The Scottish author Ewan Morrison chronicles behind-the-scenes, salacious drama in shopping malls, and gives us his take on a visit to Dubai Mall.
Far from a cold shopping monolith, there is life in the mall
Think about it: when was the last time you genuinely enjoyed yourself at a mall? It's all too easy to cast them as homogenous temples of bland, unthinking consumerism.
But a new book asks us to think much deeper than concerning ourselves with which pair of shoes might be on sale the next time we visit. Combining short stories with history and factual analysis, Ewan Morrison's Tales from the Mall does that rare thing: it gives shopping centres a human face.
"I've written four books which have been about exorcising my own demons, and it gets quite exhausting," he laughs. "So this time I just wanted to find out how the world works. It's always intrigued me that no one's ever really written about these structures which are at the heart, now, of most cultures. Malls have spread around the world so it's not as banal a subject as it might seem."
It was an encounter with an operations manager in one British mall which took Tales from the Mall to another, ahem, level. Rather than give Morrison the public relations spiel, the manager allowed his staff to speak freely to him.
"It was the juicy anecdotes of daily life in the mall I was after," he says. "And it turns out that when you work in a really boring job in retail, one of the ways you keep yourself going is to amass these stories of strange behaviour."
So in one tale a cleaning assistant saves a suicidal man by hurling abuse at him. In another, a man addicted to Starbucks finds fleeting love when he trips over a fellow shopper. Chalk lines scrawled into dark service corridors, to help nervous delivery men find their way to the right store, take on the quality of ancient cave drawings. Some anecdotes seem too good to be true, but for Morrison that's not important.
"Of course, it's very possible they may have been embellished in the retelling," he says. "But that's fine – it's how folklore and urban myth are generated. But it was important for me not to write a theoretical book exposing the workings of capitalism. I would admit there is a lot of sadness and longing in the stories, but that's because I listened to people. Often lives are like that."
One of the real successes of the book is that its mood and tone continually shifts, from a sense of wonder at, say, a mall's naming conventions, to slightly bleaker, almost Dickensian visions of working life; a place where a teenage "runner" in a sports shop has to memorise the codes for thousands of pairs of trainers.
"I suppose I am asking people to think about the unseen stuff next time they go to a mall, says Morrison. "It's about finding the humanity within a structure that seems so anonymous."
And how does Morrison feel about malls, now the book is finished?
"I have a great fondness. I see where the anchor stores are, I work out whether the food court is on the top floor, I check out where the escalators are positioned. Weird, I know," he says.
"But, best of all, I've become more generous as a person and a writer, because I've discovered that I didn't actually come up with many of the best stories in the book. They come from these real people who make these amazing places work every single day."
Tales from the Mall, published by Cargo Publishing, is out now. Visit www.ewanmorrison.com for more information.
Ewan Morrison on his visit to The Dubai Mall
“This is going to sound really geeky, but it wasn’t the huge size of The Dubai Mall which was interesting to me. I was more impressed with the way it was arranged, in a semicircle. Mall design used to be simple: they were all barbell in shape with big ‘anchor’ stores at either end. But in Dubai Mall it’s very easy to get lost, which I think may even be a deliberate architectural device to make you stay longer.
“It feels different to other malls I’ve been to, in that immediately there’s a sense that people have come from all over the world to shop there. If you go to malls in the US they can often be racially quite distinct. But when you walk through the doors of The Dubai Mall, you can’t get a sense of which country you’re in. All the world appears to be in one place, which is -intriguing.
“But most of all I was really struck by how futuristic, almost Blade Runner-esque, the whole place felt. The shark tunnel makes Dubai more like a dream space than any other mall I’ve ever come across. Which is quite a visionary idea actually – certainly feeling lost in a dream as you enter a retail space is the way planners are talking about shaping our shopping experience in the years to come.”