Danny Smith: Primark and prejudice

When we heard there was a big new shop opening in town, we called Danny and asked ‘Are you free?’ He was. We can’t remember whether we sent him to a big clothes shop that used to be the Palisades, or a big clothes shop that used to be the Pavilions. Either way, we were sure he’d hate it.

Stepped on a snake and slid back down to Birmingham. Tired, grumpy, and trapped in a city I escaped two years ago. The continuing adventures of a man lost in his own city. Hoping that the next leap, is the leap home.

Two hours of sleep is the worst amount of sleep, worse than no sleep at all. It’s halfway through a sleep cycle and will leave the average people emotionally fragile, feeling like they’ve fallen up and then down a steel staircase. So I’ve had two hours of sleep and am a decidedly average person. The gig is to go to Primark, but not just any Primark but the world’s Biggest Primark opening today In Birmingham. Before that the biggest was in Manchester, but it really is ‘the world’ with stores all over Europe and — for some reason — America.

There was one in Dubai but that turned out to be fake.

I originally pitched it as a ‘spend all day doing something horrible and write about how, surprise, surprise, horrible it is’ sort of thing, but honestly that went out of the window after the third hour awake wondering about the logistics of knocking myself unconscious. At this point I’d be lucky to last half an hour before trying to start a mannequin fight club and crying over the baby’s shoes for sale, worn or not.

It’s early in the morning on a bright Thursday. Bright but the sun’s not had a chance to make a difference to temperature. Since I was a kid I’ve practiced a form of divination, a system I invented on cold spring mornings like this waiting for the bus. I would predict what kind of day it was going to be from which of the buses I caught into town. The 61 means a great day (this is the good bus because on the way home it turns on to Frankley Beeches Rd which is a slightly shorter walk to my house). The 62 is neutral (although when it became the bus I caught to work its meaning went from neutral to mildly bad). The 63 is bad mojo because that was the bus I used to catch to school and, you know, fuck school.

Twenty years later and the 62 doesn’t exist any more, but my brain still runs in those grooves. Today I have no choice but to catch the 63 which tells me one thing: and when I turn the corner and see the bus pull out from the stop and drive away I don’t know what to think.

The city centre is empty at nine not all the shops are open yet and the commuters by now have commuted. I know I’m here when I see the yellow jackets, at least three different camera crews five or six paparazzi and various other journos milling around the crowd milling around the crowd loosely penned in outside the store. Opposite the crowd is a contingent from B-side Breaking festival fronted by a hype man having medium success engaging a crowd of about 250, almost entirely made up of women wearing Mickey Mouse ears.

I join the queue as the hype man is introducing Kimmy Beat Box who lays into a drum and bass beats with samples.
“SKREEE-ow breep breep SKREE SKREE Booow, PRIMARK PRIMARK SKREEE-ow’ It’s impressive but the crowd are not even close to being plussed. Kimmy address the crowd with a pitch perfect,
‘thank you for your energy’.

Ahead of me a reporter is interviewing a couple, one of them is trying to push her fashion credentials but the older lady next to her is running with the cheap angle.

  • It’s surprising what you can find

  • For the price…

  • It’s good value, yes, but the style is…

  • Cheap, yes

In the half an hour I’ve been here the crowd has added an extra hundred or so. Still mostly women, the only men seem to be from the freak crowd – a denim-jacketed metaller ahead of me and another pink-haired goth a little down the line. Also joining the queue is a baby that won’t stop staring at me, which would be fine is this particular baby hadn’t got the soul of a sixty year old woman looking at me with a ‘how fucking dare you’ look. While I’m dealing with this spirit warfare I overhear the girls behind me laughing at how ‘random’ it all is.

  • This is so sad’
  • What are we doing with our lives?

Fifteen minutes early, and with a short countdown, we’re off. A crowd of three hundred or so fitting through two double doors to a phalanx of staff brandishing balloons while nameless chart dance plays at improbable levels. As I get to the doors we’re stopped to allow the shop to absorb the first hundred or so shoppers, by the time I get in most of the balloons are gone and the smiles are not as 100% as they once were.

No backing out even if I wanted too. I have no choice but to follow the crowd and I end up escalated to the top floor where the Disney cafe has already got a queue out of the door.

Reeling from the scale I try and find my bearings. Looking for the shell, the bones of the Pavilions. Finding my way with only a ghost of a map. So I find another cafe where I miss being the first visitor by dint of an older guy buying the rainbow cake and coffee, this cafe is run by an older lady and five or so others managing to look busy while not actually doing anything.

The windows by the cafe would have a terrific view of the Selfridges building and Moor St station if the windows were not coated with a blue green film. I’m not sure if they just haven’t peeled off the plastic like a new stereo, or it’s Vegas rules where any view of outside is forbidden or at least changed enough to strip it from any orienting context. As I sip my passable tea, it seems the Vegas comparison is apt – everything is slick, everything is mediated, a casino designed to empty your pockets in exchange for a shopping experience, not what you buy but how you bought it.

