Intu The Abyss

I arrived in Manchester in July 2001; my first week was spent in a cheap hotel not far from work. After my first day, I headed into town and treated myself to dinner at an Italian restaurant. The starter was beautiful, the main course a disappointment. And they sat me beneath the air-con, so I ended up with a cold neck.

A week later I began moving my possessions – four trips in a Toyota Avensis estate, books and records and odd bits of small furniture.
I began to explore the nearby shops; the local mall closed early each night except Thursday, so I would stock up on food – it became routine to have a steak pie and a bottle of red on Thursday nights.
Then, one evening, I spotted the glowing blue dome a few miles distant, and asked my workmates what it was. ‘The Trafford Centre’, they said, ‘A temple to shopping.’

So I went one night to explore this place, and came away dizzy with excitement after seeing the palm trees and fountains and fake-Egyptian walls and murals and statues.

Over the following years I spent a great deal of time there, wandering round, buying magazines or records, sitting with a coffee, going to the cinema. It was always busy, always cheerful, with hordes of well-dressed shoppers carrying bags and enjoying lunch.
One end of the shopping centre had been given over to small independent market-stall type shops; joss-sticks, greetings cards, a community space used by the RNID. But a few years later, these traders were expelled and replaced by John Lewis.

My manager had sent me across to Vienna for a technical liaison meeting with one of our sister companies; the trip had gone well, and I had been treated with remarkable courtesy. I decided it might be appropriate to send my hosts a thank-you card, and went to Smith’s in the Trafford Centre to look for something elegant and artistic. But they had nothing remotely suitable – this enormous store, the shelves full of trite merchandise gearing up for Christmas.

One evening we went to see a film; to kill the time we sat in the food court, a mock-up of the deck of a cruise ship with a swimming pool and  blue-and-white painted sky in which there twinkled random stars. As we waited, a section of wall descended slowly to block the entrance to the retail areas; the design matched perfectly, giving no indication that there was a corridor of shops just behind.

In November each year the Salvation Army would organise a bike run – hundreds of motorbikes (Harleys, streetfighters, scooter mods, all sorts) would assemble at the Sally Army hostel and then ride in a huge convoy to the Trafford Centre to donate toys and money for the Christmas appeal. On one occasion the event took place on 11 November, and we all fell silent for two minutes – an eerie experience, with no sound except the distant traffic.

We would arrive at the centre where the Salvation Army band would be holding a carol service; despite the fact this event took place each year, horrified shoppers would ask ‘But what are all these bikes doing here?’

In 2020 the UK retail sector was paralysed by the Covid-19 pandemic and all non-essential shops (although for some habitués of the TC, Omega watches and Jaeger jackets are completely vital) were forced to close; the Trafford centre suffered badly during lockdown, and it was announced in June that the owners, Intu group, were in discussion with KPMG about the possibility of going into administration.

As usual with these immense civil engineering projects, a time capsule lies buried in the foundations of the Trafford Centre, probably designed to be dug up in 2098; however, the future of the UK economy now looks so shaky that the centre itself may end up being demolished sometime in the next ten years to make room for emergency housing or a quarantine detention camp…

When your life story becomes long and complicated, it makes sense to rely on charming fragments of the tale instead of trying to deliver a comprehensive, orderly sequence of events. The Trafford Centre; I recall sitting in a café reading ‘Empire’ film review magazine and admiring my new purchase, a one-man tent which I was planning to use that weekend on a trip to Buxton.

I set off to the campsite and met up with a few friends. Instead of putting my tent up right away, I decided to join them for a drink, and by the time I went back to my pitch the evening had become dark. I unpacked the tent and tried to work out where all the various components were meant to go; eventually I managed to get the thing to stay approximately in place and settled down for an uncomfortable night’s sleep.

The following day, recovering with the aid of polystyrene coffee, I examined my camping equipment and discovered that one of the eyelets was missing, so that the lower tent pole had nowhere to go.
Still, I survived the weekend, and returned the tent to the supplier so that they could install the missing eyelet. Moral: never go camping without checking your equipment first.

Another fragment – an extension to the Trafford Centre was opened a few years back, called Barton Village; instead of clothes and consumer goods, this section was devoted to furniture. A long, elevated corridor connected the village to the main shopping centre, but no provision had been made for any climate control in this walkway, so you would be faced with a three-minute walk in the cold.
The corridor was decorated in keeping with the rest of the Trafford centre; fake marble nymphs and urns and archways, but the original sense of proportion had been abandoned, so that the new ornaments looked like a random pastiche of classical design.

And Christmas offers the Trafford Centre a chance to become even camper than usual, with sparkling reindeer suspended from the roof and perched on the traffic islands.

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