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Swellboy on… Westfield shopping centre

Like salmon returning to their spawning grounds, shoppers swarm to Westfield

Swellboy on… Westfield shopping centre

Image: Brijesh Patel

December 16 2010
Nick Foulkes

I have a complicated relationship with Westfield. The famous mega mall in west London is what in my younger days would have been called my local shopping centre. Funny to think that a few streets away from this glittering palace of the retail arts I live the kind of life which, on occasion, will demand that I winkle a spent bullet from the roof of my car, following particularly heated negotiations between local businessmen.

I am too old to be an urban sentimentalist, mourning the retreating tide of “edginess”, a quality which, with the passage of time, becomes increasingly less desirable. But then nor do I have faith in what seemed to be the great urban inevitability of my callow youth: gentrification. Gentrification, which was usually predicated in areas where the housing stock of 19th-century jerry buildings looked a little as if someone had tried to design Chelsea on the cheap, turned out to be one of the greatest urban myths of all.

Instead we have Westfield.

My children quite like it and I am beginning to be concerned that I quite like it too. Maybe “like” is too strong; it exercises a gentle but ineluctable pull that is hard to explain given that it is the physical manifestation of most of the things that I dislike. First there is the universal architecture and the homogeneity, which I find dispiriting – I could be anywhere in the world; in fact the other day, as I was punching in my destination at one of the screens at one of the cathedral-like entrances to Westfield, I experienced a vivid flashback to March of this year when I found myself doing exactly the same thing at a shopping mall in Dubai – or was it a mall that I had been in a few months before that in Shanghai? I forget, but on balance I reckon it was Dubai.

And yet, as the map appeared on the screen in front of me and the two dots, one for “you are here now”, another for my destination (the O2 store), were joined by a line, along with directions using other shops as reference points, I experienced a childlike tingle of satisfaction. My only cavil was that the distance and time it would take to get there were not quoted.

The place was bustling, and crowds were streaming towards it, much as spectators at a sporting event might hurry to the stadium at which the drama of 22 men kicking a small sphere is about to unfold. However it was a Sunday morning and most of the shops were not open. And yet, like some Pavlovian ritual, some atavistic homing mechanism of the sort that drives salmon to swim across oceans and up rivers and onto the Discovery Channel, they were there, milling around, and I was milling around with them.

The frightening thing is that some of them really looked as if they were going to spend the day there, much in the way that people visited museums or traipsed round stately homes when I was a child. I did not see any picnics or packed lunches, but people had already staked out their territory in the vaguely trendy (in a 2004 sort of way) 1970s-inspired leather bucket armchairs, or, most frighteningly, they had already started to form a queue outside the as yet unopened Ugg shop.

I was so stunned at this that I rang my wife, and apparently this is a regular phenomenon, complete with barriers that form a queue-management system of the type favoured at airport security checks. In my naïveté I had thought that Uggs had gone the way of legwarmers and clogs, but far from it. I saw it myself, queues of the faithful waiting to genuflect at the altar of the antipodean sheepskin boot. And I even seem to remember a woman with a clipboard standing authoritatively at the door, doubtless to give the semblance of passing through the silken rope and into the VIP zone that is the home of fleecy footwear.

There is of course a luxury end of things too, with a Prada and a Vuitton, both smart-looking, but what upset me was that it was all identical to the other bit. The sole exception seemed to me to be that instead of serving coffee, the central counter area set aside for the sale and consumption of nutrients and refreshments was dedicated to champagne. Otherwise, change the names and the products and I might just as well as have been enjoying watching the queue for the Ugg boutique while sipping a Christmas-blend-double-decaf-fair-trade-mochaccino served with a slathering of mincepie-flavoured syrup. On my way out I spotted a Dior store and I did pause to wonder what the architect of the New Look of 1947 would have made of Westfield in 2010.

Of course I blame another Frenchman, Emile Zola. Zola may have been a fearless champion of Dreyfuss and he might have known a lot about the railway system (La Bête Humaine is fundamentally a book about late-19th-century rail travel masquerading as a murder story), but he also sowed the seeds from which Westfield was harvested when he wrote Au Bonheur des Dames, a sort of highfalutin 19th-century version of Are You Being Served? (only not as funny). Anyway, the result is a society that, when asked about Zola’s J’Accuse, would probably think you were talking about a new type of hot tub or whirlpool bath.

Still, there was one slender ray of hope. As I staggered aimlessly around Westfield, consulting various screens for directions to shops that I did not want to visit, I happened across a sight that gladdened my heart. Right in the middle of the shopping concourse was a man in a mask, who was superintending a dentist’s chair supporting a woman with a high-powered blue light jammed into her mouth that was presumably bleaching her teeth. All of a sudden I was transported from the pasteurised blandness of the Orwellian, Huxleyesque retailscape to the cheerful, gaudy, individuality of the medieval fairground, where tooth-pulling barbers were one of the greatest attractions.

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People, Shopping