The secrets of indoor shopping

The mall is back in town. No longer relegated to the suburbs, it is setting up shop again in our urb

Mother-daughter combos are doing the H&M run, bored dads hang around the Apple Store and the Build-a-Bear Workshop is babysitting the kids. It's a busy afternoon at the Arndale centre in Manchester, though not quite as chocka as 27 December last year - the busiest day in the centre's history, when 180,000 people piled in for the post-Christmas sales. By 5am, when Next opened, there were already a thousand people outside. Who said the future of retail was online?

For teenagers like me, growing up near Manchester in the 1980s, the Arndale was a grotty Saturday-afternoon Mecca. It drew nearly a million shoppers a week despite being the most spirit-sapping building, with an exterior of dirty yellow tiling aptly named "the longest lavatory wall in Europe". After an IRA bomb destroyed the centre's western end in June 1996, Mancunians waited a decent interval before lamenting that the bombers hadn't parked their car at the other end of Market Street, which might have destroyed the whole building. Now the entire Arndale has been redeveloped and expanded. Covering 1.4 million square feet of retail space, it is the largest urban shopping centre in Britain.

The Manchester bomb simply speeded up a process that is happening throughout the country: the shopping mall is back in town. The acreage of retail floor space under construction in the UK is larger than at any time since 1991. And, according to the British Council of Shopping Centres, more than half of it is in town centres, a proportion that has been rising gradually from a low of 14 per cent in 1994.

Two things have happened. First, the trend for building out-of-town malls that began in the Thatcher era - a combined effect of the urban property boom and the easing of planning restrictions on suburban sites - ended with the "town centres first" policy, introduced at the end of the John Major era. Second, retail has been tied to the vision of urban "regeneration", a word once used to describe the revival of troubled inner-city areas but now a catch-all term for any sort of commercial dev elopment. The game of the regeneration com panies that use public money to stimulate pri vate investment is boo sterism, which aims at presenting cities as happening, vibrant places in order to lure in "upmarket" consumers and "high-quality" investors. Indoor shopping centres seem to fit the bill because they offer the attractions of city life without its discomforts - a sort of cleaned-up urbanism minus the rain, traffic fumes and hassle.

Regeneration sees itself as a rootless process of "modernisation", apparently unaware that the rebuilding of city centres has a long history. Window-shopping and people-watching became popular pastimes in the beautiful iron-and-glass arcades built in Paris in the 19th century. Their appeal was twofold: shelter from the elements and refuge from hoi polloi. You can find modest versions of these posh 19th-century arcades that survive in Britain, such as Burlington in London and the Royal Exchange in Manchester.

After the Second World War, this vision of retail spaces took hold in Britain. In the 1950s, there were the pedestrianised outdoor precincts; then, inspired by the US suburban malls, came the 1960s dream of "coatless shopping" in temperature-controlled halls. These shopping centres were imagined as great civic spaces with tropical plants, ornamental fountains and aviaries of exotic birds. "Be amazed . . . there's nothing quite like it in the world," proclaimed the publicity film for the Birmingham Bull Ring, which opened in 1964. It promised uniformed valets to take care of shoppers' cars, pram parks for mothers, and soothing Muzak to create "a warm, gay and welcoming atmosphere . . . strains brought on by boredom are removed from staff, making service a real pleasure". Martin Parr's funny, sad book Boring Postcards (1999), with its interiors of the Crossgates Arndale Centre and Swansea's Quadrant Arcade, evokes this thrill of the new.

Yet the Manchester Arndale, a huge concrete box that flattened a maze of characterful Victorian streets, was loathed from the start. By the time it was completed in 1979, earlier similar shopping centres were already seen as planning disasters. In the 1990s, many of the old shopping centres were "de-Arndaled" - given new names to cast off these unfortunate associations. But the most notorious example has bravely stuck with its old name, even if it is now no longer a centre, but "Manchester Arndale".

In the original Arndale centres, the walkways were deliberately kept dark so that the lights from the shops would shine out like beacons, guiding consumers through the gloom into the inviting arms of W H Smith and C&A. Now all is light and space, with see-through elevators, glazed roofs and high ceilings to direct your gaze up to the upper levels, where units are usually harder to let. Concrete, the material of the older malls, suggested the solidity and permanence of the great provincial project. Glass, by contrast, is an invitation to look and consume.

Brand new world

Like a flâneur in the Parisian arcades, I stroll through Halle Square, Exchange Court and the Wintergarden. The different areas of the Arndale have been given place names that suggest metropolitan bustle and community. This is the urbanist orthodoxy inspired by Richard Rogers's Towards an Urban Renaissance (1999), which reimagined Britain's cities along the gregariously Continental model of boulevards, piazzas and ramblas. Even in America, where big-box malls originated, shopping centres have been given "mall-overs", their atria opened to the air in order to evoke the flavour of downtown.

The difference is that the shopping mall is private property, controlled by its management on their terms. The cultural critic John Fiske once described the mall excitedly as a "terrain of guerrilla warfare", waged between mall owners and stores (the occupying army) and individual shoppers (the guerrilla fighters), who could cannily enjoy the warmth, sensual stimulation and seating of the malls without actually spending anything. In the new malls, however, the guerrilla fighters have nowhere to regroup. In the 1980s, my peers would while away a Saturday running the wrong way up the escalators or staging water fights in the fountains. At the new Arndale, this kind of loitering has been discouraged by the simple ploy of getting rid of all the seats.

