Ewan Morrison: Interview From a Mall
Ewan Morrison is the acclaimed author of a trilogy of novels – Swung, Distance and Menage – about alternative sexuality. And so naturally he's followed these up with an examination of the way we shop. Let's go to a mall with him and see what happens.
But before the interview, a basic review to get you up to speed: Tales from the Mall is a potent mix of fiction, anecdotes and polemic about the effect of malls on our culture, and on world culture generally. The true stories about the heavy-handed practices of security guards, or how malls have generally changed communities are troubling enough. However the fictional passages, where Morrison all too convincingly shows how mall culture affects the behaviour of his characters, are where the book becomes really terrifying. It's a highly convincing argument that our current retail models, based on a false premise of infinite expansion, are damaging our culture and ourselves. This is the kind of book that feels not so much written as inevitably produced. It’s well researched, and well written, but its real strength is that it has a force to it which comes straight from the convictions of the author, not to mention the abundance of evidence his case draws on.
With that done, Ewan Morrison picks me up in his car and we head off to a large Glaswegian mall. Which one, you say? Does it matter? “I’ve been in different places around the world that I’ve seen the impact that malls have,” Morrison says, as we head along the motorway. “I lived in America for three years and whenever you go to, say, New Jersey, you get exactly the same kind of thing. So I was aware of just how ‘malled’ Scotland was getting, Glasgow in particular. Glasgow’s an incredibly huge retail city now, we’ve dedicated so much of our rebuilding and restructuring towards things like Braehead, and Silverburn.” These malls affect each other. “Buchanan Galleries is getting refitted,” says the author “and St Enoch had to get refitted because of Buchanan Galleries, it’s a sort of retail turf war. Glasgow has become a retail city, but it’s a very successful one. Buchanan Street is the seventh largest retail avenue in the world, apparently”.
As we pull in to the typically gigantic car park, Morrison explains about his interest in the subject. “My parents were very anti-Americanisation when I was growing up,” he says, “but now this could be America – it’s exactly the same shopping malls all over the world. And that must be having some impact on the Scottish psyche, although we maybe haven’t investigated that very much.” We’re getting out of the car at this point “Glaswegians have always been very big on clothes – well, not always, but since even before shopping malls they’ve spent more on fashion than the rest of the country.” By contrast, he says, “Edinburgh’s quite bohemian, so people look terrible. Too many hippies and folk with trust funds in Edinburgh. I’m quite devoted to Glasgow, even though it’s kind of trashy and commercial.” That, I tell him, is our pull quote right there.
As we walk through the mall entrance, Morrison asks, “Have you noticed that there must have been some kind of corporate decision in Glasgow that every new building should be metal colour? All the way along the Clyde it’s happening, including Zaha Hadid’s Riverside museum. The template was set with the Armadillo… “ But at this point we’re distracted by a shiny mall map. It’s interactive, but we can’t get it to work. The author becomes interested in Build-A-Bear. “It’s really paradoxical,” he says. “You’ve got Build-A-Bear for the kids, and near that Ann Summers and La Senza, which kids are kept away from. I’ve actually seen kids left outside Ann Summers – they’re not allowed in – while their mums are inside buying lingerie and stuff.” This is a reasonably new development. “It’s quite a revolutionary thing to have a sex shop in a shopping mall. There were protests about them when they first started, not here, but down south there were concerned community groups trying to shut them down. There were Islamic protests as well, because there was an inflatable doll called ‘Mustapha shag',” Morrison says. “They were offended by that, apparently”.
We haven’t yet found Build-A-Bear, but have reached the large, well-known department store at one end of the centre. This is one of the ‘anchors’ malls are built around – two large, popular stores that are placed at opposing ends, which, Morrison explains, is “your classic ‘barbell’, long corridor and another large store at the end.” These bring further expansion. “Once the mall brought an infrastructure all of the stuff outside came afterwards and just spread out. It creates the road and sewage network which can then be used for all of the extra shops around,” says the author. “It’s very pretty in here though, eh?” It’s airy, anyway. “I was in St Enoch’s today, which has Hamley’s now. They were without a second anchor for a while, so they were struggling.”
We make our way to the opposite anchor, and Morrison looks at the shoppers as we go. “It’s an interesting question, are malls for children and parents, or are they for young single people? It seems that mall shoppers are people in their twenties now, but it used to be quite family based. Singles are the target market for consumerism in general, because singles consume 14% more than families.” We don’t seem to have passed many families as we reach the end. We do, however, find a map that tells us where Build-A Bear is, so we head there.
As we go, I ask Morrison about the effects of these commuter-based retail hubs. “New towns have a real problem on their hands,“ he says. “East Kilbride’s been struggling, because it was originally a council-owned shopping centre, and if you design a town around a shopping centre, you’re buggered if it goes out of business…" But now we come to Build-A Bear.
Which I find creepy as hell. I turn off the tape as I’m dragged in, so this brief transcript is from memory:
Author: “So they buy these skins…”
Interviewer: “Okay, can we go now?”
Author “…and they’re stuffed here...”
Interviewer: “Okay, can we go now?”
Author: “The market is saturated with bear toys, so they’ve come up with different outfits for your bear, and you can even get a Darth Vader bear now. Look, there’s a camouflage bear”
Interviewer: “Right, so you lose it and have to buy a new one. Can we go now?”
Author: “In some ways, consumerism is laid ‘bare’ by Build-a-Bear”
Interviewer: “Okay, we’re definitely going now”.
We escape to the food court, where we come across a fancy new eatery, where some elderly people are in evidence. “I like how old people are starting to come in to malls. It’s actually an extraordinary development, because old people have generally stuck to town centres before, but they’re starting to migrate,” says Morrison. “I didn’t know this place was here,” he says. “This is great,” he continues. “I wouldn’t eat here myself though.” We decide instead to try to walk around to the back of the complex, to see if it’s possible. On the way I ask Morrison about the stories in the book, specifically whether he had to force himself to write mall-set fiction. “I just went back over my own life and thought ‘how many stories do I have from malls’, rather than trying to squeeze a story into a mall,” he says, as we look for a way around the mall. “This is one of the great American problems, that it’s all built around the car,” although we eventually find our way reasonably easily.
Nevertheless, there’s some American influence round back, as we find an abandoned funfair straight out of Scooby-Doo. Appropriately, Morrison starts telling me about abandoned ‘ghost malls’. “I saw one in America that was completely abandoned, but I was too scared to go inside,” he says. But on a lesser scale “There are certain bits of the East Kilbride shopping mall where you go past empty shop after empty shop, thankfully redeemed by the upper floors which got redeveloped and people go there to eat and buy top-end jewellery. But the ground floor is really sad.” The back of the mall is pretty dreary itself, so we head back round to the car park.
As we walk around, I ask about the notion of ‘a jail in the mall’, a reasonably popular urban myth. Sadly, Morrison hasn’t heard anything. “One of the mall security guys told me that it’s actually really hard to hold shoplifters, because you can’t touch them, physically. You can coerce them verbally, and try to convince them that they’re in trouble and that they have to stay, but you can’t actually restrain them. Some top tips there for potential shoplifters….”
Sinister tales are nothing new however, he explains with the car park in sight. “It’s surprising in terms of fiction how often people have to have something dramatic and deadly going on in a mall, like a man with a gun, or a secret subbasement where people are tortured and their brains are extracted. Even JG Ballard had this secret fascist organisation that was running the mall and wanted to preserve the social order of passive zombie-like consumers. It seems hard to imagine the mall in fiction as something other than malevolent.”
And at that, we realise we’ve lost the car.