At Bluewater

Iain Sinclair

In The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells’s Martians had the good sense to make landfall near Woking. ‘Hundreds of observers saw the flame that night and the night after, about midnight, and again the night after; and so for ten nights, a flame each night.’ Technologically primitive Surrey suburbanites were zapped by future war weaponry; it was a horribly unequal contest. Roaming bands of survivors, heads bandaged, took to the hills; the defeated military attempted guerrilla raids from their shelters on the North Downs. Religion was no consolation. Fundamentalist clergy wandered the back roads and river paths between Staines and Richmond, calling for divine retribution. They died raving, in the rubble, doctrine decayed into a stream of incoherent curses. No building, however innocent its function, was safe from the Heat-Rays. ‘I saw the tops of the trees about the Oriental College burst into smoky red flame, and the tower of the little church beside it slide down into ruin. The pinnacle of the mosque had vanished.’ Woking, heathland bastion of English values, had a mosque. But the alien invaders, who had travelled 140,000,000 miles with mayhem in mind, had no interest in cultural niceties. Burn, blast, batter. Convert the primitives of Ottershaw and Chertsey and Weybridge into meat. Liquidise them. Very perceptive, these foreign devils. With one glance, they understood that our soft estates were good for nothing except future golf courses, catteries, mediparcs and orbital motorways. They dug their crater at a place with easy access to the coming M25. Wells knew the geography of the perimeter, he had cycled for miles through country lanes and villages that would soon be swallowed by ribbon-development and retail landfill.

The Martians used laser technology, carpet-bombing and eco-terrorism. The Thames turned red. Vile fungi gorged themselves on rivers, dew-ponds, lakes. The redness of the plague caused by their biological weapons was Biblical. Their successors, the planners and promoters of Bluewater (‘a non-smoking environment’), are much more subtle. Blueness is celestial: the heavenly ceiling, the sparkling sea of our dreams. Blue is aspirational. Profoundly conservative. Bluewater is the measure that separates those who belong, who know the rules and the language, from the sweaty, unshaven mobs who rush the Channel Tunnel. Bluewater is the perfect name for ‘the most innovative and exciting shopping and leisure destination in Europe today’. Bluewater is where the Martians of the New Millennium have landed (the Dome business on Bugsby’s Marshes was just a rehearsal). They have learned their lesson: they don’t move out from the crater to threaten London, they let London invade them. Excursionists arriving at the chalk quarry, to the east of the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge at Dartford, just off Watling Street, find themselves in a sort of processing plant or customs post for asylum seekers. A channel port (on go-slow). Bluewater skulks in the desert like the Tunisian set for a Star Wars sequel. Humans, having negotiated the precipitous descent, are reluctant to get out of their vehicles.

I had been involved for some time in a leisurely walk around the acoustic footprints of London’s orbital motorway, the M25. Something had to be done to exorcise the fetid miasma of the Millennium Dome on the Greenwich peninsula. The Dome wasn’t a black hole – even though it was costing us £240,000 a month to keep it empty – it was more of a hole in the head, a throbbing non-presence. It had never really been there, and its special status, Banquo’s ghost at the New Labour feast, was a confidence trick that had lost its ability to amuse. I couldn’t cross the Thames (pedestrians aren’t allowed on the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge) until I had checked out the Bluewater quarry. No advance was possible until my retail credentials were okayed by the mall bandits.

Pausing, in wonder, on the edge of the pit, I saw the weird beauty of this excavation. Virtual water, glass fountains, had replaced the tired Kentish shore as a place of pilgrimage. Bluewater is the new Margate. The sickly London child Samuel Palmer was sent to Thanet to convalesce; sea-bathing and sermons. T.S. Eliot nursed his soul-sickness at the Albermarle Hotel in Cliftonville. Such indulgences have been suspended: now perfectly healthy urbanites, pricked by subliminally induced desires, descend on Junction 2 of the M25. They follow the yellow signs to Bluewater. No need for further explanation, the name is enough. A retail paradise. No hassle. City of glass in a kaolin bowl. But the effect of this Martian pod cluster, this ecumenical Disneyland of tinsel-Gaudí, spikes and spires, is enervating. You arrive in rude health, buzzing with energy; a few minutes trawling the overheated malls, losing all sense of direction, overwhelmed by an excess of consumer opportunity (choice/no choice), will bring you to your knees. Or to one of the many off-mall pit stops. The headache kicks in: which coffee to choose from a list of twenty or thirty? (They all taste the same.)

