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Looking for the Trafford Centre’s soul
‘During Christmas, it’s hard to step into the Trafford Centre without a sense of foreboding’
By Jack Dulhanty
7pm on a Wednesday at the Trafford Centre. Selfridges: bottles of whiskey, champagne and vodka are being restocked on the shelves, there are baubles and false holly, and everything that could conceivably be wrapped in fairy lights has been wrapped in fairy lights. Near the front of the store, a woman with bags dangling from each forearm stops to pick up a small red box. She inspects the box and says: “artisan… ARTISAN CRACKERS?!”
Downstairs: three teenage boys, who were talking about sunglasses when they stepped off the tram in £300 puffer jackets, now huddle around the Ray Ban concession. One picks up a pair of Tortoiseshell Wayfarers but is interrupted: “these are too big for you, your head is too small.”
In the Orient, the vast central food hall where adverts for the Trafford Centre are played to people already in the Trafford Centre, more kids sit on the sills of raised platforms where families share buckets of fried chicken. The air smells like how ketchup smells when it has already dried on a child’s food-spattered face.
I am Christmas shopping at the Trafford Centre. It’s the annual gauntlet that so many of us have run, again and again, for the last 24 years. Ever since the fortress of consumerism opened on 10 September 1998, it has been a tractor beam for every variety of Christmas shopper: the bright-eyed, the dead-eyed, the organised and the Christmas eve panic-buyer.
As I walk out of the Orient, over the veined marble of the main thoroughfare, I eavesdrop on the passing conversations like I always do. “Archie, stay,” one man says. Archie, a toddler, simply laughs. Archie laughs the way God laughs when men make plans, and runs towards a giant gold teddy bear that makes different noises when you press a big button.
Another voice, southern, says: “it’s changed here, so much.” And this time I laugh, because if you’ve become well enough acquainted with it, you’ll know the Trafford Centre has never really changed at all.
Christmas, 1998: Leslie Plumbley stands on the second level of the main rotunda of the Trafford Centre with a VHS camera and a dream. What dream? To record, for posterity, the baroque glory of the Trafford Centre, for a little-known production entitled “Christmas 1998 at the Trafford Centre”.
The camera pans down towards ground level and fuzzy shoppers with craned necks wearing Manchester United jerseys (the ones sponsored by Sharp) wander those same marble floors. A string quartet plays fancy, nondescript hotel lobby music and kids ride the escalators. Two red jackets, the sentinels of the Trafford Centre, stand on the same level as Plumbley and whisper to one another conspiratorially.
The footage, which I found in the video section of Manchester Central Library, cuts between brief and mostly uneventful scenes. There’s people climbing the stairs from the Orient to the cinema. There’s people passing the fountains and sitting on benches. There’s a singing animatronic Santa who can’t quite manage to shut both eyes at the same time when he blinks, making him all the more creepy.
There’s also the Trafford singing bears (that’s PJ, Bunty, Billy and Robin, for those wondering) who slowly turn their heads, stare with lazy eyes and sing a song that, with hindsight, drips with irony:
There’s never been a Christmas like it,
it’s never been seen before.
The Trafford Centre’s so exciting,
who could wish for anything more?
But what’s most striking is how it all looks the same. And I don’t just mean the architecture, the ersatz frescoes, the fake red limestone columns, the dolphin fountain. I mean you half expect to see yourself walking by Plumbley’s lens. The recording could be from this Wednesday. All the sounds are rounded and softened like noises underwater or in dreams. “It’s good, isn’t it?” someone says.
Nowadays, many would disagree. “Hate it! Appalling architecture” says Moira Sykes, a Mill member. “I have always found it soulless,” emails another member, “the range of shops is very poor, aimed at just the demographic of high spending teenagers.”
I’ve always felt there were two ways to feel about the Trafford Centre: hate it or tolerate it. It is difficult to love because, as outlined above, it has no identifiable soul. This is partly by design. The ever-changing pastiche architecture (Roman Baroque followed by Chinese Pagodas then an NY streetscape onto an Egyptian Revival toilet) was meant to give the impression of worldly eclecticism, but instead comes off gauche and confused.
While this can be revelled in (“it’s just so… camp!” someone said to me recently) it normally just comes off as cheap and half baked. One member who watched the Truman Show at the Trafford Centre — a film in which the main character is held in a fake world that he has been tricked into thinking is real — remembers coming out of the cinema unsure if the film had ended.
But hate it or tolerate it, the unabashed commercialism and grope at Palazzo-style luxury has made the Trafford Centre a destination. When freelance journalist and member Vinay Jalla’s friend from Dubai was visiting, they asked what they could expect to see in Manchester: “I said, ‘we've got Old Trafford stadium and the Trafford Centre, a shopping mall near it.’” Vinay goes on to say: “Trafford Centre — it's the only landmark we have in Manchester!”
Plus, for thousands of people across the region and beyond, the Trafford Centre has had an outsized presence in their lives. Especially younger people who have never known life without it.
The Trafford Centre and I are the same age and it’d be right to say we grew up together. The same is true for almost all people my age from Trafford and nearby boroughs. It was the first place we were allowed to go alone, it was where we went on first dates, it was where we had our first job.
It’s where we spent every other weekend with our families. Even if we didn’t need anything, we’d just go. It was an ideal place to just be. In sociology, these are often called third spaces — the place you can most likely be found outside of home or work.
It means we enjoy the benefit of nostalgia for the Trafford Centre. It’s easy to hate it if you can remember the fields and woods that were there before — fields and woods you likely spent your childhood in.
But if you remember the hours you spent essentially loitering in shops out of the price range of the £10 note your mum gave you, or sitting in the Orient emptying packets of salt into someone’s Sprite while they (likely me) were in the toilet, you can’t help but see it with rose tinted glasses.
But it doesn’t really matter how you feel about it, during Christmas, it’s hard to step into the Trafford Centre without a sense of foreboding. As I leave via Selfridges, having failed to buy anything, shoe boxes litter the floor and a thousand perfumes mingle in mid-air.
“They’re nice, them,” comments one girl as her friend tries on some heels.
“I know,” she shouts “Alexander Mcqueen too!”
“Oh my god you’re so LOUD.”
The San Carlo champagne bar in Selfridges, which feels like the 2022 equivalent of the bar in the Overlook Hotel from The Shining, is serving cocktails to people with expensive smiles. This evening’s Lloyd is a stout man with cornrows named Antonio and he’s being bored by another guy drinking San Pellegrino sparkling water directly from the bottle.
Selfridges staff are harried, looking for anti-frizz spray and hand cream. Mariah Carey’s voice sounds chaotic in the current context. More fragrances get sprayed and it’s enough to induce a migraine.
Every time my dad walks through here he says “welcome to the world of Sacherelle” in the style of Victoria Wood, and then laughs. I say it in my head as I walk through the designer section — where Instagram husbands touch up Balenciaga coats — and I laugh, too.
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