Category Archives: Bristol

Retail therapy: why I don’t buy it

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.

Bristol: no place like home?

It came as no great surprise to me that Bristol was recently named the best city in Britain by The Sunday Times. When I moved here over a decade ago, I was smitten by the grand Georgian terraces of Kingsdown and Clifton, the audacious beauty of the suspension bridge and the multi-coloured houses tumbling down to the harbour. We have theatres, galleries and street art; Michelin-starred restaurants and farmers’ markets; yet we can cycle to the countryside within half an hour.

It’s a proud and quirky city. A symbol just as fitting as Brunel’s famous bridge is the Cabot Tower, a Victorian folly on Brandon Hill built to commemorate the four-hundredth anniversary of John Cabot’s voyage to Newfoundland. At night, a flashing light at the top of the building spells out the city’s name in Morse code. Bristol’s Gloucester Road is thought to have the largest number of independent traders of any shopping street in the United Kingdom, while the Stokes Croft area, populated by artists and squatters, hit the national press three years ago when it became the scene of an anti-capitalist riot triggered by the opening of a new Tesco branch.

For the folks who live on the hill in the prosperous neighbourhoods of Clifton and Cotham, life seems pretty good. Still, there’s an occasional sense of nostalgia. The butcher, greengrocer and ironmonger are gradually being replaced by Costa Coffee branches and bijou gift shops. In previously bohemian quarters, estate agents proliferate and houses are so overpriced that stockbrokers who’ve sold up in London are the only people who seem able to afford them.

And let’s not forget that Bristol has its grim side. A visitor emerging from Temple Meads station is confronted by a Holiday Inn Express set in a grey seventies office block, a derelict petrol station and a network of roundabouts and dual carriageways. Further out, there’s a lot of anonymous 1930s suburban sprawl. Meanwhile the residents of Hartcliffe and Lawrence Hill, two of the most deprived areas in Britain, might raise an eyebrow at the Sunday Times’s assertion that Bristol benefits from good housing and low unemployment.

Another problem immediately strikes the first-time visitor from London or Manchester: Bristol is shockingly segregated, both socially and racially. In a memorable 2009 Panorama documentary, two Asian reporters posing as a married couple went to live in Southmead, a predominantly white, working-class housing estate in north Bristol. They were racially attacked and abused more than fifty times in eight weeks. And it’s not confined to the poorer areas. On the sunny slopes of genteel Cliftonwood, a black friend who had never felt quite comfortable here was subjected to racist insults by a neighbour in an argument over parking.

I’m passionate about Bristol but it’s headline-grabbing and reductive to talk about this city – or any other – as the best in Britain. Your experience of the city depends on who you are and where you live. Context is everything.

Cocktails, headbands and pools of sick

Never a joiner, I’m usually left cold by the prospect of a fancy dress party. It often ends up feeling either silly or pretentious. What’s wrong with a night out that involves nothing more than turning up, having a few drinks and staggering home again? As with the modern curse of the three-day hen do in Barcelona, it seems a bit presumptuous to expect your friends to make all that effort on your behalf.

Yet I have to admit, I loved Saturday night’s Great Gatsby party. It’s not often you see a group of middle-aged people infused by excitement and glamour, their paunches concealed by sequins, tassels and elegant three-piece suits. For a few precious hours we downed cocktails with youthful enthusiasm, danced like demons and flirted with no real danger of transgression. It was a euphoric two-fingered salute to our responsible daily lives – we may be in our forties but, hey, we can still do it!

Of course, this is the sort of thing youngsters get up to every weekend. A couple of years ago I saw the photograph ‘Girls’ Night Out’ by Martin Parr in an exhibition at Bristol’s M Shed. It depicts a group of young women on Whiteladies Road in Clifton, known locally as ‘the Strip’ and famous for its throbbing student bars. It could easily have been a tawdry scene – four raucous women wearing short, tight skirts and too much make-up – but instead there’s something exuberant and joyful about the image. Perhaps it’s just the effect of the street lighting but a transformation has taken place, making the scene seem magical and full of possibility, the women transcendent and lovely.

The reality is somewhat different. Come Sunday morning, all the locals know that you have to sidestep broken glass and puddles of congealed vomit on the Strip. And so it was after the Great Gatsby party. At school drop-off on Monday, the glitz and glamour had evaporated. Once again, we were just a group of harried parents with grey skin and crows’ feet. There were tales of late-night escapades in taxis and on bathroom floors, most of them involving losing personal possessions, being violently sick and falling asleep in one’s party clothes. A fair number of us had spent Sunday dry-heaving and dozing on the sofa.

Perhaps, after all, there’s wisdom in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald: ‘It’s a great advantage not to drink among hard-drinking people. You can hold your tongue, and, moreover, you can time any little irregularity of your own so that everybody else is so blind that they don’t see or care.’ I’ll raise my glass to that.