Shopping centres, caves and the fate of us all

Broadmarsh shopping centre, Nottingham SMALL

If you leave Nottingham train station and head towards the centre of the city, you will eventually come up against a large brown wall barricading the city. Actually it is the backside, or front (it’s hard to tell), of a shopping centre called Broadmarsh. Like a museum gift shop, the only way is through. I did once try to walk around the shopping centre, but the walk along a busy side road, overshadowed by the bulk of Broadmarsh, hardly made for a more welcoming entrance to the city. Not only does Broadmarsh divide the city in half, but it is also remarkably unremarkable. It is a big brown Brutalist box. On the inside its white floors, bright lights and chain stores make it feel like any other shopping centre across the country.

It would be untrue to say I have never cared for shopping centres. I still remember the first time I visited a shopping centre – Manchester’s Trafford Centre. It was shortly after the centre opened and my uncle was taking me clothes shopping for my birthday. I must have been 11. Apart from the joy of consumerism – a rare pleasure for a financially dependent minor – I was in awe of the shopping centre. It was the biggest enclosed space I had ever experienced and it was more than just a shopping centre, it was a theme park. There were fountains and a self-playing piano and a food court made to look like a steam ship. After I had picked out some clothes (from an exotic sounding shop called H&M) we had lunch in the steam ship food court, at McDonald’s no less – my mum never let me eat there. I left thinking that whoever dreamt up the Trafford Centre was a visionary. These days, as a financially independent adult with less time on my hands, my opinion of shopping centres has been tempered somewhat. As a place writer, I never imagined I would write about shopping centres.

Shopping centres seem to be sanitised and completely devoid of a sense of place. Their very aim is to disorientate, looking, as they do, like self-replicating clones that deprive people of any opportunity to be in or engage with their surroundings. Their one virtue – the fact that they remove the shopper from the need to worry about the weather – epitomises everything that is wrong with shopping centres. Take away the rain and the shopper is also deprived of the flight of birds from rooftop to rooftop, the warmth of the sun or the green relief of trees. Still, during the year I lived in Nottingham I became increasingly intrigued by Broadmarsh.

The Nottingham Cave Survey was led by the wonderfully named Dr David Strange-Walker.

It was not actually the shopping centre itself, but rather what lies beneath it, that first piqued my interest. The city of Nottingham is undermined by hundreds of man-made caves, carved into the sandstone on which the city was the built. Estimates of exactly how many caves there are under the city vary – 400, 450, 500 – and the exact figure is changing all the time as new caves are discovered and old ones destroyed, often without ever having been documented. This was almost the fate of the network of caves found underground during the construction of Broadmarsh shopping centre. They were very nearly filled with concrete but were saved at the last minute because of the historic importance of the medieval tannery within them.

In order to record the caves of Nottingham before more are lost, the Nottingham Cave Survey has mapped the caves using 3D laser scanners. The project was led by the wonderfully named Dr David Strange-Walker. When I asked where his interest in caves came from, he replied:

“I think the idea that there might be a hidden, unknown world beneath your feet or behind a locked door is quite a potent one, and people seem to have quite a strong psychological desire to entertain that idea. Just consider the number of ‘secret tunnels’ that are reputed to exist in country villages, linking the manor house to the church or the pub to the castle. The vast, vast majority of those tunnels don’t really exist, but the desire to believe in them is strong.”

Stories and legends have a long history of attaching themselves to caves – Merlin’s cave, the many tombs purported to be the tomb of Jesus, the underworld of Hades. Perhaps it is because they are so bounded and provide just the right amount of space for the mind to roam over. Nottingham’s caves have been no exception when it comes to myths and stories. One particular myth-maker was local archaeologist George Campion who, in the 1930s, wrote a series of articles for the Nottingham Journal in which he described in detail a prehistoric troglodyte community that he believed once inhabited Nottingham’s caves. George Campion never found any evidence to back up his claims; what’s more, all of Nottingham’s caves are man-made and none has been dated to earlier than the 13th century. I can’t help but imagine Campion sat at his desk, cigarette smoke lacing the light of an angle-poise lamp as he typed up his mythical tales, suspecting they weren’t really true but revelling in the joy of a good story anyway.

Shopping centres have also been known to fire imaginations. During the construction of the Trafford Centre I heard a rumour that an old Indian burial ground had been disturbed. At the time, I didn’t think to question what an Indian burial ground was doing in Trafford, Manchester, but it no doubt added to my impression of the place.