The dance track finishes and Holding Back The Years by Simply Red comes on.

I hold a poll on twitter as advice on how best to tackle Primark but decide to ignore the result when they suggest drifting aimlessly around instead of logically (see it’s that easy). The obvious way of doing this is starting with the escalators in the middle of each floor. I’m calling the wall I face as enter each floor ‘12’ and from there working my way around the clock.

There is a franticness to the shoppers that is a little disconcerting, there isn’t a sale on and it’s never going to be as fully stocked as it is right now. But people are hungrily searching for something. Occasionally small packs of middle management types stalk the floor proclaiming a Greg or whatever to be ‘managing consultant’ or ‘senior regional’ something. Their job seems to be walking around pointing at things and agreeing.

On one of the floors the power cuts out, the lights and escalators with it, and blessedly the DJ. the shoppers look up and at each other for the first time since they got here, and they laugh, nervous tension breaking laughter. You can tell there are no dads in because nobody shouts ‘has anyone got 50p for the meter?’. I wonder how dated that reference that is. Maybe it should have been me, for tradition. The lights come back on and everybody goes back to shopping.

The Disney department is roughly where the old Disney Store used to be in the Palisades. For me, and many of my age, Disney shops were the start of this flagship shopping experience trend, the first to employ greeters at the front of the store, with a giant soft toy mountain and screens everywhere you looked reminding you of where you were and how magical it all was. Every inch designed to give you a brand experience where purchasing anything is an afterthought, a shop where what you buy is just a souvenir of being there in the first place.

If you look hard you can see the gaps in the veneer – the ceilings are a post-industrial mess of fan vents and wiring. I’m sure it’s presented as part of the urban aesthetic and a cheap alternative to installing acres of oppressive false ceilings. Best just to paint the whole mess white and hope nobody looks up.

Shopping as an experience is a smart direction to go in with online shopping decimating the high street, especially in an age where people can list ‘shopping’ in their ‘interest/hobbies’ section of their CV with no-one batting an eye. This fight back in Primark includes the ‘custom labs’ which is basically a version of the iron on transfer shop that has appeared on piers and seaside boardwalks since the sixties. Here the process is automated on Mcdonald’s touch screen, menus where you choose a picture from the clip art quality library or branded images from Disney, Game of Thrones, and Star Wars oh my. You can then customise the text above and below it. The queue was too long and my patience too short to join but I did watch as a group of teenagers try to type in successive swear words into it only to have them blocked.

When I do get some fuck-it-why-not cash I am getting the ugliest image I can find on a T-shirt with ‘late stage capitalism’ printed on it. Christ, despite being a dedicated seeker of the truth and a total bone deep professional, even I am finding it hard not to shop. Throughout the floors, all the branded content appears on racks and podiums together, Game Of Thrones, Friends and even Peaky Blinders appear as mini shrines in the temple of Mammon.

I hit ‘The Mezz’, just as the DJ plays a one minute segment of Bohemian Rhapsody thus securing his place in a ring of hell reserved for traitors and bastards. ‘The Mezz’ is another cafe and balcony space with a wall of Birmingham facts so poorly designed and chosen it’s only the scale that makes it not look like a year 10’s homework project.

Below is the men’s department, down here it’s a little less congested. I decide that I should buy something, for the full experience. I spend too long trying on sunglasses before deciding it’s not the sunglasses I hate but my own reflection. So I take the pair I have in my hand to the checkout, the queues snake round the store at this point, with a member of staff with a lollipop sign ‘the queue starts here’. The queues at the tills are nothing compared to the line for the elevators, with a car park’s worth of prams crammed next to each other.

I’m done, the sunglasses hide my eyes that are streaming tears because they frankly don’t want to be open any longer, my masculinity is not so fragile that I’m ashamed to be seen crying, but I’ll give a miss to being seen wandering around Primark openly weeping at the majesty of it all.

Well done Primark you’ve invented a working class department store, a cross between a casino, theme park and jumble sale. Truth is I wear Primark clothes, because even though I’m poor I like to have a choice in the morning. I tweeted a lot during that day and some of the responses I got were leaning towards the sneery. But I don’t hate you Primark, not particularly, I’m willing to bet the same near slave labour sewing your clothes is sewing H&Ms in the other half of the factory. No I don’t hate you, I hate capitalism, I hate the space that it created that shopping has somehow come to fill, and I really fucking hate Simply Red.

By Danny Smith

Danny Smith is a writer and malcontent. More at edgetrinkets.co

Danny Smith is a writer and malcontent. More at edgetrinkets.co

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