The Food of Suburban Shopping Centres
Brent Cross, The Whitgift, St George, Wood Green, Edmonton Green, Lewisham - all the lads
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Why does the shopping centre loom large in the memories of so many Londoners? Part of it is certainly because of our mums, harried and time-poor, using the efficiency of the shopping centre to get errands done, screaming kids in tow. I think many of us grew up hating shopping centres for this reason, seeing them only as sites of inertia and trauma. Lay a Londoner down on a tan chaise longue and delve back far enough I guarantee that repressed memories of a Zone 4 mall or a giant Matalan will come flooding back.
You can find these shopping centres across the UK, yet there is something about their particular geographic placement within London that makes them more appealing once you slip into teenagehood. If you were born in a London suburb, then you either grew up in an area where not enough was going on, or where too much was going on. The area with too much going on had a shopping centre. It is the difference between Bounds Green and Wood Green, between Enfield and Edmonton, between Hampstead Garden Suburb and Brent Cross. If London is many different towns combined into one, then shopping centres are those towns’ economic and social hubs, reorienting the city centre away from the West End and towards them. Londoners rarely grow up in Zone 1 surrounded by culture; in the absence of anything else, the local shopping centre is where we first learn to experience the city on our own terms.
Food is a huge part of this. The thing about suburban shopping centres is that they are 90% the same – the same shops, the same kiosks, even the same smells – a mixture of new clothes, old leather and, somehow, chaat, despite the fact that no one ever seems to be selling it. They might contain a Cineworld, a Costa, a Primark, a Lidl, an Argos, an Avogadro’s number of shoe and accessory shops, and nothing more aspirational than a H&M. Food is the missing 10% which makes each shopping centre different. Sometimes they create culture before it’s reproduced centrally: in Croydon’s Whitgift Centre, people travel specifically to go to Uncle Lim’s, a Malaysian restaurant on the upper floor which has been selling notably good Hainanese chicken rice for years, if not decades, before Borough Market made it ‘a thing’. At Edmonton Green, the serpentine sections of retail corridors all coalesce into a central courtyard of more ramshackle stalls, selling fresh produce and everything from Turkish hot nuts to kenkey, a food court before food courts. And yet, given the demolition of Elephant and Castle (a spiritually, if not geographically, suburban shopping centre) and the new, slicker competition, it feels like they’re on borrowed time.
Today’s compilation is about the complex role of shopping centres in the lives of Londoners, and how they form local identity. “Give me the child for seven years,” Wood Green, Brent Cross and Edmonton Greem Shopping Centres all tell us “and I will give you the man who reps his postcode”. There is something of your local shopping centre that doesn’t leave you; it is neither love nor hate, nor nostalgia, but a kind of ownership and protectiveness from outsiders who don’t understand their banality or grim unloveliness. Squint, and it might even look something like affection.
St George’s, Harrow, by Clare Finney
If teenagehood had a bricks-and-mortar incarnation, it would be a shopping centre on the outskirts of London: a strange, liminal place where the shops and restaurants are purpose built to taunt you with the promise – but never quite the fulfilment – of ‘fitting in’. To be in one is to be suspended not just between city and country, but between limitation and possibility, dependency and autonomy. In one direction lies the bright lights of London and the liberty of the tube network; in the other, endless green fields and the necessity of the family car.
Inevitably, the city was synonymous with adulthood. As teenagers, our Saturday trips to St George’s shopping centre in Harrow were our first solo forays along the Metropolitan line, taking us three tantalising stops closer to London and all it entailed. Those who have never visited Harrow might know it for its public school, which you can just see perched loftily atop the ‘hill’ of Harrow on the Hill station as your train pulls in. Yet it is the low slung, red brick shopping centres, St Anne’s and St George’s, that most people actually travel there for; and where each weekend we flexed our newfound freedom by choosing what clothes we bought, what films we watched, and what we had (or in my case didn’t have) for dinner.
I say choice: there wasn’t much. Few of my friends recollect anything beyond McDonalds and the Pizza Express we’d go to for special occasions. “Do you remember when Nando’s opened in sixth form, and we lost our minds?” one reminded me. I marvelled that there could have been a time pre-peri peri sauce.
The significance of these trips was in many ways defined by negation. As another friend pointed out, no one actually remembers what happened in St. George’s, only that you had to be there for it. To miss it was to miss everything and nothing. It was to miss imperceptible shifts in group dynamics; the cumulative connections forged by sharing fries and ketchup; the small acts of self-definition enacted through River Island, Claire’s Accessories and one’s choice of nuggets, Big Mac or milkshake.
