A FEW WEEKS ago I got an email from Michael Gallagher. He’s a researcher at the University of Edinburgh with an interest in sound and geography. The link will take you to his personal blog and there’s plenty of good reading to be had there.
He kindly offered to share one of his London recordings with the London Sound Survey. It’s a serendipitous capture of some unexpected music playing over the PA at the big new Westfield shopping mall in Shepherds Bush, west London:
Michael’s written an accompanying blog post about Westfield and why Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here is an incongruous piece of music to be playing in a shopping mall. I liked the way he described the impact the mall had on him:
My reaction to the place was an odd mixture of awe, excitement and dismay that I often feel when experiencing the excesses of capitalism. I have to admit that the awe and excitement outweighed the dismay on this occasion: despite the ludicrous, hyperbolic architecture, the comic timing (it opened in late 2008 at the height of the credit crunch) and the fact that I couldn’t find a pair of jeans that would fit me, I was overwhelmed by the light, the scale, the space and the massive wall of tesselated angled mirrors outside the toilets.
In Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital the writer and his companions visit the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent during their wanderings. This inspires Sinclair to go off on a rant about the place. It’s entertaining but also has a contrived feel. Michael’s honest astonishment at the scale and opulence of Westfield is more reliable than what Sinclair has to say about Bluewater.
Sinclair starts in good humour by likening the disused chalk quarry setting of Bluewater to the ‘Wellesian pit’ that the Martian invaders had as their Woking beachhead in The War of the Worlds. Then he goes off course when describing Bluewater as ‘profoundly conservative’. There’s not much that’s conservative about the workings of modern marketing-based capitalism.
Sinclair makes a passing reference to mall-muzak. Perhaps he’s thinking of the gormless 1960s novelty pop hit The Gonk, running its endless duty-cycle in the mall setting of George Romero’s zombie film Dawn of the Dead. I’ve never heard muzak inside Bluewater any time I’ve visited. The clothes shops and a few others play chart hits and that’s about it. What’s noticeable is how the acoustics seem designed to enhance the soothing hubbub of shoppers’ voices. Sound design for retail now provides a living for some, such as Julian Treasure’s The Sound Agency.
A calming mother-scent is also circulated through the air conditioning. It’s like a clean fleshy smell mixed with the faint perfume that banknotes pick up after they’ve been inside a handbag for a while. Bluewater’s designers obviously want visitors to feel safe and happy so they’ll hang around longer and spend more money. But Sinclair seems to think everyone must feel the way he does:
Arrive in rude health, buzzing with energy, and a few minutes trawling the overheated malls, losing all sense of direction, overwhelmed by excess of consumer opportunity (choice/no choice), will bring you to your knees.
A random sample of Bluewater shoppers would likely turn up more smiling faces than you’d find along Mare Street in Sinclair’s home borough of Hackney. This is what it sounded like on a recording spree a couple of years ago:
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Shopping malls are the Great Exhibitions of our time, full of things to marvel at and desire. How long can it all last?