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

Martin O’Neill for New Statesman
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1966 and all that

A year of World Cup glory, meeting Paul McCartney and eating placenta.

Fifty years ago this Saturday, on 30 July 1966, I was at Wembley. I have my ticket and my programme to prove it. I also have my 1966 ­diary, which I am looking at now. I was 30, weighed ten stone and eight pounds, and my waist was 32 inches – about as hard to believe now as England winning another World Cup final.

I am still in the same house, all these decades later, but my telephone number then was GUL 4685. GUL was short for Gulliver, I can’t remember why. In my list of contacts at the end of my diary is Melvyn Bragg, who was another recent arrival in London from Cumbria, like myself and my wife, on PRO 0790. PRO stood for Prospect, I think, which was the exchange name for somewhere over the river, possibly Kew.

My office number was TER 1234. I always thought that was a great and memorable number. It’s only now, thinking about it, that I realise that TER – meaning Terminus –
probably related to King’s Cross, which the Sunday Times was near in those days.

At the top of the charts in July 1966 were the Kinks with “Sunny Afternoon”, which I can well remember, as it was so ironically chirpy, and Georgie Fame with “Getaway”. I liked Georgie Fame – low-key, cool – but I can’t remember that tune. Both were replaced in August by the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine”/“Eleanor Rigby”.

My day job in July 1966, on the Sunday Times staff, was writing the Atticus column. It still exists, but in a smaller, more skittery format. Previous incumbents included Ian Fleming, John Buchan and Sacheverell Sitwell, who was reputed to have got free Mateus rosé for life after giving the wine its first mention in an English newspaper.

I had been on the paper since 1960, after spending two years as a so-called graduate trainee journalist, mainly in Manchester, which was a laugh. There was no training and there were no lessons in law. You had a mentor for a few weeks and then you got on with it.

In my first few years as the boy on Atticus, I never had my name in the paper. I had to write dreary paragraphs about who might be our next man in Washington, or the bishop of London, or the master of Balliol, as if I cared. I wanted to write about footballers, gritty northern novelists, pop stars.

When I started at the Sunday Times, I felt for a while that people were prejudiced against me, because I was northern and working class and had gone to grammar school and a provincial university (Durham). Everyone else seemed to have been at Oxbridge and gone to public school.

But this prejudice was all in my head, imagined, just as it had been when I used to go from Durham to visit my girlfriend, Margaret – whom I married in 1960 – at Oxford. I was convinced that some of her posh friends were being condescending ­towards me. Total nonsense, but I had a chip on my shoulder for some years. Gone, all gone, just like my 32-inch waist. (I am now 12 stone and the new shorts I bought last week have a 38-inch waist. Oh, the horror.) If anything, these past 50 years, any prejudice has been in my favour.

Harold Wilson was the prime minister in 1966. His northern accent was even stronger than mine. I still have a letter from him, dated 21 March 1963, after I interviewed him for Atticus. In the letter, he ­describes the 1938 FA Cup final in which Preston beat Huddersfield Town 1-0, scoring in the last minute of extra time. At the bottom of the page, in handwriting, he’d added: “after hitting the crossbar”.

What I remember most about the interview was George Brown, who was deputy to
Wilson as Labour leader at the time, hanging around outside his office, drunk. Marcia Williams, Wilson’s secretary, was going around tut-tutting, making faces, complaining about George. I thought she shouldn’t have done, not in front of me, as I was a total stranger and a hack. (I don’t think we called ourselves hacks in those days, which is the normal, half-ironic self-description today.)

Harold was a football man and also a real know-all, forever boasting about his memory for facts and figures. The contents of this letter illustrate both aspects of his character. It led me later to collect a letter or autograph from every prime minister, going back to Robert Walpole. Only took me ten years.

There is a myth that England’s 1966 win helped Labour stay in power – which does not quite stand up. The general election was in March – four months before the final. But Wilson did milk England’s victory, identifying himself and the nation with our English champions.