The food too was defined by negation, in that its power derived not from what it was, but what it wasn’t: healthy, cooked by or chosen by parents. You ate it because it was delicious, and to be part of the group. Or rather to not not be part of the group, which was particularly problematic for me as these trips coincided with my struggle with eating disorders, rendering the loud and glaring McDonald’s menu a Hobson’s Choice between my fear of fatty food and my fear of missing out.
Nowhere did I feel that tension so intensely as I did there fiddling with a Filet-O-Fish under the harsh white lights of the food court. My teenage anxieties seemed almost to manifest themselves in those sweet, synthetic buns, the too-small ketchup pots, the red sleeves of regimented chips. Perhaps that – and the sartorial trauma of River Island – is why I have such a visceral, luminous sense of St George’s as somewhere caught on the cusp: between childhood and adulthood, eating and not eating, being in and being out.
Wood Green Shopping City, by Jonathan Nunn
Wood Green Shopping City is a red brick shopping centre in north London that emanates a uniquely malignant energy, spreading out like an aggressive tumour across the two sides of Green Lanes, joined by a second-level bridge that gives you beautiful vistas of the high street and WH Smith. There seems to be little rhyme or reason to its form, which has the appearance of loads of red Monopoly hotels stacked up on top of each other in one heterogenous mass. From the top of Alexandra Palace, Shopping City looks like a whole neighbourhood of London in itself, a red-rose Petra of shopping district and residential housing suspended in the air. It’s why, despite its rebranding as The Mall, no one ever calls it that. It is still Shopping City, or, quite simply, Wood Green.
Wood Green may be where I can locate many of my worst childhood memories, but it was also where I had my first Wendy’s (RIP, although now revived in Reading), where I first knowingly made the decision to eat Pakistani food in a restaurant, at an inexplicably located and now forgotten branch of Lahore Kebab House. It was where I fell down an escalator and fractured my arm in my haste to order an XL Bacon Double Cheeseburger at Burger King. It was also where I first encountered an entirely separate mode of shopping – usually separate from the shopping mall but intimately connected at Wood Green – which is the indoor market.
If the shopping centre is manicured and predictable, then the market hall section of Wood Green is a Wild West of bellowing fruit vendors, of halal butchers, of enough rugs to carpet the Hagia Sophia, of every style of ripped jean a teenage girl could want, of idiosyncratic Asian, African and Caribbean food stores, an Americana-themed diner that sells nothing American, an Italian café run by no one who has come close to living in Italy, and one of the best Mauritian restaurants in the city. At the Footlocker round the corner, you could be anywhere in London’s doughnut, but in those byzantine halls, you could only ever really be in Wood Green.
Recently, I was overcome by a desire to walk around the shopping city for the first time in years. Given, as a Londoner, you are conditioned to expect change, the experience was disorientating. If it had stayed precisely the same, not one brick unchanged, then it would have looked like a time capsule and therefore not as how I remember it. But it looked exactly how I remembered it. Every change that had been made only had the effect of bringing the centre into 2021 with the exact analogue of its late ’90s equivalent. The Wendy’s, long gone, has now transformed into a Five Guys. Lahore Kebab House is now a JRC Global Buffet. Every addition to the food options, from a Tinseltown to a waffle shop, is somehow just off-trend, exactly how it should be. The hype place where all the kids hang out is an Awesome Chips that sells chips, potato twisters and two dozen different sauces. The entrance to the market hall is now guarded by a bubble tea shop.
‘Has it changed much?’ I ask the woman at Mauritian Paradise Catering, eating a roti and gesturing around to the stall where I used to pick up packs of Koka instant noodles, 5 for £2, the same price as now. ‘No,’ she smiled back, ‘actually, it hasn’t really changed at all.’
Lewisham, by Helen Bowie
The first time I ever went on an unsupervised shopping trip with a friend was twenty years ago, in Lewisham Shopping Centre. At the turn of the millennium, Lewisham was untouched by the clutches of gentrification: a suburban utopia of people minding their business aggressively, mainly occupied by other marauding 11 year olds filling their weekends with Claire’s Accessories, pound shops – and street food, long before any of us gave any thought to that being a thing. The buzz of the market stalls, the shouting, the fruit sold by the bucket and plants sold by the box: it all felt uniquely exciting without adult supervision.
My strongest memory of that trip was sitting on a bench, in front of a run-down branch of JD Sports, eating a nondescript sounding ‘chicken fillet’ bought from a Thai street food van for the bargain price of 60p. Hot, soft, light then dense with gently spiced and slightly sweet chicken, ordered only due to a combination of peer pressure from a friend and a desire to save as much money as possible to spend on fluffy pens and clip-on earrings. It was my first unsupervised meal out too. There was truly something magical about being an 11 year old lady who lunched on a day at the shops, even under strip lights and with the background hum of Kiss FM echoing through the centre; a siren song, luring girls into New Look.