The imagination of Portuguese writer, José Saramago, was also fired by caves and shopping centres – and perhaps even Broadmarsh itself. The central character in Saramago’s novel The Cave is Cipriano Algor, a potter who lives in a small village with his daughter, Marta, and son-in-law, Marçal. Cipriano sells his crockery to the Centre, a vast and ever expanding complex in the city that sounds remarkably like Broadmarsh: “a gigantic quadrangular edifice, with no windows on its smooth, featureless façade”. Not only is the Centre full of shops, people also live there – it even has its own crematorium and cemetery. The novel begins with the Centre deciding it no longer wants to buy from Cipriano because customers are now switching to plastic, imitation crockery. Cipriano’s son-in-law, who works as a security guard at the Centre, is promoted to the position of resident guard, which comes with an apartment in the Centre. Despite insisting that he will not move, Cipriano eventually agrees to live with his daughter and son-in-law at the Centre. Once there, he spends his days wandering its many floors and exploring the attractions on offer, which include: carousels, a suspension bridge, a betting shop, a golf course, Egyptian pyramids, a lake, a tyrannosaurus skeleton, a replica of the Himalayas including Everest, and a galaxy. There is even a door “with a notice on it saying experience natural sensations, rain, wind and snow on demand” (for those shoppers, like me, who miss the feeling of being outside). He does so despite the fact that flânerie is frowned upon by the Centre:

“going into the Centre just to look around is not… viewed with friendly eyes, anyone caught wandering around inside empty-handed will soon become the object of special attention from the security guards.”

However, it is what Cipriano discovers beneath the Centre that made me wonder whether Saramago could possibly have known about Broadmarsh. Because what Cipriano discovers is a cave. On their first visit to their new apartment, before they have moved in, Cipriano hears a vibrating sound. The sound, it turns out, is the diggers that are digging a new cold storage unit on the bottom floor of the Centre. One day Cipriano notices that the vibrating sound has stopped and Marçal is told that the construction work has uncovered a cave, a cave that the guards must keep secret, even from their families. Despite being sworn to secrecy, Marçal tells his wife that he will be doing a late-night shift and that it has something to do with the cold storage unit excavation. Cipriano finds out from his daughter and on the night of Marçal’s first shift, he decides to sneak out of the apartment to investigate. When he reaches the floor where his son-in-law has let slip that the excavation was taking place, he makes his way down a dirt ramp until he reaches an entrance to a cave. Marçal is sat alone outside the entrance. He pretends to be annoyed with his father-in-law but he has already been into the cave and he gives Cipriano a torch. The old man makes his way down, feeling the wall to guide him, until he suddenly walks into something. Once he has recovered from the shock Cipriano sees that it is a body. In fact, there are six bodies in the cave: three men and three women, all wearing black fabric. Cipriano notices “the remnants of the rope that has been used to keep their necks from moving” and identical ropes around their legs. When Cipriano emerges, he asks Marçal to move one of the spotlights lighting up the entrance and shine it into the cave. The light reveals a black stain on the ground, as if the ground has been scorched by a fire. When Cipriano returns to the apartment, he tells Marta what he has seen: “they are us, me, you, Marçal, the whole Centre, probably the world”.

What Cipriano has seen is Plato’s cave – yes, even the mind of a Greek philosopher was fired up by caves. The simile of the cave appears in Plato’s dialogue The Republic and he uses it to illustrate his argument for a just state. In Plato’s just state the rulers would be philosophers, because philosophers have questioned everything around them, they have entered a higher plane of thought, and so will be reluctant to lower themselves to the everyday concerns of running a state. It is this reluctance that Plato believes makes them such ideal candidates to rule. It is the desire for power and the attainment of power that corrupts; put people in power who do not want that power and the possibility for corruption is removed.

Plato uses the simile of the cave to illustrate why philosophers will be so reluctant to rule and yet at the same time are such ideal candidates for political power. He asks us to imagine a cave in which people have been held prisoner since childhood, tied up so that all they can see is the wall in front of them. On to this wall a shadow puppet show of humans and animals is being projected by the light of a fire. Since the prisoners have only ever seen this shadow puppet show, they believe that these shadows constitute reality. However, Plato asks us to suppose that one of the prisoners is freed and that this freed prisoner sees the puppets moving in front of the fire. The prisoner will be confused and will cling to her old beliefs. She won’t be able to comprehend that the fire and the puppets are real. Used to sitting in the dark so long, the light of the fire will dazzle the prisoner’s eyes and she will demand to be returned to her former life.

I try to imagine the (often short) life of the tanners who worked in the cave. The cave is now enclosed but would once have opened out onto fields and the River Trent beyond.

Instead, suppose her captors drag her up out of the cave and into the sunlight. The sun will be so bright to her unadjusted eyes that she will be completely blinded and unable to see the things around her that she is now being told are real. However, gradually, the prisoner’s sight will return, until eventually she will be able to look directly at the sun. She will walk out in the open air, enjoying the feel of grass under her feet, the sights and sounds of birds, and the cooling shade of a tree, and she will come to realise how fortunate she has been to escape her old life in the cave. How, then, might our prisoner feel if she is forced to return to the cave and is tied up again? She will not want to return, and when she does she will once again be blinded, this time by the darkness. Her fellow prisoners will consider her a fool because she will no longer be able to distinguish between the different shadows.

