“Retail car parks are created for the facilitation of purchases within the store,” writes Gareth Rees, “but they are also shortcuts, meeting places, sites of sexuality, violence and boredom, accident hotspots, loci of personal drama and childhood memories.” His mission, in this memoir of car park exploration, is to challenge the assumption that they are “non-places”:
A car park can have as much mystery and magic as a mountain, meadow or lakeside… Like a second-hand book where the previous owner has scrawled notes in the margin, they are full of intriguing human detail.
Each, according to Rees, is a “multiplicity of places”.
This is a funny, clever, honest and original piece of work, punctuated with Rees’s trademark self-satire: “what’s going to happen next today in this Morrisons car park? I expect I’ll walk around and take photos of security cameras, wonky bollards and randomly placed shopping trolleys… Dear God.” But after each postmodern interlude we’re soon drawn back to the realisation that he really wants us to care about the 16th-century watercourse at Crownhill Retail Park, the repurposed Victoriana of Lancaster Sainsbury’s, the parking ramp at the Morrisons in Herne Bay – and such is Rees’s offbeat enthusiasm that we find that we actually do care, up to a point.
The book is stitched together by news stories about car parks, presented in the same neuraesthenic deadpan style that characterises Rees’s dealings with strangers. He generally describes their comings and goings – visitors to B&Q, or Costa, or KFC, or Asda – with the fastidious neutrality of an anthropologist, except in a misconceived section where he presumes to voice their internal monologues: “Shouldn’t there be an age limit for driving? The state of this country”; “Not that men have rights any more. Bloody feminazis”; “She looks African. Probably claiming benefits…”. It’s an irruption of bohemian snobbery that risks forfeiting the sympathy of a reader who has already been mucked around – and it feeds a suspicion that Rees is trying rather too hard to be alienated by Asda billboards, to be baffled by the motives of shoppers as they “mill around” a superstore entranceway.
The politics at the core of Car Park Life emerges where Rees considers – or is confronted by – the smilingly coercive architecture of these places; the aesthetic of urbane authoritarianism he finds, for instance, in a supermarket whose signage suggests “they don’t mind you hanging around for a while, as long as you’re not doing one of the things on the extensive banned list… sit down, shut up, don’t do anything, and enjoy yourself”. He comes to resent the canting moral superiority of “supermarkets that tell you to follow their instructions, give them your money, then feel guilty for your behaviour”.
There is, of course, plenty to despise in both the physical structures and founding philosophies of 21st-century retail environments, and Rees’s jeremiads do occasionally hit home. For example, at Cribbs Causeway Retail Park a decorative monolith on a mini-roundabout moves him to declare – with some self-satire, but only some – that “there are things about this car park we can never understand”:
Really, it is not even a car park but an interconnected system of transit, commerce, entertainment and parking, hard to define and impossible to comprehend in its entirety. We can see the parts but not the whole… And this is just one tiny piece of the globalised economic system, which is equally unknowable… We have no choice but to live in it, and try our best to enjoy the 7,000 parking spaces, worship the religion of everlasting growth on a finite planet and bow down to this mysterious crypto-pyramid.
But Rees’s weaker jabs don’t provoke much more than a cringe. A supermarket that offers health services alongside groceries doesn’t, he writes archly, provide “happiness, hope and freedom from pain”. Well, no. Just the health services and groceries will do fine, thanks. Bill Bryson has written of new shopping malls and other tawdry conveniences which are always opposed by out-of-towners but which the locals, “in their simple, trusting way, tend to think might be kind of handy”. When Bryson – no-one’s idea of a proletarian champion – is making you seem snotty it may be time to look again at your relationship with the common man.
Car Park Life
Gareth E Rees
Influx Press, 224pp, £9.99
This article appears in the 18 Dec 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Days of reckoning