I remember the first time I ever set foot inside a modern indoor shopping centre. It was in 1987, at the Eastgate Centre in Basildon in Essex. In that year my Dad’s employers had given notice that his department were moving from their existing cramped offices in the City of London, now cast in shade by the new Lloyd’s tower that had been built alongside them, to a glittering new monolith of glass rising from the heart of the Essex new town. In response my parents moved the family out of the drab London overspill in which we then lived, out into the clean air and greenery of the Essex suburbs. On a Saturday in the spring of 1987, my parents, two sisters and I piled into Dad’s puke green-coloured Ford Cortina estate and headed out east along the A13 (still largely single-carriageway then) to see what the future looked like.
For starters I remember the future being high-rise. Back then, to me, Basildon was high-rise, in comparison to the endless streets lined by semis that suburban Essex was almost wholly comprised of. Dad’s new office block—all eleven floors of it—stood like a monument to a new future: all silver and glass and looking radiant in the sunshine. Back then it was known as the Commercial Union Building. It dominated the very entrance to the Eastgate centre, and I felt so proud that my own father could be working in such an impressive and imposing slab of skyrise silver. Clustered around the block was the Eastgate itself, a vision of glass and light, its mirrored walls supported by a framework of steel scaffolding, and fitted out with glossy marble walkways, gleaming escalators and fluorescent lights.
Back at ground level, beyond the bus station with its timeline mural that still looked faintly modern rather than just haplessly twee as it did later, was the Wendy Burger restaurant. We had lunch there on that first family outing to Basildon; an event of monumental importance to us children who had been hitherto protected by our parents from the forbidden worlds of McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken. The Wendy Burger restaurant did not last long, and I cannot recall what it was replaced by. On the second floor of the Eastgate was a winter garden-style food court, a space of which I can recall little but primary-coloured chairs, chocolate milkshakes served in tall glasses, and an all-pervading aroma of deep-fried fat.
By contrast I recall with some fondness the Allder’s department store. On that first visit I was completely overwhelmed by its sheer size. Yet despite its extent—perfectly adequate for the uninitiated in department stores to lose themselves in—the Allder’s store was a place of safety and order, where nothing unexpected happened and nothing ever alarmed. In the Allder’s store it was possible to spend the best part of an afternoon wandering along endless aisles and islands of display cabinets, peering at ceramic kitsch, lead crystal trinkets, glass vases, tablecloths, curtains, knives and forks and Lilliput Lane cottages.
I was less keen on mens’ fashion shop Mister Byrites downstairs. To me it was a daunting place for those like myself who are unsure of what’s fashionable and what’s not. With its neon signs, stuffed-full racks of blue jeans and blaring loud music, it was a harsh place that I detested being dragged into by my parents. Of the Spoils Kitchen Rejects store I remember a little. There are dim recollections of haphazardly piled displays of plates and cups, but rather stronger impressions of the shop’s harsh lighting and primary blue and yellow fittings. The window display of the Sony Centre seemed to me unchanged for years, though of course it must have altered ceaselessly, the Laserdisc players and Walkmans of my formative Eastgate years having long since been replaced by flatscreen televisions and MP3 players.
At the far end of the Eastgate there was a huge superstore called Savacentre. Outside its entrance stood the Cat’s Cradle Pussiwillow clock, an intricate mechanical sculpture standing some fifteen feet high, that revolved and spun a dextrous dance every quarter of an hour. Surrounding the clock was a pool of water, at the bottom of which lay a scattering of silver and bronze of coins. On the two topmost levels of the Eastgate Centre were the galleries with their rows of specialist shops. Here, there were no polished wide walkways, just narrow passages suspended far above ground level. The units here were pokey affairs, patronised by far fewer shoppers than the large chains below. They were occupied by independent traders and craftsmen and women, who sold pieces of bespoke jewellery, prints, painted figurines and other trinket ware. There were also designer boutiques selling fashionable outfits, and shops specialising in fountain pens, Filofaxes, and tobacco pipes.
In the seven or eight years following our relocation to the Essex suburbs, I returned regularly to the Eastgate Shopping Centre. On Saturday mornings we would frequently go en masse, my parents charged with the necessary duty of buying new clothes for three children who hadn’t yet stopped growing. While still at school, I spent a long three weeks based in Basildon on work experience. During those weeks I would wander into the Eastgate every lunch time with nothing but a handful of luncheon vouchers clutched in my fist. And it was at this point that I first practiced the art of disinterested flânerie, as I wandered despondently along the aisles of shops and floated up and down the escalators. I spent countless hours staring into colourful shop windows and gazing at the people around me. Young mums with their pushchairs, fellow lunchtime stragglers in drab and crumpled work suits, elderly couples shuffling along with their shopping baskets on wheels.
When I was a little older, I would catch the number two bus to Basildon after college on a Monday afternoon. Disembarking at the bus station, I would head straight for the Our Price record store on the Town Square, in order to buy the latest release from my favourite band. Such visits as those were penciled in on the calendar, weeks if not months in advance. My later visits to the Eastgate coincided with the recession years of the early nineties. By this time, I was an adolescent man, thinking ahead to the prospects of university, and getting to grips with life’s home truths. I used to walk along the same galleries and aisles as I had done before, but now I did so past countless empty shops fronts, each one holding back stories of broken dreams and Job Centre queues. Disillusioned with life, it was as though I had been expelled from Eden. I continued to drift up and down the same escalators, as lost in a dream, but the marble and glass surfaces I looked upon had, to my eyes, lost their lustre. The allure and mystique of the shop window displays had vanished, and I realised that the dreams they pushed were just that; unattainable pipe dreams, regardless of how much you did or did not spend.
When I finally turned my back on the Eastgate for the last time, probably during the academic summer break of 1995 or 1996, the place had changed to such an extent that I was left disorientated and disillusioned enough to not want to return. Nowadays the closest I get to stepping foot upon the Eastgate’s polished marble floors and riding up and down its silver escalators, is when I pass by, perhaps once a year, on the train. As I glide through the station I look out at the sprawling mass that Basildon’s town centre has become. The Commercial Union building, in which my father worked all those years, is no longer the silver slab of futuristic fantasy that it once was. Instead, from the train window, it appears to me rather drab and weathered, its present condition tainted by past memories that no longer have any resonance in my life.