The philosophers are just like the freed prisoner in the simile of the cave. They have walked around in the outside world, contemplating and acquiring knowledge, and will have to be impelled to return to the cave, or rather society, in order to rule.

Cipriano Algor is a philosopher king too. Entering Plato’s cave makes him realise that he has been living in a shadow world, entertained by shadow things – like artificial weather experiences. When Marçal returns from his shift guarding the cave and asks his wife and father-in-law what they should do now, Cipriano announces that he is leaving. As Cipriano is driving back to the village and the pottery home, he wonders why he ever allowed himself to be locked away where he couldn’t see the sun and the stars except by craning his neck out of a thirty-fourth-floor window.

If the Centre in Saramago’s novel represents a shadow reality and it is Plato’s cave that saves its central characters, perhaps the caves beneath Broadmarsh could redeem the place for me. So one sunny day I found myself stepping down into the bowels of the shopping centre.

The tour of the Broadmarsh caves begins with a woman dressed in medieval garb. She leads us down a spiral staircase and into the cool dark of a carved sandstone passageway. We pass a well that has a sign above it stating that it is a wishing well.

“Will my wish come true?” a small girl asks her mum.

“Maybe,” says her mum.

The passageway leads into a cave known as the horseshoe because of its shape. Here the tour guide tells us about a pub that once used the cave as a cellar. The landlord allowed some dodgy dealings to take place in his cellar and would throw pebbles down a chute to warn the men below that the police were coming. The tour guide points out the chute but I can’t see it. She also tells us that these caves might once have been used by Robin Hood and highwaymen like Dick Turpin. “But I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether the myths and legends are true or not,” she says as she leads us on to the next stop on the tour.

The medieval tannery is a large room, spanned by a narrow metal walkway. Below, the floor is covered in square pits filled with water. The tour guide explains how the animal hides were placed in a pit full of quicklime to rot away the flesh, fat and hair, followed by a pit full of urine and manure, before finally being placed in a pit of water and oak bark, which produced the tannic acid that gave the leather a brown colour. I try to imagine the (often short) life of the tanners who worked in the cave. The cave is now enclosed but would once have opened out onto fields and the River Trent beyond. I picture the tanner standing up to stretch his back and looking out to the boats on the river and the long grass of the meadows swaying in a summer breeze.

History had been packaged up in myths and stories and was being sold as just another commodity in the shopping centre.

Before I’ve had time to appreciate the tannery, we’re whisked along from the middle ages to the present day via the Victorians and the Second World War, when the caves were used as air raid shelters. The tour is over, but I linger just a little longer to run my fingers over the sandstone. I’m reminded of being a child and always being told to “look with your eyes not your hands”. But the sandstone seems to demand to be touched, its cool surface seeking the relief of warm-blooded hands. The walls and ceiling of the cave are covered in rough, two-inch long indentations left by the tools used to dig them out. I brush away the sand collecting in one of the grooves and an earthy, mouldy smell rises up.

That smell was about as close as I got to something tangible and real. If I’d hoped to find a sense of place in the caves, something that would lift Broadmarsh up out of the common run of shopping centres, I was mistaken. What I found was a caricatured, clean version of the past, like the amusement park versions of real life that Cipriano finds in the Centre. History had been packaged up in myths and stories and was being sold as just another commodity in the shopping centre.

Anna Minton discusses “fake historic quarters” in her book Ground Control: Fear and happiness in the twenty-first-century city. In the book she explores the privatisation of public spaces and civic life and the advance of safe, sanitised spaces into the city. But such spaces aren’t just limited to the likes of Broadmarsh; they have now left the confines of the shopping centre to become ‘malls without walls’. These Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), as they are often known, were first established in the US and were then exported to the UK, where, Minton states, the concept has taken hold with very little difficulty. A BID is a system for city centre management whereby the company that owns it charges a levy on local businesses and uses the revenue to improve the area, with the criteria of cleanliness and safety being the main priorities. On the face of it this might seem appealing – as Minton points out, who wouldn’t want cleaner, safer cities? But the ‘improvements’ carried out by BIDs are not done for the sake of the local community; they are carried out for the sake of the bottom line and often to the exclusion of local people or ‘undesirables’.

The rise of the BID in the UK took place under New Labour and in 2002, David Blunkett introduced the notion of a ‘wider police family’ in order to extend the powers usually reserved for police officers to security guards. This was supported by the managers of business districts because they have very little control over the police, but they can make the private security firms they hire ‘police’ in a way that benefits their commercial interests. This usually amounts to keeping certain individuals and groups of people out of BIDs. The list of undesirables includes homeless people and in some cases this exclusion is violently enforced. Minton recounts a testimony from a security guard at a BID in the UK who was encouraged to be ‘hands-on’ with homeless people.

