begun to put things in plastic bags. Why bother?

Yes, I know I should bother. I know I shouldn’t line the pockets of tax-avoiding rotters by doing my shopping online, and that I should support my local greengrocer instead, but it’s the hassle. I know there was a time when it might have been a pleasurable experience to flit from shop to shop with a basket under one’s arm, popping into the tobacconist for an ounce of sherbet and heading to the butcher for a pound of tripe, but those days are gone. The shops are gone. We killed them because supermarkets are more efficient and we like them more.

Maybe not "like" so much as "use". I’m probably not alone in appreciating the horrors of supermarket chains but still shopping there. I’ve tut-tutted at the splatter of their nasty little logos over our countryside and their carpet-bombing approach to our towns and cities... and then popped in for a pint of milk. Yes, my conscience tells me I should be ordering organic carbon-neutral local quince from the fair-trade yoghurt-weaving cooperative, but I’ve only got so many hours in the day, and so many pounds in my pocket (when I’ve got pounds at all). Give me cheapness, give me generic tat, give it to me all in one place, and I’ll bite the bullet. It’s wrong, and I know it’s wrong, but I still do it.

There’s something else, too: when we were a captive market, unable to take our custom elsewhere, the high street shops raked it in. Those of us with longer memories will be able to remember when you had to fork out £14-15 if you wanted a chart CD. Now, you don’t need the CD, and you certainly don’t owe anything to the shop who cheerily made a massive mark-up at the punters’ expense.

The only sadness, then, is for the people who made a living out of selling us stuff, and who cheerily put up with miserable shoppers like me for all those years while earning only a slim fraction of the vast sums their employers were making – they didn’t see any of those fortunes during the good old days, of course.

The only shops who will survive as places where you sell things are the ones who manage to offer something that’s a cut above the online experience, some kind of knowledge, some kind of reason to go in there and queue up and pay more. There aren’t many of those left, and they won’t be around forever. We can mourn the death of the high street that milked us for money all those years, or we can be happy we never have to go back there.

 

Other people were always what made high street shopping so unbearable. Photograph: Getty Images
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Young people want big ideas – that's why I refuse to dumb down Radio 4

My week, from finding a way through the fog to getting the quarterly audience figures.

I walk to work through Regent’s Park, when possible accompanied by my dogs, which my husband then collects on his bike ride and takes home. If there is time we have coffee together in the small hut just before the inner circle. This is a good way to listen to the Today programme, I find, as I can keep one ear in, achieve a rational, critical detachment and still enjoy the birds, and then add the other ear if a strong interview demands immersion, or take both out altogether when despair creeps up. On the subject of Today, I hope to have some fun with Sarah Sands, whom we have just appointed as the programme’s new editor; it’s good to see an experienced woman brought in at a senior level to the BBC.

 

A winter’s tale

The park through the seasons has become something of an addiction, measured out by inspired planting of appropriate annuals, the names of which I note and discuss with the gardeners when I dare interrupt them.

Memorable events occur quite frequently during this walk: I once stumbled upon a proposal of marriage involving a beautiful young woman who once had worked for me; an elderly Chinese gentleman practises t’ai chi regularly at a certain spot and I imagine talking to him about the changes he has seen in his lifetime back home. I have seen a rare green woodpecker on the grass pecking boldly in plain sight, and hopeless ducks, silent, puffed up, marooned in the fountains, unable to find their way back to the ponds, so close by.

At the start of winter, while walking home one day, I got stuck in the park, with a group of other stragglers, as the gates locked with the onset of darkness. Rather than retreating the way I had come, I accepted the offer (from a rather good-looking stranger) of a lift down from the top of the gate. The atmosphere then was alive, exhilarating, with crowds heading for the Frieze Masters marquee. How different it all is now, in 2017. There’s a new mood, a new American president, a new era.

 

Musical interlude

Recently, Roger Vignoles – the glorious pianist and a close friend – was playing, as he often does, in a lunchtime concert recorded for Radio 3 around the corner from Broadcasting House at the Wigmore Hall, with the baritone Roddy Williams. French songs: Fauré, Poulenc, Honegger, with a handful from Caplet (the latter quite new to me). All thoughts of politics fled, giving way to “L’adieu en barque”, set late one summer’s day on the river, a moment to clear the fog, both within and enveloping us that day in London.

I left an hour later in clear sunshine, feeling smug because we have commissioned Roddy’s Choral ­History of Britain for Radio 4 later this year.

 

Power trip

Waiting for coffee to brew, I was discussing Book of the Week with Gill Carter, commissioning assistant on this slot, when my drama commissioner, Jeremy Howe, put his head round the door. “Clarke Peters (yes, the one from The Wire) is here reading The Underground Railroad for Book at Bedtime.” Assured, deep tones rang out from a tiny studio on the third floor. “I have to keep stopping,” he said, as I thanked him.

Who could not be overcome by this story of slavery and bravery at this moment in American history? I am so glad to bring it to listeners this month. “Can you help?” the producer pleaded as we left. “We’re about to be thrown out of the studio.” That’s real power, I thought, as ten minutes later Jeremy had conjured up the extra time.

Clarke Peters will be back in the autumn with a series about the real history of black music in the UK which, he says, is little understood.

 

Culture and anarchy

This is the time of year when we launch the commissioning round calling for big ideas for next year. It’s a humbling thing to stand in our beloved art-deco Radio Theatre in front of hundreds of programme-makers, hoping that they will be inspired to bring “the best which has been thought and said in the world” (my guiding principle from Matthew Arnold).

I try on these occasions to lay out a little of how I see the shape of the world in the commissioning period ahead. This year the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner overcame me. Better perhaps simply to outline the way we commissioned the first week of 2017 to catch the mood. T S Eliot, more or less all New Year’s Day, read by the formidable Jeremy Irons, raised an echo of the Thirties, then a factual series of considerable documentaries across the week described The New World, followed by writers around the globe Imagining the New Truth.

Finally, inspired by Twelfth Night and the spirit of misrule, the comedy writer John Finnemore, one of our favourites, took over as the Lord of Misrule himself.

The imaginative world and writers have never been more needed. Whether it is truth or post-truth, I suspect that dramatic, imagined and creative truth when properly achieved is probably the nearest we can ever get to truth itself.

 

Tuning in

It’s the week of Rajar. These are quarterly audience figures for radio. In the past few months, they tell us, over 11 million people have listened each week to BBC Radio 4, setting new records. Just under half are below our average age of 56 and 1.5 million are under 35. At the moment we seem to have over two million weekly visitors to the website and roughly 20 million monthly global downloads.

Who says young people don’t want intelligent content? Who says that dumbing down is the only way to attract big audiences? We at Radio 4 try to be all about smartening up. We mark Rajar Day (whether the numbers are up or down) with cake, so I make my way to Paul for two tarts, pear and blueberry this time.

Gwyneth Williams is the controller of BBC Radio 4

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times