Despite the invitations to conviviality posted up on the walls ("Come together in Exchange Court", "It's hip to be in the square"), it is hard to meet in these places other than at Starbucks or Costa Coffee, which presumably are quite happy about this. A few teenagers forlornly toy with skateboards, put each other in headlocks or crouch on the floor by the hoardings, but the "mall rat" is an endangered species. Some American shopping centres select their background music to discourage teenagers from hanging out there, Frank Sinatra and Mozart apparently being most effective. In Britain, they employ a simpler strategy: depriving them of anywhere to sit.

All you can really do in the new urban shopping centre is walk and shop. America has a tribe of people known as mall walkers - those of a certain age who stride purposefully through the malls for personal fitness or "mallercise". British shoppers prefer to meander purposelessly, apparently unaware of the designs that the mall has on them. We know this because, since the first urban malls were created in the 1960s, a new quasi-scholarly discipline has developed: retail anthropology, the study of shopper behaviour. In the old Arndales, customers complained of getting lost in the maze of dim corridors. Today, thanks to what retailers inevitably call "wayfinding solutions", getting about is much easier. Information desks and touch-screen maps guide you through the labyrinth, but you come across things in the order that the mall owners prefer.

The toilets in the new malls seem intentionally out of the way, forcing you to pass as many window displays as possible. The signs steer you subtly around corners and into less accessible areas. And as malls are essentially a rigged market, the composition of the stores can be carefully calibrated. The mix of fashion chains, accessories shops and "treat" stores such as Hotel Chocolat is gender-biased because, by my reckoning, women outnumber men by three to two. I see one pass the Shoe Zone shop, look at her feet, have a quick chat with her friend, and go inside. Retail anthropology in action.

The non-place to be

In return for being gently manipulated, you get ease and comfort. The French anthropologist Marc Augé has identified a kind of space in modern capitalist societies, the "non-place". Non-places are globally standardised mini-societies such as airports and shopping malls, where faceless, contractual obligations replace human interaction: "Have your boarding card ready", "Sign on the dotted line", "Key in your Pin". Non-places offer a super-comfortable, well-managed, anaesthetised version of daily life. Or, as one shopping widower told me outside Bershka while his wife and daughter shopped inside: "This place used to be the arsehole of Manchester. But at least it was our arsehole. Now it's just like Heathrow Airport."

I know what he means, but I still think the new Arndale is an improvement on the old one, which was just as bland and monocultural, except it came with litter, dirty floors and flooded toilets. (Arndale's new loos are all chrome and marble surrounds - worthy winners at the Loo of the Year Awards 2006.) Essential bodily functions are well catered for in the modern mall; inessential ones, like having to sit down, less so.

It's all a question of money and maths. In The Call of the Mall (2004), the retail anthropologist Paco Underhill argues that the shopping mall's main problem is its "lack of mercantile DNA". Malls might house retailers, but they are built, owned and run by property developers. They take on all the financial risk - buying the land, securing planning permission, hiring architects - and want the biggest return for the least investment. Their priority is not, as it might be for the retailers, making the mall an enticing place in its own right; instead, they worry about building it in the right place and doing the sums properly. They live by the axiom "Location, location, location", reputedly coined by Harold Samuel, founder of the Land Securities company, which has developed shopping malls since the 1960s.

One of the unstated agendas of urban regeneration is to rid the city centre of its "incongruous" elements. In Liverpool, this has meant displacing the informal enterprise economy: getting rid of the city's market stalls that cluttered the main pedestrianised street, the traders who sold yo-yos out of suitcases, and the beggars and Big Issue vendors. The mall represents this kind of retail cleansing in excelsis. When it reopened in September last year, the Arndale food hall was reinvented as a cross between a farmers' market and Covent Garden, with a minimalist design and cool-blue colour scheme. Not that I am complaining about the sushi bars and posh bread shops, but I do feel sorry for the market traders who weren't chichi enough for the make-over.

The arguments are the same as those advanced when the old shopping centres were built in the 1960s. Northern towns must adapt because of the loss of old industries, the competition from out of town and the "drift to the south". Designer chains and bijou stores, perhaps even a glut of such shops, are essential for the jobs they provide, the high rates they pay and the kudos they bring. When hopes for urban renewal are invested in the nebulous qualities of investor confidence and the consumer feel-good factor, the effect can be peculiarly passive and infanti lising. The big news in a northern city is when an "upmarket" store deigns to open a branch outside London. Why, Mr Selfridge, you are really spoiling us.

Now every town in Britain seems to be expanding and refurbishing its shopping centre or building a new one, invariably described as "bright" and "contemporary". As online shopping takes over the business of routine provisioning, mall owners are putting their faith in what they call "experiential retail" - shopping for fun and relaxation. But I wonder whether the smaller towns can sustain this much shopping, and hope that these bright, contemporary spaces will not become the raw material for another book of Boring Postcards, circa 2037. If the new malls are not producing the same kind of utopian excitement as the Bull Ring did, perhaps it is because real-estate investment, rather than the demands of consumers, is pushing the growth of retail space. Given the hard calculations of the property market, the new malls offer rather less magical forms of "experiential retail" than the Parisian arcades. You can literally shop till you drop - but it would be nice if you also had somewhere to sit.

Joe Moran's "Queuing for Beginners" is published by Profile Books in May (£14.99)

Record-beating malls

86 number of crates of crystal transported from China for the Great Hall chandelier, Trafford Centre, Manchester - said to be world's biggest

7.1 million number of square feet covered by the South China Mall in Dongguan, Guangdong Province. The mall is the world's largest

40 million yearly number of people who visit the Mall of America in Minnesota, making it the most visited in the world

£95 average amount spent by shoppers on a single visit to Lakeside Shopping Centre, Essex

50 million number of cappuccinos drunk at Bluewater since it opened in 1999

Research by Lucy Knight

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the hidden cost of the war

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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