Culture

I Went to BHS the Day it Closed Down and Saw the Corpse of the British High Street

After 88 years, the department store chain has shut down for good. But, apart from 'Sir Philip Green loves yachts', what can we learn from its demise?

by Lucy Hancock
30 August 2016, 2:35pm

All photos by Melissa Salter

Philip Green just bought a new yacht, the Lionheart, for £100m. You can imagine him puffing his way along the marina, a single bead of sweat trickling down the ledge of flesh on the back of his head, as he follows the pinch of his wife's white denim rear towards the boarding ramp. Yes, there's Sir Phil, stepping aboard his new purchase, his shitzu yapping nervously at his wife's cork heels as two strained smiles of sweat emerge on the chest of his lilac polo shirt. Back home regulators continue to ask questions about the £400m he carefully extracted from the pensions of his former employees, before he sold BHS to a failed businessman for a quid. Perhaps, in that tropical heat, he's perspiring even more than normal.

Meanwhile in Lewisham, a second contender for the sweatiest tits of all time has materialised, because it's 31 degrees, and the hottest day of the summer. I have decided to spend this day witnessing the end of BHS. Today its automatic doors will touch together for the very last time after 88 years of trade.

I'm here for one last dance on the deck before the water bursts through the ship's portholes and we say goodbye forever. So, after a quick and crumbly muffin break at Muffin Break in Lewisham shopping centre, I am ready to say my goodbyes.

It goes without saying the mood on the ground is pretty sombre. The staff wearily push linty piles of goods along the floor, and dismantle display cases, dutifully turning up for a job that won't exist in the morning.

Nothing is a greater indication of what will be left behind in the apocalypse as a shop right before it is dissolved. When the earth is dust and the locusts have stripped the land, a mob of bubonic looters will charge desperately through the town, their swivelling, bloodshot eyes scanning for loot. All cracked ribs and torn knees, they will burst through the entrance of BHS and stop, gasping for breath, by this large selection of duck-and cat-shaped doorstops. They will pause, they will shrug and move on through piles of uncased DVDs, suspender belts, dirty wedding shoes and candy-stripe toe socks.

In the middle of this apocalypse, they might bump into me, bewilderedly pondering which utility cargo cutoffs best offset a top I have not yet noticed you can see my areolae through.

In this sartorial museum of curiosity, there are plenty of surprises. What many of the items lack in basic utility they make up for in detail. I chance upon a top with a necklace sewn onto the neckline, and trousers with no zips. In these tricky times, BHS had apparently contracted a case of budget T-shirt slogan Tourette's, where for the bargain price of £12, I could become a graduate of the "Royal College, Paradise, Original, 68".

I spot a flurry of activity around a stand of skintight floral leggings. Generally, I avoid clothes that showcase the precise outline of my vulva, but I keep with the spirit of the day and pour my curves into a pair. I feel strangely alive. Normally self-conscious about the shape of my thighs, there is something quite thrilling about letting lycra roses dance freely across them.

I put a purple Minion on my head and continue shopping.

One lady who notices my newfound ebullience is Ellen, a septuagenarian customer. She has plenty of kinds words about my leggings, but she doesn't mince her words on Phillip Green. "I think he should be put down for what he's done," she says, gravely.

Bonding over our mutual feelings on Sir Philip, Ellen tells me she's gutted BHS is closing, mainly because she reckons M&S is a rip-off and nobody seems to make clothes for older ladies anymore. "I'll probably miss the café most," she says. "They didn't half do nice cakes. At my age you don't need too many clothes but I've got a couple of tops here and they wash well."

I ask a few passers-by and a few members of staff what they think of the garms and the answers are unanimously negative. "I've worked here for a over a year and I've never bought anything" says one staff member. "The clothes are shit," says another shopper with a basket full of XXXL "soft touch" men's T-shirts.

I spot Charlotte Crosby's botty video at the DVD graveyard and I immediately snap it up. It is there I meet Patrick rifling through coffins full of cases. I catch him fingering a copy of The Back Up Plan, a straight-to-DVD gigglefest in which Jennifer Lopez finds love after artificial insemination. I ask him if he's going to miss BHS. "Not really. I come in here looking for DVDs sometimes, but they're not even cheap."

It's clear that the high street we once knew is changing. Mary Portas can't save the high street we remember because it's made out of the past. Both Ellen and I fondly remember a time when you'd take your perilous tray and have a nice cup of coffee and a piece of carrot cake. In this bygone time, you might sit and consider whether you might actually want to buy a pair of £22 trousers that don't have a zip.

It's easy to be kneejerk nostalgic about stuff closing down. But while we can't build the future of the British retail economy around Ellen's annual cardigan splurge, we can try not strip the corpse of the British high street of its assets and raise it to the ground.

So despite the very real possibility of contracting thrush, I feel it's important I purchase my leggings as a memento of this Great British retail empire. Queuing at the tills, nobody seems particularly triumphant with the items they'd siphoned from this shop's deathbed. We line up in respectful silence, all hope abandoned. I hand over my £6 and walk towards the light.

The last of the day's rays are shining on Lewisham. I step into the sunshine and dab the beads of perspiration from my top lip with my Muffin Break napkin. Across the street, a hearse pulls up.

As I walk past a gang of staff nervously taking their final fag break, I wonder what Phillip Green is up to right now. If by now he's sailing off into the horizon, the sun beating down on his hazelnut head. I wonder when he looks out to sea, wind whipping through his oily tendrils, he's picturing a woman forlornly gathering up a pile of stained size 3 wedding shoes. We can only hope, as watches thick smoke from his torched empire billow on the horizon, he's sweating too.

@lucyhancock

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