Arts & Giving | Diary of a Somebody

Stephen Bayley

Is real-life retail really being usurped by the online version?

Stephen Bayley

October 21 2011
Stephen Bayley

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The costs of the motor car in pollution and congestion are too well known, but people seem to find the benefits of aesthetic pleasure and personal convenience more than merely adequate compensation. Strange then that the penumbra of activity around cars is so wretchedly disappointing. Putting fuel in a car is an experience both very expensive and entirely without emotional or cultural value, at least of a positive sort. And what a joyless experience the misnomer of “service” usually is. But I have to say Mercedes-Benz Chelsea does a cheerfully good job. Here I am, savouring the piquant contrasts and resonant absurdities of modern life. While a vandalised light on my C350 CDI AMG Sportwagon gets attention, I am sipping not bad espresso and watching Libyan horrors on a plasma screen. My companions? Mostly chauffeurs, plus one very harassed-looking Japanese salaryman, presumably an Olympus shareholder. I can’t get on the WiFi so may have to buy a Michael Schumacher mannequin as a diversion.

Back in the car, Simon Jenkins pops up on Radio 3. The subject is why The National Trust and Historic Royal Palaces are so intent on queasy voyeurism and retro-kitsch fantasies and, withal, are determined to direct themselves at the grossest rather than the finest popular appetites. Lucy Worsley of Historic Royal Palaces is intent on staging “re-enactments”, while The National Trust sees nothing incongruous in encouraging the use of bouncy castles in order to make its properties “live”, as Sir Simon insists on describing the Trust’s low-brow grovelling. Personally, I think buildings are alive without need of accessorising with costume drama or playground activities. Of course, this is all in the cause of getting the numbers up. But we know how to do that already. As Michael Grade once observed, “live sex and public executions” guarantee top viewing figures. I await developments.

I wonder if the decline of real-life retail has been exaggerated. In this part of London, things seem quite lively. Notably, brand-of-the-moment Superdry is moving into Austin Reed’s Regent Street premises with its landmark art deco barber’s shop. But then again, Austin Reed is being re-born on the other side of the road. My own experience of online shopping does not point to a vigorous future for the medium. This year my total activity amounts to the purchase of five books, six wine glasses, a butane-powered weed wand and a replacement plastic foot for a Moulinex food processor (£0.59).

Meanwhile, I note that Amazon is abandoning deliveries to individual addresses in certain areas. Instead, its merchandise will be sent to a local collection centre so you can pick it up yourself. Isn’t this what we used to call “a shop”?

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