Once upon a time I was much younger and thinner than I am now, and living a London lifestyle somewhat like that so accurately, and hilariously, portrayed by Helen Fielding in ‘Bridget Jones Diary’. I was single (mostly) and just into my 30s. I had job in a fairly famous artsy place on the Mall if you’re into that sort of thing where I met a lot of interesting people. I lived in trendy Hoxton just as it became trendy (it was not yet the era of the hipster).
I was earning a pittance but I have a confession : I LOVED SHOPPING.
I would go shopping at the drop of a hat (and I had a lot of hats too). I was but a short post-work walk away from the West End; Oxford Street and Regent Street were 10 minutes away. There was still a Tower Records on Piccadilly, very dangerous if you had gone from desk to bar to tube, as I’d inevitably have a quick pop in ‘just to look’. Tottenham Court Road fed my book buying habit handsomely.
Covent Garden was a little trot down the Mall, across Trafalgar Square and there you were. In the late 80s and 1990s Covent Garden still had interesting shops like Neal Street East – an enormous Asian bazaar of a place, absolutely amazing; it had a a crammed to the rafters leather bag shop run by a notoriously grumpy bloke, and other interesting boutiquey small business places like the Hat Shop. Now the big chain stores dominate, I expect the rent is huge.
Liberty was like an oasis of calm to me. A retail spa full of beautiful things that I really couldn’t afford, but would occasionally indulge in anyway. Heals and Habitat fed my dreams of a massive Georgian house in Richmond, its tall rooms filled with delightful objects, and hundreds of books, though how I would achieve this on an ‘arts salary’ was beyond me. Selfridges and Harvey Nichols were proper shopping trip stuff, at least one friend needed to help out with the Chardonnay drinking in the bar, and tell you if your bum looked big in this.
The sparkly shops, the lovely clothes and things. The shoes*. The wandering about with lovely crisp carrier bags of New Stuff. Yes, I did get into stupid amounts of debt (that’s another story) but even that didn’t stop me. I can’t really remember when I really stopped wanting to shop, it was probably a gradual process, but being in Westfield the other day I knew I was properly over it.
Westfield, for those who don’t know it, is gigantic (soon to be gigantic-er) U.S. style Mall at Shepherds Bush (and there’s another at Stratford). We usually use it as super cheap and convenient parking for gigs (it is, sadly, easier to drive into London than get the train). It is sparkly and clean, has a bazillion restaurants and a cinema, and a LEGO shop, which is why we ended up there on the last day of the school holidays. I was OK at first, it’s a bit like an airport duty free writ large, all the very posh shops – Prada, Gucci etc. – are bunched together, and as you wander though you gradually encounter M&S, Boots etc.
We took the small boy into the LEGO shop so he could have the LEGO shop ‘experience’. It’s actually not too bad in there; staffed by very keen European young people who genuinely do seem to love their jobs and talking to the kids. It’s very LEGO! Small Boy liked the thing where the LEGO inside the box animates on screen when you hold it to a camera, and the big wall of bricks you can fill a tub with, pick ‘n’ mix style.
Once we were done there (Bionicles bought, Ewok Village not bought – we have to eat after all) we wandered about for a bit. Did I want to go in any shops?, asked my husband – well, no, actually, I found myself reply to my surprise. Though I can usually muster up enthusiasm for a peek in Monsoon, I had absolutely no desire to.
The small boy had a Book Token to spend so I suggested he could find a book. I had a memory of there being a Waterstones in here, which turned out to be an imagining. There is not a single bookshop in the entire place (I don’t really count WH Smith, it has no comfy chairs or cosy shelves to hide behind). The small boy was philosophical about this, while I became a bit outraged. This place is VAST but you can’t have a nice browse in a Waterstones? What’s going on?
I felt like the whole place, the glass, the lights, the extraordinarily loud and echoey acoustics, the not being outside, was weighing down on me. I mentioned to the Small Boy that this was how I used to spend all my spare time and he looked at me as if I may have once been madder than he already suspects me of being.
What this shopping centre cleverly does is completely disorientate you within minutes. I got to the mall from the car park, but if I’d been asked to navigate back to the car I’d probably still be there now, living off foraged Pret a Manger sandwiches and creeping into Debenhams to sleep on a bedroom display set. Luckily my husband is not so easily bamboozled and he, like a wise and ancient tracker of some kind, eventually got us out.
That was the point I fully realised, and this has been coming on for years, that I no longer want to ‘go shopping’ in this kind of way.**
*Actually still a slight weak point, but now I can just look and not buy. Usually.
** Though I have found others, of course…