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London Babylon

The Sheer, Unrelenting Horror of a First Trip to Westfield

Despite the fact it has the World's Biggest John Lewis going for it, until now I've completely denied its existence to myself.

by Michael Smith
21 May 2015, 2:29pm

"The excitement of embarking on a journey carried my feet forward, downhill along this win5ding street ownhill along this£ributary of the Thames s, as I anticipated gliding over the grand old river with txhe o ow% b"

And with that, my computer finally gave up and went completely haywire: the words jumbled themselves up as I typed them and sentences randomly deleted themselves, the new story I was writing self-destructing before my eyes. More catastrophically, this Mac was my umbilical chord to the outside world, my way of finding jobs and writing them up, and now it was totally useless.

It couldn't wait. I'd have to take it to the nearest Apple Store, which was in the Westfield shopping mall at Stratford, a place I had so far managed to completely deny the existence of, even though it had the World's Biggest John Lewis, which was frequently visible on the horizon of the Hackney skyline, and probably from space. I shuddered at the thought, and got on the bus.

A short while later, the bus' android voice announced we'd reached Stratford Station, and the shops. A scrum ensued as every single person on the bus rushed to the exit en masse. I squeezed out into the strains of a Peruvian panpipe band playing along to an amped-up Bontempi drum track, giving East London's busiest transport hub a mystic Eldorado feel, topped up with mischievous school kids doing piss-take tribal dancing to the ambient pampas pipes.

On the elevator that took everybody up to the enormous bridge that led to the shopping mall, a huge moving billboard display washed us all with advertising: a new smartphone from Microsoft, "YOUR OWN PERSONAL ASSET"; a bionic arm making cocktails, accompanied by the slogan "THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING", which I didn't understand at all; something called Doddle telling us to "NEED IT, WANT IT, COLLECT IT"; and finally, an advert for ebola. The two modes of manipulation, prodding at the desire and the fear coiled in the back of the reptile brain, bathing us all in neon washes of aquamarine and magenta.

One of the things that instantly struck me about this place was the people – there were just so many of them: more people than I'd seen all week, more people than most of our ancestors would have seen in entire lifetimes. The four corners of the world had come to this citadel of late capitalism: fey youths who looked like they'd been dressed on Louis Walsh's boy band production line; waddling Somali nanas; a Bengali granddad with a beard dyed shocking orange; a Japanese guy with a high-up ponytail and white buttoned-up shirt; a bald Spaniard with a bullring through his nose doing something rude on his candy-pink iPhone; a small Indian man carrying his toy dog through this jumble of humanity. I felt like I was having some biblical, Cecil B De Mille vision, swept along with this horde that was busy building the base of this pyramid, slaves flocking to their bondage, freely choosing to sign up and pay for it in monthly instalments.

Westfield loomed at the end of the bridge like the Ziggurat in ancient Babylon, ringed by a moat that was the flow of transport infrastructure – tube lines, overground trains, sliproads for double deckers. It glistened, it sparkled, lit up like a well-wrapped gift; competing towers jostled for your eye behind the citadel walls: the green letters "M&S" bigger than the Victorian house I live in, a casino, a 20-storey Holiday Inn – an actual hotel inside a shopping centre. People took photos of it on their smartphones as we approached; it was monstrous, a marvel; I was both excited and a little bit scared.

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Once inside, fairy lights shimmered on a shop called "Celeb Boutique"; a full moon glowed dreamily on the O2 shop's massive plasma display; the centrepiece of the Samsung store was a three-piece sofa around the biggest flatscreen telly I've ever seen, while pumping house music made the surfaces and the floor reverberate like the nightclubs of my memories. It could have been two in the morning, or two in the afternoon, any season, any day of the week. An overlit, hermetically sealed domain that could be anywhere – that could have been built on the surface of Moon for all anyone knew. Mars will probably have a Westfield by 2050, the crossroads and the focus of life for that first generation of new world pioneers.

I reached The Apple Store, a big metallic box full of tablets on wooden desks. The boy in the daft glasses had no idea what was wrong with my computer. The Mac ninjas were all booked up today. The boy told me I had to email them to book an appointment online. "But my computer's broke. That's why I came here on foot," I growled. He hastily booked me an appointment for a fortnight's time. His helpful advice was I was running a very old programme (six years old), but I could buy a new one off him now that might fix the problem (£89). After resisting the urge to hurl the kid into one of the huge hi-definition screens showing swirling hyperreal vomit, I lobbed the useless, antiquated, soiled-white machine back over my shoulder and scuttled off down the theatrical curving swoop of the mall's central arcade, a cross between Regent Street and the X-Factor set, where inescapable corporate RnB piped too loudly and all the teenagers' directional haircuts looked CGI'd.

On the escalator, I noticed the blank look on women of a certain age's faces, the blank look on couples of a certain age's faces, conversation-less, alone together. A guy with ripped abs and a low V-neck T-shirt going up the escalator managed to hold and eat a Big Mac and fries simultaneously with one hand; all that seemed to matter was optimising this circulation and consumption.

Beyond the World Food Court I saw my escape: doors to an open air avenue with manicured Telly Tubby hedgerows. Next to one wooden-shrubbed island someone had thrown a redundant Nike shoebox on the floor, only five feet away from a recycling bin with loads of spent cigarettes stubbed out on top of it. On a bench below speakers that continued to pipe out the RnB al fresco, occasionally interrupted mid-song by a sexy voice that reminded us we were on CCTV for our own benefit, a kid wearing an OBEY sweatshirt smoked Marlboro Lights. OBEY's a fascinating conundrum of a brand: it draws attention to the tyranny of late capitalism, to the con it's embedded in, the con it propagates, subversive and complicit at the same time, like hip-hop, like Dr Martens – only, OBEY makes the sleight of hand explicit, makes the sleight of hand the point, the very reason the brand is cool.

I tried to get my head round the implications of this idea, until, 'Shall I buy a pair of cream Converse Allstars?' popped into my head and derailed it, the shiny things in the windows distracting me. Which reminded me I was just as enmeshed in this subversive/complicit dynamic as everyone else, and just as compromised. It's like looking at a road accident: you try not to but you just can't tear your eyes away. It didn't look like it bothered anyone else. They seemed to enjoy being trapped in the situation, getting "ironic" photos taken by their loved ones in front of a huge film of a yacht that took up the entire wall of the Hugo Boss shop.

It started to drizzle. The useless, obsolete piece of unsustainably white Apple plastic weighed heavy in my bag and began to chafe my shoulder. Back at the bridge, I gazed across an unfamiliar take on the London skyline, the sharp end of the future poking into the present: Anish Kapoor's red crayon scribble of a sculpture messing up the Olympics, and far away on the horizon, like a spike in my anxiety, the 21st century gothic spire of The Shard. I gazed across the fantastical vista, no longer understanding this city I've called home for 20 years. It's mutating into a more virulent strain of megacity, a megacity in the image of the pumped up, kaleidoscopic, shimmering spectacle of this shopping mall, a spectacle you can circulate round and round until your heart's content, as long as you keep on spending. London suddenly struck me as some immeasurably vaster, subtler Westfield, an open air Westfield with 8 million permanent customers. I walked back towards the bus with that old empty feeling, down the over-lit escalator, wondering whether I should get those Converse when I came back with the Mac in a fortnight.

Michael Smith is a writer, filmmaker and broadcaster. He is the author of three works of fiction, The Giro Playboy, Shorty Loves Wing Wong and Unreal City.

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