Shopping Habits of the Camiroi
It's the first of May and we're in Chester for yet another Plokta weekend. Mike and I are discussing what do when Alison and Steven and Marianne eventually turn up from wherever it is they've got to. The sun is shining, the weather forecast is good and spring is in the air. Just the day for doing something athletic like walking the Sandstone Trail or, more to the point, sitting outside some local pub in the clean country air, drinking beer and watching other people walk the Sandstone Trail. Mike fires up the Internet and discovers that there's a computer fair in Trafford Park, only 45 minutes away. That sounds like a much better suggestion. But how to sell it to the others? Giulia asks, "Is that anywhere near that new super shopping centre? Why don't we go there instead and spend the day shopping till we drop?" Well, it is near the Trafford Centre. Just round the corner in fact. We could form two parties, one could go straight to the Trafford Centre and Mike and I could go to the computer fair and then join them later. Sounds like a plan.
Much later, Alison and her horde appear. "A computer fair? You sad, sad bunch of computer geeks. You ought to be out enjoying the sun!" "So you don't want to come, then?" "Of course I'm coming!
Mike Steven, what's your name? Drive Sue, Giulia and Marianne to the Trafford Centre, we'll join you later." And so it came to pass.
It's a long time since I last went to a computer fair. There used to be extravaganzas like the Computer Shopper Show, which filled massive halls with hundreds of little stalls all selling marvellous bits of computer widgetry. They were great fun. I'd spend a day walking up and down the aisles, looking, buying, trying to convince salesmen that they should let me play with their system by being selective with the truth about my job. Unfortunately, they seem to have died out in recent years, the shows that is, not the salesmen. Now that I have a job which does actually demand keeping up with the state of the art, I occasionally go to things like the Windows Show and they are dull, dull, dull. Mostly dominated by Microsoft with a few other vendors doing demos and less than a quarter the size of the old days. The last one I went to I allowed half a day for and gave up after an hour, bored out of my tiny mind. Then there are a few computer fairs around Reading, but they tend to be small, usually held in an indoor basketball court or something, and mainly exist to flog crap, virus-infested shareware at ridiculous prices. I didn't really expect very much.
What with the heavy traffic heading for the football, we eventually got to Trafford Park around two, with the fair closing at three. The unprepossessing building was that typically Mancunian compromise, a combination sports centre and night-club in the middle of an industrial estate. We paid our entrance fee and entered a dark and gloomy hall that seemed to be... well, it actually reminded me of the Victoria Bazaar in Calcutta. Larger than your average Worldcon dealers' room with hundreds of trestle tables all selling a chaotic mixture of hardware, software, firmware, bioware, tableware.... From a thousand screens flickered a thousand different computer games, speakers boomed out game theme tunes, demos of music software and simulated explosions interspersed with the traditional cries of vendors "who'll buy my fresh memory, lovely fresh RAM! Getcha monitors here, only 99 quid! Dirty CDROMs! Half-price lesbian lust CD with every 128-bit AGP 3D graphics card!" Around the tables thronged a vast crowd of teenagers, petty criminals and saddo geeks like ourselves. It was a real blast from the past. I could have spent my budget ten times over. Every table we passed had something tempting. Devices for picking up dropped screws from inaccessible places, adapters for obscure cables that just might come in useful some day, things to make Nintendo games run on PCs and vice versa.... I narrowly resisted getting a new mother-board and a case and a dozen other things, but did end up with the complete National Geographic on CDROM at a little over half the usual price. We tore ourselves away only after half the dealers had already packed up and left.
In a state of post-consumer shock, we drove to the Trafford Centre where we met up with the rest of the party by the simple expedient of calling them up on the mobile phone. "Where the hell are you? We've been waiting here for twenty minutes!" "We're just leaving Boots..." "You were in there twenty minutes ago, the last time you phoned!" "Well, we've only just got to the exit... it was Alison's fault." This is after all the shopping paradise famed in the papers as 'The Mall That Ate Manchester.' It was... different. I've seen shopping malls before, in the UK, in Australia and the USA and this wasn't like any of them. Well, the shops were the same. They're the same everywhere, after all. It was clean and well laid out, which is rare in Britain, but not unknown. What was a surprise was the sheer over-the-top d*cor. As Alison called it, Post-Ironic. Not over-ornate because you're making a statement, but because you don't have any taste and that's what you like and you don't care who the hell knows it. It wasn't just the Egyptian temple toilets (available in at least 8 different sexes, in a nod to Raphael Carter) or the ocean liner food-court cum blokes' crèche with its giant TV screen showing continuous satellite coverage of the football, not to mention enough lifeboats to rescue everybody on the Titanic. It was just the sheer overwhelming weight of glass and marble and gilt and hand-painted frescos interspersed with portraits of famous Mancunians and fountains and more gilt and Corinthian columns with gilt capitals and statues and animatronic pythons.
Of course, I didn't buy anything. We walked the length of the mall from end to end, and back again on the next floor up. There were gadget shops and art shops and camera shops and food shops selling exotic delicacies, not mention great boring expanses of clothes shops and candle shops and travel agents and the like. There wasn't a single thing that did anything more than vaguely tickle my interest. The vast advertising budgets of a thousand international corporations broke like waves against a sea-wall of indifference and ebbed away defeated. You would have thought that this cathedral of consumerism would have left us gasping and wandering out with arms full of packages which we only dimly remembered buying. But no. 10 out of 10 for over the top ostentation and packaging, 0 out 10 for successful sales. Maybe one of these days they'll come up with a shopping mall like the computer fair, that actually makes you want to buy things. And then I'll have to be careful to leave my credit cards at home.