Ahh. We’ll miss Debenhams. Won’t we? Do you remember Debenhams? It really used to hold the high street together, didn’t it? You’d do all your other shopping, all the bits you couldn’t get in Debenhams, like a loaf of bread or a tetanus jab, and then you’d sail through those big sliding doors and spend the rest of the afternoon skipping from floor to floor filling your trolley with pillow cases and ski socks, lampshades and toilet seat. Truly, if it wasn’t in Debenhams it wasn’t worth having. Except that’s rubbish. Debenhams didn’t just die because of our changing shopping habits, it died because it was, deep down, all a bit shit. Nobody really needs some frosty, caked up, lash flutterer spraying eau de parfum onto a piece of card for you, and nobody needs to grind their way up 14 rounds of escalators just to get some special pencils. Debenhams only worked until there became a better way of shopping, and then it ceased to work altogether. The same applies for BHS, which wasn’t much more than a cheaper version of Debenhams. Remember C&A? They were shit too.
But isn’t it sad, seeing all your high street favourites disappear? Don’t we all really miss Woolworths? It’s just not the same without Woolworths is it? I often stop in the middle of my daily stroll down the high street and start to weep when I see the skeleton of that old Woolworths, like a whale carcass on the ocean floor. I think back to the times I would be able to just glide into that old Woolworths on a whim and come out mere minutes later with a bag of pick n mix, a pad of Basildon Bond letter paper, a size 3 football and ‘The Very Best of Hall and Oates’ on cassette. Who knows where I could go to get that kind of shopping basket these days. You’d have to dare to dream, just to dream to dare to dream. On the other hand, I once tried to pinch a Flake from the Woolworths in Pinner when I was 12 (pinched being the cheeky, socially acceptable version of theft, and that only applies to goofy kids, the elderly and people with learning difficulties). A huge security guard stopped me on the way out, took back my plunder, gave me a talking to and promised he would be round the next morning to speak to my parents. With no obvious alternative I was forced to tell them the whole story when I got home and rather predictably had several strips torn off me. I spent the next morning waiting for that security bastard to arrive but he never showed up so, no, on reflection Woolworths was crap as well and I don’t miss it one bit.
If you want my opinion (that’s never a given, I know) it’s probably best not to think about the high street much anymore. It appears that misty eyed nostalgia only leads to abject misery. The high street used to be the place to be, the magnet of indulgence that drew us all in. How else would we have houses heaving with junk we didn’t really need without the high street in the 80’s? Remember how great all that was? Remember going to Cromwell’s Madhouse for some criminally manufactured clothing, or to Our Price, where we would gaily fork out £15 for the latest Aswad album? Those really were the days. Remember how we all piled into our local branch of Athena to pick up a poster of that tennis player scratching her arse or, even weirder, the hunky bloke (and also a complete stranger) cradling a new born infant?
Remember how we would spend an age deciding whether to buy our electrical goods at Comet or Rumbelows? It’s just so sad to have had all that and then lost it. I thought it would all be there forever, like everything else that never, ever changes. I thought that even when we’ve all moved to Mars in the year 2174 the one thing we could still rely on would be the great, thriving, British high street. I mean, it’s like an institution. Like sausages. It shouldn’t be allowed to change. It should stay the same forever, so we know that everything’s alright. Surely if anything can beat a pandemic, the internet and Sir Philip Green it’s the good old British high street.
It’s not only sad, it’s also shocking. I’m shocked at just how quickly it’s happened, and you can tell from some recent news ‘on street level’ interviews that all those confused pensioners that have been left stranded on the high street are shocked too. They just can’t believe what’s happened to our high streets. Where have all the blacksmiths gone? That’s what I want to know. Remember when you used to pop out to the blacksmith to have some nails made and to shod your horse? I can’t think of any childhood memory more warming that when I used to go to our local blacksmiths with Dobbin to get him proper fucking shod every Saturday morning.
And what about the apothecary. I really miss the apothecary on our high street when I was a child, before internet shopping and out of town retail parks came along and ruined it. I can just see our local apothecary now; it was where Woolworths used to be, after it. And the alchemist. I’d always go to the alchemist just after lunch on a Wednesday with as much base metal as I had found that week and I’d cross my fingers that, just for once, he’d be able to turn that base metal into gold. If only we still had services like that from those days, these days! And on a Friday after school I’d sneak into old crazy Meg’s hut and have my runes read for me before she checked my buboes. That’s not something even Amazon do.
Oh, how I miss the old days and the old ways of the magical British high street. It’s such a bloody fucking shame that we’ve let the high street go to the dogs. And so quickly. And it wasn’t just the shops either, it was all the excitement that came with them. The high street would be teeming with life: the illegal boxing matches on the corner where the CostCutter is now; the town crier ringing his bell and shouting stuff; the bear baiter, baiting his bear, regular as clockwork; the huge crowd gathered around the cock fight, feathers flying, everyone beaming with joy. And what have we got now? A great big TK Maxx by the ring road and they’ve only gone and put a Paperchase and a Starbucks on the first floor of Next down at the retail park.
It brings a tear to my eye, thinking about what we’ve lost from when the high street was the place to be. The other day I walked past the fish counter in my local Sainsbury’s and I decided it was time for a protest, so I stormed out, got in the car and drove straight to the high street to visit that lovely Mr Brown, the fishmonger. I loved the way he wrapped his tench in old newspaper while he told a saucy joke and talked about his neighbour’s bunions. You don’t get many fishmongers these days. Turns out you don’t get any fishmongers these days. The lady in Costa Coffee told me that Mr Brown died 36 years ago and since then his shop has been a Clintons, a Freeman, Hardy & Willis, a Tandy, a Zavvi, a Borders, a Tie Rack, a Past Times, a Barratts, and a Blockbuster. And now it’s a Costa bloody Coffee. It’s an outrage, that’s what I told that nice lady in Costa Coffee, because I remembered when our high streets were something to be proud of. The backbone of Britain they were. Where everyone knew everyone and where nothing ever changed, because keeping everything the same is the only way you’re ever going to get anywhere. I miss the high street, it’s a shame what’s become of it. Except for Woolworths, they were asking for it.
G B Hewitt. 04.12.2020