Shopping malls are often compared to cathedrals and sitting in the Brunswick Centre in Scarborough on a damp autumn Saturday it is easy to see why. This is a cathedral, a cathedral of the ordinary where the mundane is celebrated and communed with. Sound echoes in the enclosed space and light spills down into the central area from the glass roof. A hum of background music provides a sense of bustle. The music has been carefully chosen, it is modern but not too modern, upbeat, but not too upbeat, designed not to be noticed. There are three floors with balconies, decorated with plastic flower arrangements on oval shelves around the edge. The flowers are red and white with trailing greenery which will never grow or be watered. The only living things here are the people who move like tiny ants over the smooth tiled surfaces. Slow stately escalators glide between floors and the bright blue lift makes its way silently upwards towards the car park while the occupants gaze out. I know that I am in Scarborough, outside this place there is the smell and the sound of the sea, a beach swept by the tide, moving air and vibrant life, but while inside it I could be anywhere in Britain. Every inch of this place is comforting, branded and familiar. It is meant to be.
The initiation process for this religion of commerce is hidden away in secret. It takes place behind the lighted frontages where plastic offerings are passed to the manicured and lipsticked priestesses behind the tills. The icons which are given in exchange for them are taken away by the acolytes in bags marked with the name of their chosen god. Here in Scarborough we worship cut price gods. The box shaped temples which line the balconies bear signs dedicated to them. These signs are carefully illuminated and reflective, siren signs to lure us in with easily recognisable symbols and typefaces. Evans, JD Sports, Dorothy Perkins, Clintons, Debenhams, Argos. The shoe shop Jonathan James has the word sale visible no less than seventeen times in its two windows, written in large white capital letters on a fluorescent orange background. Absolutely all sale shoes less than five pounds. We pay homage where we can and look on, faintly disappointed, when we can’t. Major deities like Versace, Chanel or Christian Lacroix are not worshipped here. They require pilgrimages and offerings too rich for our purse.
People talk a lot about retail therapy and sometimes describe themselves as shopaholics but I can’t see much joy on any of the faces inside here. There are few smiles among the people going up and down the escalators and wandering across the tiled floor. Maybe looking for your next fix is not as much fun as they claim. Nobody is rushing. It is a place deliberately designed for wandering and wondering. There are no clocks visible. People sit with coffee or ice cream, silent with their own thoughts. It’s what a cathedral is for. A girl kisses her boyfriend. He kisses her back, sharply, aggressively, and she recoils to snatch another bite of her sandwich. A bald headed man with a jaw worthy of Desperate Dan sits on the edge of the footplate of a little green and white bin lorry whose large eyes and flashing indicators wait to lure children in. He glares out while the lorry chatters. “Hello, what’s your name?” A young teenage boy with blond hair has run ahead down the escalator. He watches his ten pence piece progress along the handrail intent on catching it when it rolls off. “Oh man, be careful!” Three people lean against the highest balcony looking down into the central space. There is a mild excitement in their eyes as they take a last look at the hallowed ground before they retreat to find their car. A little girl with a bright pink ice cream leans back and stares upwards at the glass roof. She is staring in delight at the light and space above her while her dad reads his newspaper. Someone should take her into York Minster and show her the kind of space that people could create when they really felt like worshipping something. I think she would like it.