It is possible that the reverse effect happened in 1970, when Wilson was chucked out and Edward Heath came in. England’s defeat at the 1970 World Cup by West Germany was just four days before the June general election.

***

I got my ticket for the 1966 World Cup final – for one of the best seats, priced at £5 – from my friend James Bredin, now dead, who was the boss of Border Television. Based in Carlisle, Border covered the Scottish Borders and the Isle of Man. It was a thriving, thrusting regional ITV station, now also deceased.

James’s chauffeur came to pick me up and waited for us after the match, a sign of the importance and affluence of even minor ITV stations. Border contributed quite a bit to the network, such as Mr and Mrs, starring Derek Batey, who presented 450 editions of this very popular national show. Batey was a local lad who started his show business life as an amateur ventriloquist in the little market town of Brampton, Cumbria, before becoming Carlisle’s Mr Show Business. He was so polished – lush hair, shiny suits, so starry, so glittery – that I always wondered why he was not in London, in the West End.

Border TV also produced some excellent documentaries that were networked across the ITV region, two of which I presented. One was about walking along Hadrian’s Wall and the other was about George Stephenson. For a while in the 1970s, I began to think I was going to become a TV presenter, despite being not much good. I was lousy at acting, which you need for television, and disliked asking questions to which I already knew the answers. And it took so much time. For each programme, we spent eight weeks on location with a crew of eight, just to make a one-hour documentary. Now they
do docs in a week with just two people.

For half an hour, I also imagined that I was going to become a playwright. In 1967, I had a play in the BBC’s Wednesday Play slot, awfully prestigious at the time, called The Playground. It was one of those shows that were filmed live and then wiped, so I have never seen it since, nor has anybody else. I blamed that for blighting my playwriting career, though till I was looking in my 1966 diary and saw that I was working on that play, I’d forgotten about its existence. As we go through life, we forget all the paths not trodden.

I’ve boasted endlessly about being at the 1966 Wembley final, and it was so exciting, but I can’t remember many of the details. I must have been aware of Geoff Hurst’s second goal being a bit dodgy, as there were loud complaints from the German fans, but as Sir Geoff, as he then wasn’t, went on to score a third goal, it didn’t really matter. At the time, I considered that the England-Portugal semi-final had been a better game, with our Bobby Charlton scoring two goals against one from Eusebio, but of course winning a final is winning a final and the excitement and the patriotic pride continued for weeks and months. We felt as if it had been our right to win – after all, did we not give the game to the world, lay down the first rules, show all those foreigners how to play our game?

The result was that we usually ignored all the new ideas and developments that were emerging from Europe and South America, carrying on with our old ways, stuffing our faces with steak before a game and knocking back six pints afterwards, a bit like Alf Tupper in the Rover comic. He lived on fish and chips, but on the race track he could beat anyone.

Those funny Continental players started playing in funny lightweight boots, more like slippers or ballet shoes, which seemed barmy to us. How we scoffed. How can you play properly, far less kick someone properly, unless your ankles are encased in hard leather as tough as steel? Who cared if they weighed a ton, especially in wet weather? We Brits were tough.

The top First Division stars of 1966 earned about £200 a week, including bonuses, and lived in £20,000 houses, semi-detached, on new estates with Tudor overtones. The top players drove Jaguars. But most were lucky to afford a Ford Cortina. I had one myself for a while. Awfully smart, or so I thought at the time.

Their basic wages were little more than double that of the best-paid working men, such as a foreman bricklayer or a successful plumber. Their neighbours on their estates were bank mangers or salesmen, a higher scale socially than their own background, but still fairly modest. Not like today. Footballers don’t even have neighbours any more. They are cocooned in their own gated mansions, with personal staff, gardeners, nannies, accountants, lawyers, agents.

Yet despite their modest lifestyles in those days, there were celebrity players, such as Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton and, before them, Billy Wright, all household names, loved and admired, recognised everywhere.

