The month of May has finally arrived, topped and tailed by a public holiday. Time off work allows us to indulge in our favourite national pastime as hordes of people part with their hard-earned cash at retail parks up and down the country. The last time I visited one of these out-of-town hellholes – otherwise known as Cribbs Causeway, on the outskirts of Bristol – it finally dawned on me that they aren’t designed for oddballs like me who prefer to travel by public transport, and who view a shopping trip as a tedious necessity rather than a family day out.
On that occasion, I got off the bus at the wrong stop and spent ten minutes stranded beside a dual carriageway, unable to see any obvious means of reaching the shopping mecca on the other side, while puce-faced motorists bibbed their horns at each other in the queue for the underground car park. Why does anyone think it’s acceptable to behave like this? I’d be regarded as certifiable if I barged down the street, elbowing people in the ribs and bellowing at them to get out of my way, but it seems that different rules apply once you get behind the wheel of your car.
In an attempt to avoid the trauma of another excursion to Cribbs, I take myself off to Clifton village and its chi-chi boutiques for a spot of clothes shopping. This brings its own problems. Few women past their fortieth birthday welcome a svelte assistant popping her head round the changing-room curtain every two minutes, ostensibly to ask how they’re getting on but really to snicker at their cellulite. Some of these shops mockingly position their full-length mirrors in the communal areas, giving me little choice but to step outside the cubicle for confirmation that the shift dress that was so beguiling on the assistant makes me look like a dumpy frump with footballer’s knees.
Food shopping is more my scene, which possibly explains the cellulite. I bypass the supermarket, with its bulletproof pears in shrink-wrapped polystyrene trays and its infuriating self-checkouts, and head straight for the Saturday morning farmers’ market on Whiteladies Road. Here I stand in a queue for fifteen minutes while the ditherer in front of me tastes all the artisan cheeses on display and discusses them at length with the stallholder, before finally buying a tiny sliver barely equal in weight to what he’s already guzzled. Then he heads off to Waitrose in his 4×4 to stock up on ready meals, all the while congratulating himself on how he’s single-handedly propped up the local economy with his measly purchase.
Flagging by this stage, I drop into the Bristol Coffee House for a shot of caffeine. There, I hear the hipster ahead of me (you know the type – tricky specs and a statement beard) asking, ‘Can I get a flat white?’, to which the only appropriate response is, ‘No, this isn’t a self-service canteen.’ These are the sort of shoppers who fall for the trendy, down-with-the-kids school of marketing whereby companies attempt to project a personality on to their packaging, portraying themselves as a wacky bunch of innovators driven by a passion for the product rather than, say, the need to pay the mortgage. Note to these companies: it’s of no interest to me that ‘we’re always doing fun things here at Pieminister’, nor do I want to drop in at Fruit Towers to say ‘hi’ to the ‘guys’ who make Innocent Smoothies.
Given all this, it baffles me that shopping is still our leisure activity of choice. A few years ago, my neighbouring city of Bath ran an advertising campaign designed to attract visitors to ‘a golden city paved with shops’. The bathos of this slogan is so striking that I can practically see an ellipsis before the final word. Really, is that the best they could come up with? A World Heritage Site famous for its Roman remains, Georgian architecture and literary connections, and the main tourist pull appears to be its crappy retail outlets, most of which are replicated in every town across the country? Sometimes it seems there’s little hope for humanity. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to do some internet shopping.