We’ll miss the high streets when they’re gone

 

Nothing ever stays the same. That’s life; a rollercoaster of constant change and we have to roll with it. For the most part change is for the better, although it never really feels like it. When comparing the present with the past nostalgia always kicks in, that constant nagging feeling that things were better when we were younger, especially for people that are my age and older. The rose tinted glasses come out; you remember the headline but none of the detail.

 

People often laud the 70’s and 80’s as a golden age of television. We might have satellite and cable television now, with a choice of hundreds of channels to be watched on giant crystal-clear screens, but, we tell ourselves, we don’t have Fawlty Towers. We conveniently forget that there were only a dozen episodes of Fawlty Towers ever made and they had to be watched on a fourteen inch black and white set, which only produced a picture when Dad perched on top of the wardrobe waving the aerial. Alongside the few gems that those decades produced there was an awful lot of dross, with no option to turn over as there were only three channels to choose from (until 1982, when we were rewarded with a whole extra one). Consequently our Friday nights were spent watching Seaside Special, Juliet Bravo and Blankety Blank. A golden age of television? Perhaps not.    

 

The same can be said for football. Remembering football from past decades, it is easy to recall that in the 1970’s and 1980’s we ruled Europe. Multiple European Cup wins by the likes of Nottingham Forest, Liverpool and Aston Villa established England as a major force, at least domestically. What we forget is that after 1970 England didn’t appear at another World Cup until 1982 and domestically we were forced to watch matches from cages, games that were played on pitches resembling ploughed fields and beaches. Yes it was much cheaper to get in, but if you made it home without being stabbed or having a bottle of urine thrown over you it was a good day.

 

So if we lose the nostalgia filter, for the most part life is better now. We enjoy a significantly higher standard of living and we live longer, mainly because of huge advances in healthcare. Technology has also progressed beyond the dreams of science fiction writers. You can buy things today that were unimaginable forty years ago. Satellite navigation for example, to a person of my age, is witchcraft. Computers, the internet, wireless connectivity and mobile phones are all advances no-one would have believed possible. When I was a child, Captain Kirk would use a small pocket communicator allowing him to talk to his crew mates without any wired connection. This was pure fantasy. Had I been told then that in forty years everyone would carry one, I simply would not have believed it. Furthermore if you had told me that this small device could also connect the user to all the information in the world ever, but people would use it predominantly for arguing with strangers, looking at videos of cats and sharing pictures of their dinner, I would have considered you insane.

 

However, there is always the exception to the rule; despite all our progress there are some things that are genuinely worse than they were when we were young. Driving for example, is certainly not such an enjoyable experience. On the plus side, going to start your car in the morning is no longer a lottery. Cars nowadays are better built, more comfortable and more often than not tend to burst into life obligingly when you ask them to (unless of course they are French). However, on the down-side, the price of fuel has increased enormously compared to the cost of living, meaning that a small mortgage is now required to fill up even a moderately sized vehicle. Between 1973 and 2013 the cost of a litre of diesel rose from £0.08 to £1.41, an increase of 1,727%. The only items to show a greater rise in the UK were lager, houses and gold. Gone are the days when families would go out for a Sunday drive (this used to be an enforced leisure activity in the United Kingdom, predominantly because there was nothing on television except Songs of Praise and Ski Sunday). Even if you did decide to take a little spin now, the expanding population and increasing number of car owners clog up our inadequate road network to such an extent that the only time to find a clear road is at 4:00am on Christmas morning. 

 

Another area that sees us taking large steps backwards is the high street shopping excursion. I quite like shopping. Not for food, but spending an afternoon wandering around a town centre, exploring the delights that the various shops have to offer has always been a harmless pleasure of mine. This is already becoming a forgotten experience. The internet is slowly but surely destroying our high streets. There is no debate that if you want to purchase something, it will almost certainly be cheaper bought from the ‘net. This is inevitable because the internet seller does not have to pay astronomically high town centre rentals and a streamlined operation can function on far fewer staff.

 

Your average high street store cannot compete and as more shoppers switch to buying online, so, one-by-one, the stores that graced our town centres for so long are disappearing. We are seeing major brands wiped from existence forever; huge companies that had traded in the UK, in some cases for decades. In the last few years we have said goodbye to: Woolworths, Dixons, British Home Stores, Blockbuster, Comet, Maplins, JJB Sports, Toys R Us, the list goes on and on. The net effect of a reduced footfall in the high street is that only the most robust businesses survive and because the first ones to go are the small independent retailers, every town centre now looks the same. Wherever you go, you will find: H Samuels, Boots, Next, Marks and Spencer, Superdry, Primark, Sports Direct, New Look, Moss Bros, Game, HMV etc. Head to the retail parks and you will find Homebase, B&Q, Matalan, Halfords, and Staples. They may be laid out differently but wherever you are, you have seen it all before. Some of those that remain are teetering on the brink too. HMV went into administration in 2013 and although rescued at that time seems to be clinging on grimly. Moss Bros has issued a profits warning this year. New Look and Homebase are both restructuring and are in the process of closing dozens of stores.

 

There is no doubt that the high street is dying. Is this really a good thing? It is certainly more convenient to purchase some things online. If you want a DVD or a CD you pretty much know what you are going to get, so I can understand the convenience. It’s not my preferred way, I am impatient. If I want something, I want it now, not in a week’s time from China via the game of chance that is DHL or similar (“We called, you didn’t answer inside four seconds, so now you have to collect from our depot in Swindon…”). I would rather pay a couple of quid more and have it the same day. But there are some purchases that are surely much more appropriate to make in person. Clothing, furniture, jewellery, items that are more personal and individual and seeing them first hand helps you make a decision.  

 

I foresee a time when we won’t have the option. We will reach a stage where there will be just a few superstores catering for everybody’s needs and all other purchasing will be done electronically. The high street will die and for me that will be very sad. There will be nothing to do on a Saturday afternoon apart from watching re-runs of Juliet Bravo on Dave, or taking the car out to sit in a queue with the family…

AG 01/06/2018

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