Lost in Floorspace

I have shopping centres to thank for becoming a novelist. I worked in various malls in the West Midlands during the great retail boom of the 1990s. I was struck by how alien and strange such apparently familiar places became through the eyes of a worker. The experiences impacted upon me enough to make me write a novel about them. It was nice to get something from the job, as I never completed my NVQ in retail.

There’s something about shopping centres that makes them curiously invisible to shoppers. Perhaps it has something to do with the incredible ease of the whole experience. While we might trip upon cracked paving stones as we trudge along the high street, the polished surfaces of the shopping centre invite us to glide along, oblivious to our surroundings. When I worked in one, I began to see shoppers as zombie-like creatures, moving sightlessly from cashpoint machines to shopfloors in endless, joyless pursuit of Lighthouse Family CDs. With their fractured topography, reflective surfaces and theatrical lighting, shopping centres seem to hypnotise those who cross their thresholds, enticing visitors to look but not see.

For workers though, the experience is very different. Out of hours, free from customers, the lights out and the playlist turned off, a different landscape is revealed.

If you look carefully at the walls of any shopping centre you will see, discreetly clad in identical fascia to the surfaces around them, doorways for staff to reach the rear entrances of the shops. I worked in one shopping centre where these doorways were mirrored, which added to the whole Alice-like sensation of passing from a familiar world to a strange one. The tangled service corridors behind these doors stretch for miles, like a distorted shadow of the main mall. I was frequently lost in them, finding myself trapped in dead ends or emerging into the vast waste processing areas by mistake.

Service corridors in every centre, whether it’s a tired Eighties construction or a Westfield-style mega mall, are similar: bare breezeblock walls, strip fluorescent lighting, industrial sized rodent traps and occasional foul exhaust wafts from the ventilation system. The transition from the airy atriums, softly-lit galleries and water features of the main centre to its backstage area can be a jarring experience. Shopping centre workers are constantly reminded that they are the below stairs personnel. As a member of staff I received regular warnings not to use the customer loos, seating areas or car parks. The service corridors seemed to serve a similar purpose to the tunnels sometimes found on historic great estates, allowing grounds staff to reach the gardens without despoiling the view of the landed gentry.

As a shopper I was always aware of the unblinking gaze of security cameras, but it was not until I worked in shopping centres that I began to appreciate the extent of the surveillance. As well as the centre’s extensive security force, each shop also employs its own security guards and store detectives. Each of these discrete teams have their own system of cameras and monitors, making shopping centres some of the most closely scrutinised patches of land on the earth’s surface. It was only when I picked up the phone once to a manager screaming at me to do some bloody work, that I realised the cameras were there to watch staff as much as potential shoplifters. Sometimes locking up the shop on my own late at night I would find the centre an eerie environment, the escalators still, the windows darkened and the sure knowledge that some anonymous person was watching my every move. The motives of the security guards though were rarely complicatedly sinister, more often, bored out of their minds they would use the cameras to zoom in on anyone they fancied taking a closer look at. It was always alarming to enter the security office and be confronted with eight different cleavage shots.

Two of the centres in which I worked were sited in deprived areas, on former industrial sites. The shopping centres arrived some years after the loss of the manufacturing facilities, like space ships descending from another planet, filled with glittering prizes for the jobless to come and stare at. The local community, quite evidently was not the target audience for the centres. Offering no low-cost, non-branded retailers, the gaze of the centre was fixed firmly on the horizon and the more affluent population within a few miles radius. Driving to work each day was like driving to the epicentre of a neutron bomb site. The number of empty shops in the areas approaching the centre grew and grew until it seemed entire streets were boarded up. I used to wonder what it must be like to live in those areas, right under the ramparts and yet somehow invisible to the gated city of the shopping centre.

I’m not sure it’s helpful though to present an oversimplified view of shopping centres versus the high street. The idea that local equates to better quality is often not borne out by experience. I grew up in my dad’s sweet shop and my mum never once bought a thing from the butchers next door, preferring instead to buy it from a supermarket without swatted flies crusting the surface of the meat.
Similarly, I’m not sure there is anything very edifying about sneering at those who choose to spend their leisure time in shopping centres. I couldn’t definitively say that marvelling over the textiles in a National Trust property, or installing garden decking is necessarily a better way to pass the afternoon.

I think the problem with shopping centres is that despite, or perhaps because of, their size and ubiquity they escape or beguile our gaze. They present themselves as welcoming, democratic and fun experiences but anyone who looks closely will see that the reality is far more complex and fascinating.

First published in The Independent, September 2011