From 2008 to 2014 I left London, but the draw of SE13 is strong and I’ve wound up back in my beloved Lewisham. It looks on the surface like little has changed; at least, there is an ever-changing line-up of shops that look the same: unbranded clothes shops change hands, pick’n’mix stalls pop up in the centre, disappear and reappear with slightly different branding. But the atmosphere, a mix of community and anonymity which seems particular to city suburbs, feels even warmer, friendlier, than the Lewisham of my childhood, with an emphasis on inclusivity that has always been part of its fabric but is now made explicit against a growing backdrop of misinformed culture wars and criticisms of London as dangerous and uninviting.
Childhood peer pressure is much maligned, but I am eternally grateful to the friend who convinced me to eat Thai food from a van and embrace new things, inspiring the attitude that would lead to eating smalec from a cart up a mountain in Poland, fried grasshoppers from a taco cart behind a pub car park, or oysters from a van parked outside a train station. The stall still stands on Lewisham High Street, and I go back for a hit of nostalgia, chilli, sugar and joy sometimes. I also owe that 60p (sadly now £1, thanks to inflation) chicken fillet a debt: for teaching me that to be a lady who lunches is a state of mind, attainable even for an 11 year old on a grubby bench in a garish shopping centre, gnawing through battered chicken.
The Whitgift, by Hannah Caesar
Like most of London’s suburban shopping centres, the Whitgift acts as an extension of one of those chaotic all-purpose shops whose brand is obscure to you but which you kind of respect anyway, giving you the option to both pierce your ears at Claire’s and buy a fish tank at the Aquazoo. It’s a real period establishment: distinctive checkered flooring, large glass atriums, fluorescent lighting and sporadic 70s signage, almost like an unfunded version of the StarCourt mall set on Stranger Things.
If you make your way to the first floor, you will find one or two cherished culinary survivors such as Uncle Lim’s Malaysian Kitchen, which has the vibe of an international hotel breakfast buffet, tucked away in the corner like a secret that was kept for far too long. Here you can get laksa, chicken rice, and proper char kway teow, slightly caramelised and charred, although I didn’t quite appreciate it at the time. As a teenager, Uncle Lim’s canteen-styled seating and serving felt aesthetically unfamiliar, but now it almost seems like an ode to the childhood dining experience.
Instead, I remember spending much of my childhood self-indulging in the over-priced waffles at Creams with my friends on hazy school afternoons, and following the crowd that emerged at the infamous McDonalds on North End, where you’d order a cheeseburger and receive a side of chaos. Once, my uncle had flown in from Sri Lanka and we shared cups of corn from the sweetcorn kiosk that sat by the entrance, unloved and untouched by most. Pockets of perfectly starchy sweetness, lightly seasoned with chilli and lathered in generous amounts of butter. He insisted on buying us some corn as if he were introducing it to us. I remember him shaking his head in disapproval at the sight of the pizza-flavoured option, which in retrospect, seems understandable.
Since the opening of its neighbour BOXPARK in 2016, the Whitgift has been overshadowed. To be fair, the Whitgift was never meant to be a culinary hotspot. It may have been Croydon’s pride and joy in the ‘70s, but ever since, it’s been stuck in limbo. Its period charm has worn off, the paint faded, the candy in the gum-ball machines expired; its mismatched floor tiling degraded and its clocks left faulty, as if to signal that the passage of time works differently there. All this somehow takes nothing away from the fact that it is a defining feature of Croydon's townscape. BOXPARK may be new, exciting and everything Whitgift is not, but it is also merely an expansion of a food park that first appeared in Shoreditch. The Whitgift, for all its flaws, is Croydon.
Still, the Whitgift Centre is now somewhere I end up in more often by mistake, usually during a bus transfer. On the rare occasion I do plan to meet there, it’s to grab a discounted blue raspberry slushie from the chicken shop behind the bus station on a hot summer’s day, melted syrup dripping down the palm of my hand and the chill of the ice numbing my fingers as I wait patiently for the 154.
Brent Cross, by Molly Pepper Steemson
I rarely, if ever, think about Brent Cross but it was a steady feature of the first twelve years of my life. My sister and I were both fitted for our first school shoes at the Brent Cross John Lewis; our grandparents would take us on birthdays and Christmases to choose our presents; it was the forum where I debated with my dad ─ like Plato and Aristotle ─ over whether an Ed’s Easy Diner milkshake was a drink (me) or a dessert (him). Two decades on, I am older now and comfortably settled into a middle ground: it’s both (and a dip) .
