I enter Europe’s largest shopping centre from the South, noting that they have been sensible enough to stick to basic euclidean geometry with their names and navigational aids. Should I have brought a compass? It would be reassuring to know that, so long as one walks in a straight line for long enough, one will eventually be back in society. One of the first indications of the Westfield Uncanny is the presence of a shopping centre. It’s called The Village, and apparently contains high-end clothing brands. They should have made this their advertising slogan – “Westfield shopping centre: so massive, it’s got a shopping centre in it.”
Indoors, I begin to bottle it, leading me to break one of the first rules of the flaneur (‘thou shalt utilise all five senses wherever possible’). I fumble for my ipod, twiddle its wheel a few times, and find the reassuring rumble of Joy Division. Once ‘Twenty Four Hours’ has come on, and Ian Curtis’s threatening baritone is booming through my ears, I feel a little safer. “So this is permanence/love’s shattered pride.” So it would seem, Ian, so it would seem.
Where now? What? (Don’t even attempt to deal with ‘why?’) At this point you must let your body and psyche take over. One presumes that each aisle has been expertly designed to maximise flow of bodies, without diminishing attention to logos. I’m waiting for Mike Davis to publish a book explaining how the smell has been designed in order to inculcate greater psychological tolerance of credit card debt. The logos are surprisingly familiar – Boots, WH Smith, Next. Have they erected Europe’s largest shopping centre, simply to rub our faces in the banality of retail? This is the equivalent of building St Pauls Cathedral in order to let some ageing vicar mumble on about his hopes for the parish jumble sale. I expected Westfield to be a brand universe unto itself. As things stand it might have been easier to simply put a roof over Maidstone.
I’m wandering around in circles, aware that I’m clinging to the Southern District like a swimming novice clings to the side of the pool. But that’s where Shepherd’s Bush tube is closest to! If I ever make it to the Northern Quarter, I fear that the nearest means of public transport will be some rural hopper in the Oxfordshire countryside. “Just for one moment, thought Id found my way/ Destiny unfolded, I watched it slip away.” Tell me about it, Ian, tell me about it. Right. I need a plan, plus I’m meeting friends at 3.30pm, and promised to locate a meeting spot (would it be entirely wrong to put out a lost child announcement on the public address system?). I’m going up a level for a think.
On level one, life gets a little easier. The pace is less frenetic, and the norms seem more established. Maybe up here, where natural light is forgotten, we’re getting institutionalised slowly, like residents of asylums or old people’s homes. I notice that level one is flush with comfortable seating areas, where people relax, read papers, drink coffees and even snooze. It’s like those pictures of First World War soldiers lying around in a moment of calm, having a smoke. Level one seating includes some rather tempting arm chairs, that appear to be directly modelled on the chair in the Big Broother Dayerry Roooom. I reflect on the number of chairs. Didn’t BAA brag about how little seating there would be in the new Heathrow Terminal Five, as a technique to get people to spend more time shopping? Maybe Westfield is so bullish about its sales potency, that they’re offering the seating out of sheer bravado. Perhaps there is an economy of seating, in which seats get added and removed in order to hit the perfect level of consumption. When the economy slows down, chair numbers get slashed like interest rates, but then raised again should things begin to overheat. Perhaps they’ll gradually wane, as the credit crunch…
Ah, yes, the credit crunch. This, ladies and gentleman, is Britain in the face of the worst economic crisis in eighty years, a crisis fuelled by a myopic, euphoric, idiotic carnival of debt. And just as that carnival is about to dissolve into a nightmare hangover, along comes Westfield to prolong it by a few more hours. Westfield is the pilled-up raver on the Ibizan beach in late September, after his friends have all reluctantly accepted that it can’t go on for ever. Take another pill, mate, and another one. Go on, you’re far enough gone now, it can’t hurt to take another one. And if not, how about a loyalty card to help with the come down? To be honest, mate, your boss has probably sacked you anyway, so why not have another one?
Next time I go flaneuring here, I’m bringing Robert Peston. Peston and Westfield can’t exist in the same universe. One of them has to be eliminated. I imagine Peston howling in denial, as ‘the greatest financial crisis since the Great Crash’ is marked by a family dragging bags of jeans, shoes, plants, televisions, books and CDs along behind them. Alistair Darling, on the other hand, might wish Westfield to launch its own religion. After all, vast crowds are surging towards escalators, credit cards at the ready, collectively enacting the largest piece of Keynesian demand stimulus since the New Deal. Don’t worry about fiscal stimuli, Darling, just offer some tax breaks to Westfield, and we might get through this alive. The boss of Westfield should be standing on his front doorstep, waving a red briefcase, reaping the CBI’s adulation.
I’m getting nowhere, and have no idea how I’m going to coordinate with my friends. Ian Curtis isn’t much help either. Time has slowed to a standstill – half an hour just felt like three – and it seems to be getting even busier. The queue for Nando’s snakes out of its frontage, round the corner, and then into a liftshaft. (Strange to imagine the people at that particular point in the queue, going up and down repeatedly, waiting for the queue to inch them forward, and out of the lift.) I need oxygen and daylight, and my friends are texting to find out where I am. Christ. Lets just meet in Shepherds Bush Waitrose. Outside again, I notice the curious hedge-row-waterfall (pictured), a surreal postmodern garden sculpture, that divides Westfield from London. When the Ballardian consumer revolution comes, it’s that that we’ll have to scale.
With apologies to Walter Benjamin and Iain Sinclair.