I had a moment in the Enoch Centre: I couldn’t get out. I’d gone in to buy a diffuser from The Body Shop, to mask the smell of cooking wafting up from below. My downstairs neighbour’s tiny yapper has meat cooked for him, and the smell rising through the floorboards is like an abattoir on a hot day.
Usually I go to the Buchanan Galleries, on the top end of Buchanan Street. It’s the posher mall of the two in central Glasgow, being integrated with John Lewis, and I can find my way out as well as in from all levels. But I needed The Body Shop, which now only has one outlet. Like so many beauty brands of my teenage years, The Body Shop has been superseded by cheap ‘influencer’ brands that peddle products I wouldn’t even know how to use – ‘strobing’?
Whoever planned the Enoch Centre possibly had a hand in the labyrinthine nightmare that is Charles de Gaulle airport, built by the civilisation that also produced the key thinkers (or obfuscators) of critical theory. After purchasing my diffuser set, because I didn’t want to burn down my flat with a scented candle, the way Kate Moss almost burned down The Priory, I needed the toilet. The only way to the toilets on the second (third?) floor is a slow and crowded lift or a trek through the car park to some distant service stairs, which adds about a kilometre to your journey.
Twice now I’ve emerged from the Enoch Centre toilets and gone on a mall safari, up and down its charmless lengths, in search of the missing escalators or a low-technology alternative (stairs!) to that lift. This induces a particular perimenopausal panic, that of no longer having the cognitive wherewithal to navigate the world.
I came of age in the 1980s. Shopping centres, as malls are more commonly known in Australia, are my native territory, and I have spent a lifetime availing myself of their toilets. Usually the escalators are located in a central position, in logical pairs of up and down. Once you have located the escalators, you have the freedom of the strange skyless city of the mall, with its artificial light and filtered air. Lifts are for pushchairs, wheelchairs and lazy people with too many shopping bags, not an impatient person afflicted by both claustrophobia and misanthropy.
Along with the convenience of attached (paid) parking, because modern city life is all about the car, a mall offers food and entertainment. In my increasingly desperate quest for a lift-avoidant way out of the Enoch Centre, I arrived at the entrance to a multiplex cinema, completely deserted, at the far end of one wing. It was like discovering the portal to a lost civilisation.
The only signed way out led to the car park, and I was not a car.
Retracing my steps, I saw an elderly lady sitting alone at a franchise coffee shop tucked into one of the many corners and crevices. She seemed marooned.
Why does the sight of old people sitting alone in mall coffee shops make me sad? What I perceive as Edward Hopper figures embodying urban alienation are in fact enjoying the best coffee the UK has known in the modern era. I can’t speak for the raucous, male-only coffee houses of the eighteenth century, but the rancid black brew served 20 or so years ago, before British high streets were colonised by coffee chains, has been happily superseded. In this sense at least, malls represent the onward march of civilisation.
Except that, in my leftwing snobbery and pessimism, I can’t help seeing them as a form of cultural desolation, the sticky, tacky end of late capitalism and the junk it generates. A mall is a spatial machine designed to extract money from people who often don’t have that much. It’s the Disney version of the good life: buying superfluous stuff, eating fast food and watching an overproduced movie that is also a sophisticated marketing tool, especially if it’s aimed at kids.
In the town where I grew up, in the late 1970s, there was still a main street. At the junction of the highway leading to Sydney and several other roads out of town, known as ‘the Fiveways’, was the Woolworths supermarket, several banks, two pubs (one called the Boomerang – the ‘Boomer’) and the telephone exchange.
I don’t remember what was in the tract of land that became the two competing shopping centres. First, the Coles supermarket went up, with a tail of small retail units at one end, including the hole-in-the-wall library branch where my mother worked, a fragrant Hot Bake (ubiquitous Australian chain bakery), a butcher’s offering bloody ‘meat trays’ for BBQs or sports club raffles, a tiny hair salon and an even tinier boutique in the very last slot.
Then the main shopping centre went up next door, housing both a Safeway supermarket and a Big W selling cheap clothes and homewares. In the air-conditioned in-between space, the competing chain stores Suzanne Grae and Katies sold what was described as ‘women’s fashion’. In my teens, I hadn’t seen actual ‘fashion’ in real life, but I knew it didn’t come from any of these shops.
My mother took me to Ezywalkin for shoes, where I was fitted by the beautiful daughter of my mother’s golfing partner, until she hitchhiked with a friend to Darwin, where she worked as a topless waitress, although this information was kept from her father.
My very first job was working the checkout at Safeway one summer holiday. This was before barcode scanning, and I spent a few hours being trained how to enter the price without looking at the keypad. I wore a green uniform that was too big for me, and I was paid $3.18 an hour. At the job interview, I apologised for asking the wage, because it seemed mercenary. The store manager looked at me as if I’d just hatched from an egg in front of him.
Over the years, the shopping centre expanded like a successful offworld colony, annexing its own sprawling carparks for more space. A ‘food court’, that staple of Australian life, offered localised versions of Chinese, kebabs and pizza, and exotic American-style muffins (bloated cupcakes) to go with your ‘cuppachino’, along with the traditional deep-fried Chiko rolls and pies filled with animal-origin gravy. These days, Australian food courts sell exotic juices and boxes of sushi and Vietnamese summer rolls at prices I don’t recognise.
When I lived in Sheffield, I went to Meadowhall, the out-of-town mall, exactly once, because I needed IKEA. (Face it, we all need IKEA.) I made do with the John Lewis (now sadly closed) and the shops on the pedestrianised Fargate. People professed to hate ‘Meadowhell’, but they still went there. Shopping centres are simply too convenient to resist. For the average person, modern capitalism is based more on convenience than aspiration, which has moved out of reach for most.
But internet shopping has refined convenience to new levels, and times are bad for malls. Both the Buchanan Galleries and the Enoch Centre are full of untenanted slots, especially on the echoing upper levels, as I discovered in my bid to escape.
At all levels, the carpark was clearly signed; it would’ve been easier to steal a car and drive out than to exit as a pedestrian.
Perhaps the old lady sitting alone in the franchise coffee shop had simply given up and now lived in the Enoch Centre, like the man in the airport in that Tom Hanks film. Shopping malls, like airports, are almost self-sufficient city-states. Future space colonies will resemble a late-twentieth-century mall, like the Mars settlement portrayed in The Expanse. People living beneath vast airtight domes will look back in nostalgia to the days when you could simply leave—as long as you had a car.