When we went to senior school, Brent Cross began to serve a different purpose. Friends’ mums would pile us into their cars and leave us there for hours at a time. We were simulating adulthood in a controlled environment; experimenting. The result of these experiments was the realisation that there are only two things to do if you are a gaggle of eleven-year-old girls in Brent Cross: steal eyeliners and drink Frappuccinos. On special occasions you might spy on the boys from the boys’ school from an inconspicuous vantage point, like the balcony outside of WHSmith’s. Once the stealing and spying are done (embarrassment and fear of being sent to prison mean that neither activity lasts very long), you realise that you’re meeting Georgia’s mum at 5pm outside Yo! Sushi, and that 5pm is two hours away. Thankfully a Frappuccino in Brent Cross is an indefinite activity and a group of four girls can easily share three of them on a wooden bench, with their backs to a plastic palm tree, forever.
Once we discovered that Frappuccinos in Brent Cross were inferior to Strongbows in the park, we stopped going entirely. I realised, quite suddenly, how vast London was and how little I knew of it. My early teens were spent desperately trying to earn some sort of bohemian cultural capital, and Brent Cross became an embarrassing reminder of how suburban my childhood had actually been.
A few days ago I ran into Liz — a friend of my parents’. It was the hottest day of the year. In a heatwave-induced frenzy, she said, she had driven to Brent Cross to buy makeup. Instead what she found there was air conditioning, which she sat under for three hours nursing a single iced coffee from Costa. At some point, a kindly (and perhaps concerned) security guard pointed out that she’d been sitting there for “quite a long time”. Liz thanked the man for his concern and remained at her seat for another 45 minutes.
It was only after running into Liz that I started thinking about Brent Cross again – how we had grown and learned there, then left it behind without any intention of going back. It hadn’t occurred to me that someday in the future, I might find myself back in Brent Cross, sitting in front of a frozen drink, waiting for nothing.
Epilogue, by Kashif Sharma-Patel
Moving near to the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre five years ago was something like a homecoming. Having grown up in Croydon going to the Whitgift Centre, and its sister Centrale, Elephant’s low-key suburban atmosphere felt familiar, except in Zone 1. The no-frills pedestrian nature of the space fed a leisureliness: a space of utility for a multicultural working-class, a slow oasis in the bustle of the surrounding concrete overgrowth. Cheap rice-and-daal, the odd incense stick, Chinese herbal teas, a browse through the clothes vendors and trips to Superdrug all regular occurrences that made daily routines liveable and pleasant. It was a place for reprieve in the sweltering inner city, however transitory and incomplete.
Now the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre sits like an open carcass, as demolition tears through its sinews day-by-day. This process, which has been underway for years now, is doubly compounding and compounded by issues of gentrification. The new developments are reshaping the topography, both architecturally and socially: on one side we see the luxury housing developments and on the other we see the changes in services and amenities that price out many of the area’s inhabitants. While the few food vendors that remain may be forced to find creative ways of surviving, the re-landscaping of the area amidst a perpetual construction site provides a terribly alienating situation, arguably envisioning the way social relations will be enacted in our sanitised futures.
While we should be wary of nostalgia, the question of loss here is tied to how these mundane spaces offer a point of gathering or assembly: a place to linger and reorient oneself within a larger communal ecology. They are akin to marketplaces or public squares insofar that they serve people at their own pace and need. The new developments are to a greater degree abstract spaces, where you find a fast-paced conveyor-belt approach to leisure whilst being assaulted by loud music and ‘good vibes’. It is the difference between a site that intends to service socio-economic need, versus one that seeks to brazenly cash-in on a consumption-driven culture.
The romance may be lacking, perhaps, but shopping centres have left indelible marks on many and constitute one site to interrogate collective desires for urban social life. We’d do well to take that seriously.
Clare Finney is a London-based freelance food writer, and deputy editor of Market Life, the Borough Market magazine. You can find more of her work at the Guardian, the Independent, BBC Good Food, delicious, Foodism and the Borough Market website, and you can find her on Twitter at @finney_clare.
Jonathan Nunn is the editor of Vittles.
Helen Bowie is a writer, performer and charity worker, and the founder and editor of Tattiezine, an art and lit zine about potatoes. You can find her tweeting about cats, mayonnaise and human rights at @helensulis.
Hannah Caesar is a politics student based in London and writes about popular culture and feminism
Molly Pepper Steemson is a waiter and writer from North London. She can be found pouring wine at Sessions Arts Club, or on Instagram
Kashif Sharma-Patel is a writer, poet and editor at the87press. Pamphlets include fragments on mutability (Earthbound Press, 2020), and Suburban Finesse co-authored with Ashwani Sharma and Azad Ashim Sharma (Sad Press, 2021). Kashif has written music, art and literary criticism for Artforum, Wire Magazine,The Quietus, AQNB, Poetry London, MAP Magazine and more.
Many thanks to Frankie McCoy for additional edits