Getting like a ghost town

"Then Sammy said if your Majesty hadn't spoken I'd have thought it was the horse! Top hole, what, Mary? Oh I say, I didn't mean, er.."
“Then Sammy said if your Majesty hadn’t spoken I’d have thought it was the horse! Top hole, what, Mary? Oh I say, I didn’t mean, er..”

According to the BBC the number of High Street shops is falling. Again. Which is odd, because a few years ago the very earnest brand spanking new Prime Minister, David Cameron, thought he’d solved all of that by getting the rising media star Mary Portas to go and write a report on how to save if not the universe, then at least the heart of places like Trowbridge and Ipswich.

As someone who grew up in Trowbridge could have told you, what’s wrong with Trowbridge is easy to see. People don’t live in the centre, so at 5:30 its dead. The police force has been cut and what police there are drive around in cars, so after 5:30 you’re pretty much on your own. Not that the police there were ever much good in the first place. When I lived in the town there was a spate of garden gnome thefts. Miraculously almost all of the gnomes were found by the police but only because they were lined up on the police station wall one morning. And the pubs were crap. The Lamb wasn’t, because it had the Village Pump music gigs on Mondays (yes, as in the Village Pump folk festival, which wasn’t quite as big in those days, being mostly in the old stables out the back of the Lamb) and the Rose & Crown wasn’t, because it was walking distance from school and the landlord, back in those dear dead days, didn’t mind anyone drinking in there so long as they at least pretended to be a grown-up. Everybody knew about it. Nobody threw up or got stabbed or any other nonsense.

And there’s nowhere to park. Actually, there was a huge big carpark where the cattle and sheep market used to be, which was easier to use once the council got rid of the rusted brown metal pens that people sometimes drove into and wished they hadn’t. Something which can stand up to three or four tons of bullocks pushing against it for a hundred years didn’t have too many problems with a Ford Anglia. But the town got full, the carpark was replaced with a multi-storey and that got full as well and the shops that survived got bigger as the small shops shut their doors.

The supermarkets shut them. Something the Portas Report somehow didn’t feel it should mention. Bizzarely for a business report, it spent a lot of time saying what Mary Portas wanted, as if that was in some way relevant. Big squiggly signature. Big intro. Loads and loads of I think, I believe, I say. My challenge. My struggle.

My camp, Mary could almost have written if she’d been male, because when she wasn’t gurning on TV as a retail consultant looking straight to camera like Anne Robinson after an experimental trip to the hairdresser she was spending most of her time telling everyone who would listen how she’d just come out and still got on with her husband uber super-woman stylee, although presumably not on him.

Read it here, if you like. It’s crap.

“My review has shown me…” Wow, well thanks Mary. I somehow had the idea that all that public money you got for doing it was to show ME, but that shows how little I know what things are about.

“An increasing number of shops are falling by the wayside as they fail to meet the expectations of today’s increasingly experienced time-poor, experience-rich consumer.”

Well I never. I won’t say that the wayside metaphor is probably the most stupid cliche I’ve seen if you’re writing about a High Street, because it just is anyway. But what does the rest of it even mean? What kind of experience are we talking about? Silk ropes on the bedstead? And why two ‘experience’s in the same sentence? How were people fifty years ago poorer in their experiences? Because they didn’t have a TV show, a packet of ginger hair dye and a producer? Apart from the fact it’s vacuous inane borderline-illiterate regurgitated irrelevant crap in the first place?

“We’ve seen the closure of brands.”

Have we Mary? How do you close a brand, exactly? “There’s a wealth of knowledge which describes them.” Is there? Is that what knowledge does? “Much of what we do know is stored in professional silos.” At least I’ve seen one of those. It’s over near Wickham Market, in the grounds of the old school that the big farm took over to store their machinery. About sixty feet tall and bright silver. I think they store grain in it or something like that. As well as old copies of the Portas Report, presumably. They probably need something for the rats to nest in.

Mary Portas spent her entire non-TV career making the High Street the way it is. That could be why her report spent its first few pages saying it wasn’t about blame and we are where we are and it wasn’t really anyone’s fault if the High Street was all big crappy shops selling all the same stuff, except maybe the small shops who couldn’t afford to be there, the losers, given she’d made quite a lot of money turning it into that.

So what was Mary’s solution? £100,000, to be given to six “Portas towns.” Each, obviously. Wouldn’t want to give the impression that this was in any way a token amount that wouldn’t change anything. Why, for that sort of money you could probably get what, six, maybe even ten extra carpark spaces, provided you didn’t have to buy any land to put them on and you could just move some curbstones and paint some lines. And stick a meter in, obviously. Oh and a big sign about it all.

“What really worries me is that the big supermarkets
don’t just sell food anymore, but all manner of things
that people used to buy on the high street.” Portas Review p11 col 2.

Excuse me. Just what exactly is this crap? Why is it of even the most passing interest to me, or the government, what worries Mary Portas? Did she just get someone to type up her diary or something? “All manner of things? And there’s a capital H on High and a capital S on Street, while I’m here.

But basically, so what? Who cares? Lord Sainsbury doesn’t. There isn’t a Lord Tesco yet and if they don’t reach a bit deeper there won’t be, either. Most of the people who go to the shops don’t, so long as they think someone else should pay for their convenience, whether that’s Tesco building a big car park or Apple using child labour tucked up out of sight in China.

It’s a gimmick. The answers are obvious and nobody cares. Or rather, they say they do but if it comes to the choice of piling factory food in the back of the car or walking to the shop every day then they don’t, at all. And we can all go on pretending that car insurance and parking and congestion and pollution and children with asthma and road deaths and local council rates and every single road having yellow lines on it and places like Ipswich where if the council had any sense, given what they’re offering they’d pay you to park there, not the other way around, all of that’s convenience shopping.

There you go, Mary. Maybe you’ll be back on TV soon, to tell us all how your report’s doing. We really care what you think about things. Almost as much as you did in the Portas Review.

Let’s see anyone bothered by that. Until then, there’s probably something on TV about it. Oddly, after that stellar performance it’s not by Mary Portas this season.

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