Young people are also the target of the ‘clean and safe’ agenda that has swept across the US and the UK. Minton sites an example in Cleveland where a curfew of 10pm has been imposed on the public square, largely to prohibit young people from gathering there at night. But the policy has resulted in a space that feels “lonely and underutilized”. A few summers ago I spent a week on the island of Sicily where the piazzas, the public squares, are treated like outdoor living rooms. Children play, hawkers hawk, people eat and drink, music is performed, films aired, couples wander and the old sit and observe. They are important spaces, alive with the civic life of the town, and because they are important spaces they are clean and feel safe.

It is “wear and tear”, dirt and disorder, that redeems a place, that makes it a place and not just a collection of objects.

The paradox of the clean and safe agenda is that it creates soulless, sterile places that are indistinguishable from one another, but BIDs need to offer the customer a unique and memorable experience so that the customer returns again and again. These “memorable experiences” are carefully crafted with auditioned and timetabled buskers. As one district manager that Minton talked to puts it:

“We prefer planned creativity. There’s a trade-off between public safety and spontaneity. What you want is a few surprises… so we add in unpredictability with lighting schemes and water features, anything that adds to the quirkiness of what happens when you walk around as a customer. We make a huge effort to import vitality.”

Planned creativity, lighting and water features, imported vitality; I wonder whether they can ever replace the joy of wandering the city and discovering a quiet, hidden park, or a beautiful piece of art, or a shop selling antique books. For many years a man who went by the name Marc Bolan (not the Marc Bolan) busked on Market Street in Manchester. His singing was out of tune and he hammered away on an equally out-of-tune guitar that was missing several of its strings. He was truly terrible, but that’s what made him – and the place – unique and why he became a local celebrity. I haven’t seen him in years and I wonder what has happened to him, whether he has been ‘cleaned’ away.

Despite my aversion to Broadmarsh and my feeling that all shopping centres are placeless and essentially the same, I couldn’t help but feel that I was being unfair to the place and that I was somehow failing to see it on its own terms. Meaghan Morris, a Cultural Studies scholar, also rejects the commonly held view that all shopping centres are identical. In her essay, Things to do in shopping centres, she writes:

“If the shopping mall appears new and placeless today, this is because it has not yet been integrated back into its surrounding urban fabric, either by wear and tear, or by feats of the imagination, or by reputation.”

It is “wear and tear”, dirt and disorder, that redeems a place, that makes it a place and not just a collection of objects. As Minton argues, we need de-sanitised cities, where creativity and spontaneous encounters are possible. Perhaps it is also dirt that saves the philosopher kings imprisoned in Plato’s cave, when they are blind and all they can sense is the dirt of the cave floor under their bare feet. And when they watch the shadow puppet show, perhaps they can smell the mouldy earth smell of that cold cave floor and they can say: “This, this is real”.

It is also dirt that redeems the characters in Saramago’s novel. At the beginning of The Cave Cipriano’s daughter Marta is in the kitchen of the pottery home, just after she has found out that the Centre will no longer be buying her father’s pottery:

“She glanced around her and noticed for the first time how everything looked as if it were covered in clay, not with clay dust, but with the colour of clay, with all the many colours of the clay dug from the clay pit, a colour left behind by three generations who, every day, had stained their hands with the dust and water of the clay.”

Later on, after visiting her new apartment in the Centre, Marta returns home and realises how strongly connected she feels to the pottery home and the village she has grown up in, and how essential it is to her: “only now did she understand that she loved these places the way a tree, if it could, would love the roots that feed it and hold it erect in the air”. She has spent her life surrounded by dirt and clay and it has nourished her, kept her firm and rooted in the place to which she belongs. And it is to this place that Marta and Marçal return when they too escape the Centre.

At the very end of the novel Cipriano and his daughter and son-in-law decide to leave the pottery home in search of a fresh start. The van is packed up and they are about to go when Cipriano decides to pay one last visit to the kiln. He comes out with the figurines, the ones he and his daughter made and tried, unsuccessfully, to sell to the Centre after it turned down his crockery. Together Cipriano, Marçal and Marta line all the figurines up outside the house: “the rain would eventually turn them into mud, and then into dust when the sun dried the mud, but that is the fate we all will meet”.


Image credit: Elliott Brown via Flickr.


The Learned Pig


Naomi Racz

Naomi Racz lives in Amsterdam but originally hails from Manchester, UK. She has an MA in Writing, Nature and Place from the University of Exeter. She mostly writes about urban nature and sense of place. Her latest project is a history of urban nature writing. Naomi's work has appeared in the City Creatures blog, Synaesthesia and The Real Story.