I’m writing this from the Starbucks at the world’s largest shopping centre; the place is vast. Westfield in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, opened last October.
With 300 shops and 50 restaurants, it makes Dundrum Town Centre look like a 1950s Londis in Cavan.
It is so huge you are given a map so that you don’t get lost. Most shoppers are studying these co-ordinates closely for fear that they take a wrong turn and are never seen again. This is a GPS system for people with maxed-out credit cards.
Westfield is the Victoria Beckham of shopping centres: it is loud, brash, pushy and most of all, brandtastic.
The people behind Westfield have obviously got into the heads of the people who are shopping here. The owners’ aim is quite simple: you can read their manifesto from the huge lifestyle ad at the entrance, which states boldly that Westfield is a “fabulous place, for fabulous people”. Because it is the incarnation of global high-end shopping, it is a wonderfully rich savannah in which to watch the various different shopping tribes roam, many trying desperately to look and be different but ending up being crushingly similar.
But we have the Joseph tribe, the Habitat tribe, the Armani tribe and the Calvin Klein tribe all brushing up against each other, professing their affinity with each brand. When they head into Armani Exchange, for example, they are not saying, “Oh I like that”; rather they are stating, “I am like that”, this is my church and these are my people.
What makes this tribal issue interesting is that the allure of the brand supersedes, or at least co-exists, with all sorts of other tribal touchstones. The Saudi women in full burkas can happily entertain both Allah and Accessorize, while their less observant sisters are tottering on six-inch Manolo Blahnicks, dolled up with thick suggestive eyeliner made all the more alluring because their dark eyes are accentuated by a black hijab.
The black teenagers with their bleached white trainers who roll around the place looking menacing, snarling like caged dogs at the authority of the State, behave like little lambs, whimpering and bleating when faced with the authority of Tommy Hilfiger.
The first floor is full of skinny stick insects who you can barely see from the side. They look as if they haven’t eaten since Christmas and are obsessed with the natural world. They eschew processed food because it is not natural but crowd around the cosmetics stand and spend fortunes on face cream.
Maybe when they are not focusing on their chakras at the One World Yoga centre, they should be reminded that L’Oreal has protested against the EU’s ban on animal testing by lodging a case at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.
Lots of un-athletic people who’ve just driven up to the nearest exits in the labyrinthine car park so that they don’t have to walk too far, waddle around in fitness tracksuits. These people who probably haven’t broken sweat since 1987 are knocking back energy sports drinks as if they’ve just finished a triathlon. Meanwhile, others who clearly have never been up a hill as little as the Sugarloaf and don’t like the rain, are buying all-weather Matterhorn mountaineering gear at a shop called the North Face.
The Apple tribe, who look down their technically sophisticated nose at the rest of the laptop-buying world swarm around the Apple store marvelling at the phenomenal capacity and the graphics capability of the new Mac Book. In reality, all they use it for is googling cheap flights and downloading CDs from iTunes to upload them onto their new iPod shuffle. Yet these people are proselytisers; they are the Jehovah’s Witnesses of the IT world. I’ve never met an Apple Mac user who doesn’t try to convert you.
An Orthodox Jewish family pass me by, the man sweating as he pushes two three-year-old girls, perversely in thick woollen tights, in a buggy. I’m not surprised he’s feeling the heat. The huge black overcoat in the 27 degrees sunshine might have something to do with it. Despite living by strict rituals laid down in 500BC by Moses and the Torah, he’s glued to his Blackberry which is kosher as long as he doesn’t text on the Sabbath.
And despite looking like he’s just stepped out of a 17th century Polish shetl and as though he spends his waking hours praying for the Messiah to turn up, he’s happy to make a beeline for the thoroughly 21st century lifestyle heaven of Habitat, frock tails and ringlets flying as he rounds the corner with the buggy. In Habitat, he’s checking out the 0pc interest rate sofa financing deals, which promise true believers that they can buy now, pay later.
And this is the nub of the issue. How, when Britain is on the verge of being downgraded by the rating agencies, can this place be so packed? Now granted, today is a bank holiday Monday, but the shopping centre is jammed, despite the heatwave.
The reason it is full is that the Brits are doing everything in their power to stave off the recession and prevent it turning into a depression.
Forget all the stuff about “green shoots”; what is in the balance here is the difference between a recession and a depression and the British authorities know it. They are printing money when possible and borrowing to keep the show on the road.
Sterling has been allowed to collapse and there is no sense that they are worried about it falling further. In short, they are trying to borrow their way out of a recession that was caused by too much borrowing in the first place. The 0pc sofa finance deals in Habitat are the thin edge of the wedge, emblematic of a society, like our own, that has run up a financial cul de sac. We think that by borrowing and spending more people’s money now, we will get out of this hole and then escape the ramifications of a 10-year binge.
The whole of the English-speaking world is at the same game. If we get away with it, we will simply transfer the weight of our debts on to the next generation.
But the real test is in the government bond markets. Are they prepared to accept our IOUs yet again? Hardly, which is why a crash in the global bond market in the months ahead is probably going to mark the next phase in the first Great Recession of the 21st century.
Whatever happens, we are in an intellectual conundrum because the whole point of our economies can’t surely be more of the same, more debts and more stuff made in China ending up mothballing in the wardrobes of the West.