Westfield: The brave new world of…stuff
Visiting Stratford’s new Westfield shopping centre on a crisp November morning, I feel, as a person, incredibly small. While an escalator transports around a dozen of us up into the glass edifice that houses the main shopping precinct, we’re gradually dwarfed by rows of marble, artificial plants, and as we travel further up, what looks like a never-ending boulevard lined with shiny stores and mirrors.
East London’s recently-opened Westfield is vast. If Stalin had abandoned communism and become a retail magnate, this is what I imagine it would have looked like. In case I forget to mention it later on, this place also houses Britain’s largest casino.
As I make my way inside I can’t say I’m not glad to be out of the cold, which already puts Westfield in a favourable light when compared to Britain’s usual high street fare – not having to battle the elements on a cold winter morning is a bonus, for a start. What surprises me the most about Westfield, however, is the sheer number of shoppers who’ve turned out this early on a Sunday morning, many of whom are already clutching large drawstring bags containing items that will inevitably be out of fashion long before the country emerges from the current economic downturn – and there was me thinking we were all supposed to be skint.
Teenagers of course love shopping centres; or at least hanging out in them eating fast food and flirting with other teenagers. North American films such as Mall Rats depicted what adolescents did when governments sold off almost all public spaces to corporations. We sneered at American consumerism back then; now we’ve raised our own generation of pushy little shoppers, with nothing to do but hang around these vast cathedrals of consumption looking forward to the day when they can work the longest hours in Europe (if they’re lucky) in order to max out their own credit cards on…stuff.
Westfield shopping centre, like lots of private spaces, has an effectively functioning hierarchy. Around every corner are security guards who have no qualms about ejecting those who don’t fit in – or who act as a reminder that not everything can be tossed onto the scrapheap like an out of season Gucci handbag. A consumer society is inevitably a society of excess; but it’s also a society that is, as the sociologist Zigmunt Bauman puts it, ‘one of redundancy and prodigal waste’. Security at Westfield is quickly onto the homeless, the disorderly and the simply badly behaved, efficiently dispatching capitalism’s human debris out the doors and back onto the streets from whence it came – and more importantly, as far away as possible from those with the spending power in this whole set up.
A couple of hundred yards down the road, away from conspicuous capitalism and its privately employed heavies, one finds a quite different East End. Westfield sits in the borough of Newham, one of the most economically deprived areas in the whole of London. During the next four years, Newham local authority will see its funding from central Government cut by around £75 million. As the Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson opened Westfield back in September (with the usual bumbling get-up), libraries, swimming pools and public parks in Newham were being boarded-up or earmarked for closure. Neither the influx of (mostly) poorly paid, non-unionised jobs that Westfield has brought with it, nor the increasing numbers visiting the area look likely to offset the inevitable social fallout from the huge budget cuts the area is facing. There is even a suspicion that the vast wealth on display in Westfield may in fact make things worse, putting pressure on families who are already struggling to spend money on things they don’t really need.
However much I am loathe to admit it, I’m also influenced by the fashion conscious era I’ve been born into, where individual identity is intrinsically bound up with the idea of consumption. Shopping can , at times , make a person happy, it’s just that the happiness it produces never seems to last very long. The initial buzz of enjoying a new product or wearing a new item of clothing quickly wears off once the prospect of getting your hands on something newer, more glamorous, more in season appears on the horizon. It’s all a bit like eating a packet of sweets – nice, but when the sugar rush is gone you need to go back out and find some real food; failing that it’s sweets ad infinitum .
The thing about Westfield – and perhaps even 21 st century Britain – is the sheer level of encouragement not to worry about genuine fulfilment, to look only to commodities for satisfaction. Gratification and instant prosperity are there to be grasped at will, without thinking about the debt you may be piling up, the people who produce the goods, or the fact that increasingly the only consolation to working life seems to be endless shopping.
I remember when I first watched the film Fight Club I was young and didn’t really get it. When I watched it again a few years later, there was something Tyler Durden (the main character) said that struck a chord: ‘Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place’.
Walking round Westfield with all the other shoppers, I wondered how many of them had ever seen Fight Club – or perhaps read the book. I wanted to walk up to them and scream that, if they were not careful, the things they own would one day end up owning them. I didn’t do that, of course. Instead, I put on my new shoes and walked towards the exit. Not, though, before I’d visited another shop and bought myself a new scarf. I already have two; another probably won’t hurt though.
Picture:Getty ImagesTagged in: Stratford, Westfield
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