Place and the writer
Inspiration isn’t always welcome. Back in the 1990s I worked in what we used to call a record shop, I’m not sure what we call them nowadays. I moved from branch to branch in my slow
but still inexplicable rise up the retail ladder until I reached my career peak: Assistant Manager of the Merry Hill branch. Merry Hill is a shopping centre in the geographically nebulous part of the West Midlands known as the Black Country. I’d visited plenty of shopping centres in my life, I’d even worked in ones before, but Merry Hill – or Merry Hell as it’s inevitably known – was different in both its scale and its impact upon me. I have that shopping centre to thank for becoming a novelist. It’s nice to have something tangible to show for the time I spent there as I never managed to complete my NVQ in Retail.
Perhaps inspiration isn’t really the right word, it seems to both underestimate and oversimplify the reality. Merry Hill didn’t really serve as an inspiration to me, it served more as a lens, bringing into sharp focus things that had previously been indistinct or invisible. Inconveniently this was accompanied by the urgent need to set these things down on paper. I really wasn’t thrilled or excited about this compulsion at the time. I wasn’t an aspiring author looking for inspiration, I was a worn-out retail worker who just wanted to get home each evening, drink wine exclusively from the 3 for £10 selection of my local off-license and watch videos of Seinfeld. But I couldn’t escape the centre, it followed me home and kept me up late filling notebooks.
There’s something about the cracked paving stones and steady drizzle of a traditional British High Street that grounds us in our location, but shopping malls can be curiously invisible to their visitors. The covered walkways of Merry Hill provided frictionless, polished surfaces for shoppers to glide along, enticing them to look but not see. With its fractured topography, reflective surfaces and theatrical lighting, Merry Hill seemed to mesmerise those who crossed its threshold. Seeming somehow both sedated and frenzied, the shoppers at Merry Hill came like wave after wave of a zombie army, rolling ever onwards to the next TV advertised CD compilation.
Perhaps I wouldn’t have noticed how strange customers were en masse, if I as a member of staff hadn’t been kept so carefully separated from them. Discreetly hidden in the walls, like secret panels, were doorways for workers to get to and from their designated entrances. The tangled service corridors behind the doors stretched for miles like a distorted shadow of the main mall. It was easy to get lost in them and I frequently did, finding myself trapped in dead ends or emerging into vast waste processing areas by mistake. I’d always loved Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books and when I started working at Merry Hill I was struck by the parallels between these two very different, but equally labyrinthine worlds. The corridors of the centre were characterized by bare breezeblock walls, strip fluorescent lighting and industrial sized rodent traps. As members of staff we received regular warnings not to use the customer toilets, seating areas or car parks. We were to be visible only when directly facilitating a sale, the rest of the time we were ghosts. The service corridors served exactly the same purpose as the tunnels sometimes found on historic great estates, allowing grounds staff to reach the gardens without interrupting the vistas of the aristocracy.
As well as seeing backstage, I also got to see the mall when it was closed. There’s something eerie about any busy place out of hours. The most banal locations can become menacing by night. By day it may be a school corridor or an open plan office, but go back after dark and you find yourself on a Kubrick film set. With the piped music turned off, the escalators still and the windows shuttered Merry Hill was predictably spooky before and after closing. But added to this, there was always the clammy awareness of being watched. I’d been dimly conscious of security cameras as a shopper, I’d been especially conscious of them during a brief teenage foray into shoplifting (scented erasers on both occasions), but I never felt their gaze as sharply as I did once I started working at Merry Hill. It was only there that I realized the true extent of every day surveillance. As well as the centre’s private security force, each shop also employed its own guards and store detectives. Each of these discrete teams had their own system of cameras and monitors. In the daytime, bored security guards used the cameras to spy on shopflifters, spy on staff and ogle women. Out of hours though, locking up the shop on my own in a seemingly empty centre I’d wonder who was watching me and why. I’d wonder what the cameras saw in the centre in the dead of night.
Because Merry Hill aways felt haunted to me. By who I’m not sure. Maybe those who had spent their lives working their but were now excluded. Before it was a shopping mall, Merry Hill had been a steel works. When the foundry closed in 1982 the local economy shut down with it. The area was designated an enterprise zone to encourage other manufacturers back, but instead developers saw an opportunity to open a shopping centre. The local population with its high unemployment rates and low household incomes was never the target audience for the centre. A glittering palace of branded delights, the gaze of Merry Hill was always fixed firmly on the horizon and the more affluent populations within a few miles radius. Driving to work there each day was like driving to the epicentre of some unnatural disaster. As I got closer, the number of empty shops steadily increased until it seemed that entire High 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.
All this – the fears, the questions, the crazed scribblings in notebooks – eventually turned into my first novel, What Was Lost. Following publication something strange happened. I began to be seen as a critic of consumer culture. I had written a dark story set in a shopping centre, I was revealing something rotten at the heart of the retail experience. Sometimes journalists would ring to talk to me about it. I’d answer the phone and say ‘It’s not a good time to talk. I’m out at the shops.’ They’d laugh – there I was – humourously skewering comtemporary society again. ‘No,’ I’d say, ‘really, I’m in the Bull Ring, shopping.’ It wasn’t something AS Byatt ever said when they rang her. The truth is that it was never my intention to condemn shopping centres or those who milled aimlessly around them, I always saw myself as one of that crowd. My hope was only ever to try and capture the essence of these places that despite or perhaps because of their size and ubiquity somehow escaped or beguiled our gaze.
Merry Hill was a turning point for me. It was where I realised that place was the key to seeing through the fog. This has continued to be the case with my subsequent novels. Certain places – elderly residential homes, Spanish ghost towns – allow a reframing of everything around me. They defamiliarise and make the invisible visible. And whenever I’m lucky enough to find myself somewhere that gives me that kind of glimpse, I feel I have to write, to send despatches back from the other side of the fog.