Bluewater is the contrary of the sanatorium in The Magic Mountain. Instead of a high place in which interestingly tubercular eccentrics rehash the great European themes, here is a hole in the ground in which ordinary, unsuspecting citizens crack up, develop the downmarket equivalent of Yuppie flu. They wander the levels, under the soft cosh of muzak, feeling the life-force drain. These are the Retail Undead.

I’m not about to take any chances. I need back-up. The film essayist Chris Petit, a long-time stockpiler of business park and off-highway imagery, is persuaded from his bunker by the notion of a run to Bluewater. I get a ride down my favourite road, the A13, a spin over the suspension bridge in the Merc with blue-tinted windows. The world looks better that way, clouds acquire definition. Supporting cables, like mad eyelashes, blink against the climbing sun.

Bluewater has parking space for 13,000 cars. Coming into London on a weekend afternoon, between Junctions 4 and 2 of the M25, you know that this isn’t enough. The motorway is clogged, costive. Bluewater has no public parking space. Spend or move on. Pedestrians will never make the descent. They are treated like Morlocks. Any unwelcome incursion will show up on a state-of-the-art security system that cost £1.6 million. There are 350 CCTV cameras watching you wherever you go. Silent, deadly, they vampirise your essence. Miles of fibre-optic cable. Touch-screen control. Walls of 28” and 38” monitors. Follow the winding road down into the quarry and you’re in the movie. The release print is CinemaScope, but that’s an illusion, a drive-in fantasy; the true spectacle is the drifting wall of monitors, drugged shoppers leaving ectoplasmic contrails. The Bluewater complex is linked to the Dartford Interchange, the bridge, the tunnel; 200 cameras pour images onto digital tape that allows 31 days of continuous recording. Lift a Kodak Instamatic, a Sony DV, and the uniforms will pounce. No souvenir snapshots from this carpark. The movie belongs to Bluewater™. Leisure-terror, that’s what frightens them. You might walk away with a Polaroid of the fountain, a revolving door, the markings in the carpark. (Empty bay reserved for sponsors, politicians, developers, quango vermin.)

Bluewater is what is known as a ‘carpark-led’ project; most of the quarry floor is parking space, the strange retro-futurist construction (by a firm of architects called Benoy) is tacked on, a desert camp. Taliban chic: a very expensive (£370 million) hideaway in a chalk bunker. Temporary permanence. The shopping city shares this distinguishing characteristic with Lord Rogers’s Millennium Dome. To gel with restless M25 consciousness, Bluewater has been designed to feel like a one-night stopover, an oasis for migrants. The huge tents that once sheltered London’s smallpox cases on Temple Hill in Dartford are the inspiration for this collision of ribbed domes and curved windows. The American architectural consultant Eric Kuhne, invited to talk the site up, spoke of a ‘new kind of city’, a ‘resort’.

A form of petrol-guzzling tourism has evolved: Bluewater is a Ballardian resort (Vermilion Sands), shopping is secondary, punters come here to be part of the spectacle. The North Kent quarry is an unanchored destination: nobody is quite sure where it is. It’s never in the same place twice. The surrounding road systems are so complex. FOLLOW THE SIGN FOR CANTERBURY. Trippers can’t work out which side of the Thames they’re on. They arrive exhausted. They depart half-dead. They’ve seen the carpark. Too weary to walk far, they stumble into the ‘leisure village’ with its artificial day-for-night lighting. The place is a gigantic upgrade of Margate’s Dreamland arcade: glittery cargo behind glass, get-lucky trash you don’t want but try to win, fast food. Bluewater combines slot-machine avenues with funfair rides: escalators, lifts, cinemas, indoor jungles, pools, boating lakes, climbing walls and even, yes, cycle hire and a ‘discovery trail’. Your ‘hosts’ (welcome, campers) are trained in sign language. There are braille maps and personal guides for the visually impaired.

From above, Bluewater looks fine: sunlight glinting off pastiched oast houses. Petit doesn’t risk a smile, he uncreases his Jesuitical frown. There is purpose to his expedition, he wants to buy a pair of boxer shorts; but this is no simple commercial transaction, he has roamed half the country, from Cribbs Causeway, outside Bristol, to Asda, Eastbourne. To Lakeside, Thurrock. No joy. The man is a perfectionist. One day, he believes, he will discover the M&S grail: right weight, style, fit. The Look. The correct gear for the proverbial road accident: no shameful moment on the trolley, if he finds himself taken to the Darent Valley Hospital.

At first, Bluewater provokes such impulses: the transit point becomes a destination. Folkestone, Dover. The same grid of cars. The same concern about getting into the right stream. White cliffs – with visible evidence of wartime activity, tunnels, huts, gun emplacements. Security (discreet but firm). The dizzy sense of not being where you are; exhausted from travel and anticipating more of the same. Customs paranoia. Worries about having left your passport, tickets, green forms, in the kitchen drawer. By instinct, we set off in search of duty-frees. It’s not England and it’s not France; it’s more like the US without the genetically modified mall addicts, the mutated burger herds. We don’t do things on that scale yet. Bluewater excursionists are not regarded as urban terrorists if they don’t buy buy buy. Thank god. Because nobody has the stamina to shop, to make a decision.

You meet trembling humans who have lost their cars: green zone or blue? The Heathrow experience, jet-lagged, combing the ranks, struggling with heavy bags: which terminal was it, which floor? Tilbury, the old port for London, with its many platforms and shuttle of trains, has died; it’s an echoing ghost. Bluewater (no access by river) has 60 buses per hour, 130 trains per day, five taxi ranks and colour-coded carparks without number.

The design is stolen from Victorian asylums, from Joyce Green Hospital on the Dartford Marshes: a broad V, within a box (or Rubik’s Cube). The three barbicans that command the points of the V are House of Fraser, John Lewis, Marks & Spencer. There is an upper and a lower mall. The temperature is unnatural; so temperate that it drives you mad. You can’t sweat. You’re blow-dried. You can’t breathe. Air is recycled as in an airliner. You’re supposed to make those air-terminal, duty-free, impulse purchases that you come to regret: shirts that never leave the bag, bottles of cherries in brandy, lighters for those who don’t smoke. Airport consumption is reflex superstition: buy and live.

The toilets are too clean for England and they’re open; our cities have long since dispensed with such libertarian frivolities, converting every pissy trench into a wine bar or body-tanning facility. Bluewater is the only safe way to visit America, it’s the post-11 September destination of choice. Heathrow without the hassle. Then take your pick of Santa Fe (‘South-Western American restaurant and Cocktail Bar . . . authentic and exciting’), Ed’s (‘Authentic 50s American diner’), Tootsies (‘Authentic American family restaurant in a stylish setting’). Plus: McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and the multiplex with blockbuster buckets of popcorn and hogsheads of energy-boosting drinks. These days only the fake is truly authentic.

Rachel Lichtenstein, with whom I wrote Rodinsky’s Room, was dragged here to choose a wedding dress. She lived in Hackney, her mother in Southend: Bluewater was the obvious rendezvous. Twenty minutes in the malls and the ceremony was about to be called off, while Rachel fled to a house of study in the desert. A life of abstinence and prayer. Bluewater’s anodyne aquarium walkways provoke many such dramas. The Kenneth Baker anthology of uplifting poems, in relief on every wall, incubates rage. I was ready to tear out the tablets with my fingernails and smash them down on the heads of inoffensive mall-grazers.

A Tate Modern gallery of male underwear fails to excite Petit; a mournful shrug and he’s away through the revolving doors. It’s a great cultural event, melancholy as Wim Wenders, watching Petit work a retail outlet. Shopper as aesthete. He tracks, he drifts; he won’t stoop to examine a label or a price tag. The nostrils flare. The stern eyebrows twitch. Some hideous vulgarity, in terms of colour or texture, has been enacted. Behind this mask of disdain, the man is supremely alert, sunk in a trance of mesmeric concentration. Indifference is the ultimate accolade. Bluewater fails, Bluewater must be consigned – like some wretched film or novel – to silence, scorn: the heart-rending sigh of a man who has yet again reached out and grasped disappointment. A handful of ash. Petit quits the quarry like a vampire-hunter promised wolves and fly-eating maniacs, then fobbed off with a drip of born-again vegans.

The displays of underwear, boots, lipstick – kit – have a disembodied sexuality. Consumer fetishism as high art isn’t a perverse reading. The ‘Dalí Universe’ at London’s decommissioned County Hall is conducting a phone poll (call: 0901 151 0133) to decide on the best site for a ‘sculpture based on a Dalí painting’. Should Profile of Time be exhibited at Hampton Court Palace, in Kensington Gardens, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew – or at Bluewater? No contest. Bluewater, the posthumous dream of Walter Benjamin, is the clear favourite. The Dalí painting from which the sculpture has been concocted was first shown in 1931. Title? The Persistence of Memory. Memory is the missing ingredient on the M25’s orbital circuit: Victorian asylums given over to Crest Homes, to Laing and Barratt. Hospital records burning in builders’ skips. Chalk quarries, once worked by a company in which Daniel Defoe had an interest, converted to retail parks (Thurrock, Lakeside). If we want to remember what is ahead of us, to stumble backwards into the future, we’d better start reading the prophecies of 19th-century science fiction as hot news.