On the High Street
One school day, I went into London with my friend Becky, using train tickets paid for by our school as part of a ‘raising aspirations’ initiative. We were supposed to be looking at universities. Instead, we went to the big Topshop on Oxford Street for the first time – that thumping, labyrinthine basilica of fast fashion. It was more museum than shop. We gawped at the glitzy toilets and tugged at clothes we could not yet imagine occasions for, flipping price tags hopefully. Eventually we left empty-handed, dazed, our aspirations raised.
Once the undisputed leader of UK high street fashion, Topshop, as part of Philip Green’s Arcadia Group, is now in administration, and its flagship store, along with thirty others, is rumoured to be closing. Would-be buyers have until Monday to put in their bids for the chain.
My regular Topshop was the one in Basildon, where a renegade manager maintained a year-round £5 reduction rail. My sisters and I were the same size, and we’d barrel into the shop on Saturday mornings, clacking the hangers and quarrelling in hissed, self-conscious whispers over a PVC jacket or a pair of skinny jeans.
Basildon was in the first wave of the postwar developments created under the New Towns Act 1946. ‘It is a long cry from More’s Utopia to the New Towns Bill,’ the Labour planning minister, Lewis Silkin, said in Parliament, ‘but it is not unreasonable to expect that that “Utopia” of 1515 should be translated into practical reality in 1946.’ He envisioned the new towns fostering a ‘healthy, self-respecting, dignified person with a sense of beauty, culture and civic pride’.
Like many new towns, Basildon has fallen far from Silkin’s ideal. It is the fifth most unequal town in the UK, with pockets of severe deprivation. In some areas, half the children live below the poverty line. It has one of the lowest rates of university education in the country, and one in five residents have no qualifications. Nearly 70 per cent of them voted to leave the EU. Covid-19 has hit it hard, and in December Basildon had the highest infection rate in the country.
The brutalist town centre was designed in the 1950s by Basil Spence (a few years before the University of Sussex campus, where I now work). Brooke House, a Grade II listed 14-storey residential block, rises precariously out of the high street on white steel stilettos. Its flats were recently deemed ‘unfit for human habitation’.
In Basildon, as in the rest of the country, the town centre is in slow surrender, shopfronts darkening like lost teeth. Meanwhile, the government is injecting £830 million into high streets, urging them to avert disaster by reinventing themselves. Last year, 180,000 retail workers lost their jobs. A recent report shows that a further 400,000 positions are at risk, and the towns most threatened by the high street downturn are those with the fewest cultural assets to fall back on: museums, galleries, restaurants, cafes, sports facilities. Basildon makes the list of the top ten most vulnerable towns. It isn’t due to receive any government funds.
High streets were the landscapes of my teens, and they are now set to vanish. That would be fine if it also spelled the end of consumerism and an opening for something more decent. Instead, like a resistant bug, fast fashion rages on, from sweatshop to warehouse to doorstep, via a growing precariat of exhausted delivery drivers, alienated on all fronts: from the products they deliver, the means of production, their fellow workers and consumers. The ‘alien object that has power over him’, as Marx put it, is packaged in cardboard and scheduled for next-day delivery.
Plans to regenerate Basildon’s flagging high street are centred on the construction of new blocks of flats, the kind that are anticipated by banners of smart, computer-simulated people smiling on courtyard benches and gathering in cheerful groups. They’ll be beyond the budget of most local residents. To make way for them, another brutalist building, Freedom House, is being demolished. A distinctive aluminium and wire sculpture that once festooned an external wall has been removed and put into storage. The piece, by A.J. Poole, is called Man Aspires.