Explaining the Weird Institution That Is the British High Street
British Studies

Explaining the Weird Institution That Is the British High Street

This Christmas, let's remember why Fat Face, WHSmiths and Argos still exist.
December 2, 2016, 11:07am

Illustration by Dan Evans

Culturally, the United Kingdom is a confusing place. It's like America, but with less shouting and more antique shows; like mainland Europe, but with slightly better clothes and worse coffee. Dotted around our lumpen grey rock are an assortment of weird and wonderful celebrities and phenomena – the flag bearers and rituals of our Isles. To foreign eyes they might appear confusing – inexplicable, even – so with that in mind, these seminars intend to elucidate who they are, and why. Welcome to British Studies. Lesson 4: the British High Street.

You have no idea what time it is. You left the house at about 11AM, but that feels like a lifetime ago. You are now sat on a cold faux-marble bench, looking at a Millie's Cookies. The air smells of plastic and sugar, you look down at your hands. They are purple, with tight white streaks burnt across them where you've been holding bags. You can see a Pizza Express from here, you're going to end up buying garlic dough balls and a Sloppy Giuseppe, aren't you? This realisation makes your heart sink. When will this end. Will this ever end? You check your watch, it's 11:35.


This scene, this dystopia, is a chapter from the British High Street. A grey, rain-lashed world of Costa Coffees, fag butts and heated arguments. That's not to get all BBC Three standup comic "isn't shopping with your girlfriend a bloody nightmare?" but the muddy cobbles of pedestrianised city centres play a large role in British society. From your first trips "going into town" to buy chips after school, to the hours spent in a shop trying to upgrade a phone contract, the high street is integral to our existence. And until the internet obliterates it completely, this world of Clinton's cards and pigeons is an environment most of us have to encounter at least every Christmas.

An understanding of the British High Street is crucial to understanding Britain. So, to begin your initiation, here is a blow by blow beginners guide to the ten most important retail hellholes on the British Isles.



For those of us who don't dress like old bits of flannel, Fat Face – which now has 209 stores – sort of crept up on us. The idea behind the shop is apparently to sell outdoorsy "lifestyle clothing" to really good looking blonde people who like extreme sports. The reality is, of course, that the people who wear Fat Face don't actually go skiing or paragliding. They are instead clothes to wear while you wander round a dilapidated costal town. Clothes to wear while you think about booking a walking holiday in the Peak District. Clothes for people who actually enjoy watching the Olympic sailing on TV, clothes for people who keep a few bottles of Bombardier in the house for the weekend, clothes for people with dogs called Pippa. And the clothes themselves? Basically loads of fleeces that look like Shrek's waistcoat.


Source: Geograph.org

WHSmith is a very odd place. It basically feels like a newsagents that one day started selling board-games, scarecrows, scented gel pens and Paddy McGuinness live DVDs which, much to the surprise of the proprietors, was a combination that caught the British public's imagination. "Smiths" trades in basically everything – from 3D puzzles to bottles of Cherry Coke – yet simultaneously nothing you'd actually want. It looks like an abandoned school gymnasium post-nuclear fallout. In fact, the scuffed linoleum and stained carpets of every store even have their own Twitter account.

WHSmith feels like it should be a pound store – somewhere shit, but cheap – except everything is also strangely expensive, the sort of place you end up spending £2.50 on a bottle of water. The staff, who are forced to wear horrible short sleeved school shirts, spend their long days wrestling with the organisation of a store that stocks both scientific calculators and paprika flavour Walker's Max crisps.


The fact is it's 2016. The age of the internet. A shop which ostensibly sells chewing gum and Maeve Binchy books does not need 1,351 branches up and down the country.


Source: geograph.org.uk

On the surface, Primark is a value clothes store. In reality, it is so much more than that. If any shop is going to test your physical and mental limits, it will be Primark. If any shop is going to make you take your shoes off to give your feet a breather, it will be Primark. If any shop is going to make you thrust a cheap pair of Minions pyjamas down the throat of another human being, it will be Primark.

Each branch of Primark is 8000 floors high, and each of those floors stretches on round infinite corners like an air-conditioned Escher drawing. On every floor there are 18,000 different types of cute animal onesies, 1200 variations of plastic aviators, and rows of XXL T-shirts featuring slogans like "Gym hair, don't care!" or, inexplicably, "New York. Manhattan. Brooklyn."

That said, good for cheap underwear.



Ah, John Lewis. At last, a touch of class. You've made it now, my boy. Pull up a chair, slide into something more comfortable – perhaps these Barbour loafers? – and let's put some Debussy on the Bose dock.

John Lewis – best known for making sadsack, hyper-sincere adverts in which a girl's dead dog flies to the moon or something – are in fact the retail outlet of choice for the discerning dad. Not just any dad of course. Not your dad, your dad is still looking at big bottles of deicer in Halfords. John Lewis is for the sort of dad who owns every James Bond film on blu-ray. The sort of dad who has a massive waterproof watch even though he lives in Cheltenham. The sort of dad who spends upwards of £600 on a Christmas present. For himself.


It's a sort of big department store for middle class people who watch Call the Midwife to buy each other champagne flutes and Cath Kidston phone cases. They also have a wedding gift list service, which one day you will be forced to use and you'll leave it too late, and all the other wedding guests will have snapped up the cheap stuff and you'll end up having to spend £80 on a big candle.



Visiting Marks & Spencer – real name Marks and Sparks – is like visiting an elderly relative. Their clothes are a bit weird – loads of rugby shirts that you could never play rugby in, baggy chinos and maxi skirts – and their kitchen is really cold and funny-smelling, but at the end of the day they mean well. They always put a good spread on, lots of nice mini-quiches look, and their socks are reliable, you know? Nothing flashy, but sturdy, because a lot of these socks with silly designs, the elastic falls apart, you know? Just like the sound of your grandmother's voice, there's nothing more calming than the sound of a pensioner slowly clinking through rows of coat-hangers on metal railings.



You may know Sports Direct from such scandals as "Is This Literally a Sweatshop?" and "Mike Ashley's Looking Into It…Alright?" but there's actually a lot more to this polyester emporium than a few employment tribunals. In fact, Sports Direct is so much more than a sports shop. Of course, the athletic among you will be able to pop in and pick up a pair of shin pads or some lights for you bicycle, but even if you're not particularly sporty, this is still the best place to buy Nike hoodies and Spiderman gloves and massive fuck-off Sports Direct mugs. And, if you're just bored you can pluck a basketball from a big bucket of them and start bouncing it really loud before a member of staff comes over and asks you how old you are.



Argos, the great blue god, looked upon other shops and Argos was displeased with what it saw. Argos said unto itself, "No, we can do better. We can making shopping a better experience. Shops, with their shelves and visible products you can actually pick up, are making the joy of retail cumbersome and unnecessarily drawn-out. There must be a more pleasurable and convenient way of shopping."

After some time, Argos came upon an idea: "And lo the people shall have to gather round a series of massive, laminated, 8000 page books full of everything ever made and from here they shall have to get a reference code in tiny print which they will then have punch into a machine to see if the item is in stock and if it is in stock they will then have to order it from the machine and receive a printed ticket which they will then have to sit with for 15 minutes while a sixth-former doing Christmas shifts in the stockroom looks for an ironing board."


Argos sat back, pleased to have conceived of a mode of shopping that allowed customers to browse a vast database of products before selecting the one they want and ordering it. Argos's mates considered telling him about the internet, but thought better of it.


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