None of them had an agent in 1966. The nearest thing to it was the system that operated if a team got to the FA Cup final. They would then agree to divvy up the peripheral proceeds, such as money from giving newspaper interviews, posing for staged corny photographs, opening shops, or selling their spare tickets to touts (which they were not supposed to do). They’d appoint some dodgy friend of one of the senior players to arrange the deals and collect the monies for them. Times, they always change. Otherwise, what’s the point, eh?

***

In 1966, two big events occurred in my personal life. In May that year, my son, Jake, was born – at home, in what is now our kitchen. He arrived so quickly that the midwife hadn’t turned up yet and he emerged with the cord twisted around his neck. I managed to untie it, which I have maintained since kept him alive (a trick I had learned at fathers’ classes).

Fathers’ classes – wow, what a novelty that was in the 1960s. Who says we were all chauvinist pigs back then? (Today’s young, female star writers at the New Statesman, probably.) I attended my first ones, at the Royal Free Hospital in 1964, when our firstborn, Caitlin, was about to arrive. I remember immediately thinking when the invite came that I would get 1,000 words out of this – which I did, for the Sunday Times women’s pages.

Also at those first-ever fathers’ classes at the Royal Free was a young BBC producer whose wife was also about to give birth: Wilfred De’Ath. He, too, was desperate to get a piece out of it. (He now writes occasionally for the Oldie, and he appears to be down and out and living in France.)

After Jake’s birth, I got the midwife to give me the placenta and I ate it, fried with onions. Tasted like liver. Another 1,000 words.

The other event of note in my ever-so-exciting life in 1966 was meeting Paul McCartney. When “Eleanor Rigby” came out, I thought the words – not just the tune – were so wonderful. Possibly the best poetry of the year, I said, as if I knew anything about poetry. I went to see him for Atticus in his new house in St John’s Wood, which he still has, being a very conservative feller. I talked to him about the background to the lyrics, as opposed to his hair, which interviewers were still asking him about.

A few months later, at the end of 1966, I went to see him again, wearing a different cap, as a screenwriter. I’d had a novel published the previous year, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, which was being made into a film, with Clive Donner directing. We went to see Paul at his house and discussed with him if he would do the theme tune. He turned us down in the end but it was while I was with him that I suggested that there should be a proper biography of the Beatles. He said Brian (Epstein, the band’s manager) would have to agree – and there and then sat me down and helped me write a suitable arse-licking letter to him.

I eventually saw Brian, after several cancellations, at his home in Belgravia and he played me the acetate of “Strawberry Fields Forever”. I was astounded. It seemed to break every rule of what was then considered pop music. I wondered if all Beatles fans
would take to it. But I could see that it was amazing and perhaps the Beatles weren’t finished, which was what some people were saying in 1966. At my publisher, Heinemann, which paid me £3,000 for the book, there was one director who maintained the Beatles bubble was about to burst.

Brian agreed to my project and offered a clause in the contract that we had not requested or even thought of. He said he would not give any other writer access to the Beatles for two years after my book came out. This was 1966. The book came out in 1968. Two years later, in 1970, the Beatles were no more. Without realising it at the time, I became the only authorised ­biographer of the Beatles.

***

So, 1966, a big year for me, so glad I kept that diary, and also a big year for the nation. I thought at the time that the Beatles were bound to fade, eventually, while England surely would dominate world football from now on. After their humbling by Iceland at this year’s World Cup, I now realise that England will never win the World Cup again in my life, what’s left of it. And probably not even another game.

The only way to rationalise it is to tell ourselves that we are ahead of the game. We are rubbish, but in turn it will happen to all the other so-called advanced nations.

You could say Brexit is a bit like that. We are ahead of the other leading European nations in going it alone, even though it is depressing and awful and shameful. We are advanced in wilfully turning ourselves into a rubbish nation. We are leading the way, as ever. Inger-land, Inger-land.

Hunter Davies’s memoir of the postwar years, “The Co-op’s Got Bananas!” (Simon & Schuster), was published in April, followed by “Lakeland: a Personal Journal” (Head of Zeus). His final book on the Fab Four, “The Beatles Book” (Ebury), will be published on 1 September

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue