Last week I spent a week working in an expensive private school in Wimbledon. This week I’m doing the same work, but in a church hall in Stockton-on-Tees. Geographically 280 miles apart. I’m staying in the Gresham area of Middlebrough, rows of terraced houses, some boarded up, some clearly empty, some half-demolished and left to rot, and some hosting Middlesbrough’s asylum seekers and other incomers. There are very few cars parked on the streets at night. The centres of both Middlesbrough and Stockton have some fine contemporary paving and mosaics, fountains, and poetry on sculpural features – evidence of money spent on “regeneration” – but are distinguished mostly by empty shops, boarded-up frontages, people left behind. Then tonight I went in search of Pizza Express, and found it, at a massive shopping centre, car parks, shops, cinema, more car parks. I feel like the town centre should be the heart of activity, public space, where people work and live and play, but I realise perhaps I’ve been left behind. These malls are where you find the populations now avoiding the town centres – the shops and restaurants and car parks are full, daytime and evening, and the air of misery and cliched northern deprivation is dispersed. So the question is, is my desire for a vibrant town centre now simply a sad nostalgic hangover, a sign of my age, or a sign of my youth in the 1970s? Shopping malls are not public spaces, they are private estates devoted to consumerism and capitalism, but if they are the future, how do we find the seeds of community and resistance there?
I went to a poetry event at Teesside University on Monday night, poems constructed from verbatim quotes from Durham coal miners over the past 200 years, shedding light on their lives and work and communities, now vanished along with the mines. If you were to interview the workers of the shopping malls, describing their lives and routines and experiences, what poetry might ensue? And what community?