The Retail Fix : Shopping Through the Ages

When he was five or six, my younger son came home from school singing a song. The ‘Shopping Song’.

“We’re going shopping,” he warbled, ‘we’re gonna shop, shop, shop ’til we drop, we’re gonna spend some money today!”

It’s a wonder there wasn’t an earthquake in Highgate Cemetery at the end of the first chorus. Consumerism has reached Key Stage 1. The Capitalists have surely won!

When I was his age, my class was singing about rowing a boat, gently down a stream, or flying a kite, up to the highest height.

The Shopping Song confirmed what I have long suspected. Shopping is now a hobby, a bona fide recreational activity. So of course, it sits naturally alongside water sports and kite flying.

As a child, I detested shopping. It was the least fun way of spending a day with my parents.

Our trips were always purposeful. We would be shopping for school shoes in Clarks or, every December, dragged up to Dickens and Jones for a new coat.

There was no mooching around shops just to see what there was and be seduced into spending money we didn’t have.

Partly there was no mooching because the shops were all strung out along the High Street where you’d have to negotiate lamp posts and bus stops and neglected outsize planters. 

The effect was to make you get the shopping done as quickly as possible and then get on with actual Life.

Shopping was not itself Life.

Shopping precincts were the architectural fashion when I was growing up. There was a hideous one in Romford,  where I spent my first nine years.

The town was a big East End overspill which had expanded rapidly in the 60s.

There was a lot of concrete Brutalism going on and the place was fragranced by the brewery which pumped out the odour of sulphur and boiling wort.

It says something about the place that the best the council could come up with as a postcard strap line was: ‘Romford- South of the A12 Trunk Road!’

The Liberty precinct was the height of 60s and 70s shopping glamour. Department stores housed in concrete boxes lined a central square which boasted a monstrous concrete fountain (I did say there was a lot of concrete) and the public toilets.

They were the sort of public toilets you wouldn’t go into even if your bowel threatened to overwhelm your new jeans at any moment. Nobody actually went to the loo in them.

They were frequented instead by drug dealers, junkies and people unloading their shoplifted wares.

Later, we moved to Brentwood and a new precinct, red brick this time. The same hub of outlets in grey shadow from the lack of light. The same faint whiff of stale urine on the air.

The most depressing precinct I came across was in Corby. Here, there was absolutely no pretence that shopping was fun. All the shops had bars and grills on the windows and went into lockdown at 5.30 on the dot.

No wonder we didn’t sing about going shopping!

By the time I arrived at university shopping malls had started popping up.

And I had a credit card.

And that is when shopping suddenly became altogether more rewarding.

I liked the glass roofed experience. And the marble floors. They suggested affluence. So I felt affluent. 

The temperature was always perfect. Never too hot, never too cold and it didn’t matter if it was raining outside. You could spend as long as you liked, mooching about in a space to which somebody had actually given some thought about the  flow of people through it.

So easy to spend money I didn’t have!

I confess I do, on occasion, enjoy a little uncontrolled consumerism.

Last week, I took my mum to a big outlet village.

Malls make me feel affluent but the outlet village makes me feel like Kim bloody Kardashian.

All those designer names and queues of Chinese and Arab tourists outside Ralph Lauren! What’s in there, for god’s sake! I must know! So I will queue for twenty minutes JUST TO ENTER A SHOP.

I indulged as far as my mother would let me. I filled up with shower gel from Molton Brown (reckon I’m good now for showers ’til 2021) went to town in Coast and totally lost control in Mint Velvet.

My mother meanwhile… Headed straight for the clearance rails at Marks and Sparks.

You can take the girl out of the High Street…

Mum! We’re going shopping! We’re gonna shop, shop, shop til we drop, we’re gonna spend some money today!

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1 comment

  1. Trips out with my Mum were fine, it was the shopping bit I couldn’t stand. Before we left home I would insist that Mum told me exactly how many shops she intended to go in and how long we would spend in each one. Shoe shopping was the worst and seemed to go on forever. I used to curl my toes up inside the shoe when the assistant was trying to feel for them with her thumb to see if the shoe was the right size just to annoy her. My Mum also insisted on getting Clarks and I found out later that her father had worked at the Clarks factory in Street, probably at the end of the Victorian era. I heard that a pair of shoes made by him was on display at the Clarks museum. I got lost in Beales once after running through the rows of fur coats. Two shop assistants came up to me; one of them offered me a Mint Impereial from a paper bag and the other one said she would call my name out on the Tannoy. I wasn’t having any of that so I ran off.

    There was also a lot of enjoyment in to going into town though. In Poole we would climb the pedestrian bridge at the level crossing in the High Street and wait for a train to come along or take a walk along the Quay. Going to Bournemouth meant watching the trolley buses circle the Square (I could never understand why it was called the Square when it had a huge roundabout stuck in the middle of it). Sometimes we’d go into Bobby’s and listen to the pneumatic tubes whizzing about all over the place. A special treat would be a visit to Russell Cotes museum before going home.

    If I could have my Mum back, I’d love to go shopping with her once again and I’d let her go in as many shops as she liked.

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