I live in a shopping mall

st catherine'sI live in the old English university town of Cambridge. Along the river Cam, are some of the most beautiful old buildings in Europe. A trip I never tire of is a punt ride down this river, from which vantage point, the buildings are perhaps best admired. Far from the traffic, the lapping of water against the side of the boat as one drifts past the colleges that have stood there for so long has a deeply calming effect.

mathematicalThis is indeed a venerable ‘seat of learning’. Great men and women have studied, researched and taught here for centuries. Many students have gone on to become world leaders or captains of industry. The feeling of proximity to the ‘corridors of power’ is tangible.

Yet on a trip to town on Monday, it was all to easy to forget this side of Cambridge.

To a great many people who live in and around it, Cambridge is overwhelmingly about one thing only….shopping! The Xmas frenzy is in full swing, and as I wandered through the pedestrian zone, making my few humble purchases, I was struck by how grim it all seemed. The excess of it all, disgusting as it is, is no longer a surprise. But the spirit of good will to all men seemed thin on the ground. Armies of shoppers, laden with bags and parcels, barging through dense crowds, seemed more like a refugee nightmare.

Cambridge has been plagued with traffic problems for a very long time. Yet the city fathers have seen fit to allow the construction of not one but two shopping malls in the centre of town. I thought half the point of shopping malls is that they be on the outskirts of towns, to attract traffic away from the centre, and allow more spacious parking facilities.

petty curyIn the 1960s, Petty Cury, one of the most beautiful old streets in the city, was largely demolished to make way for the hideous Lion Yard development.

waffles-pole-trick-bob-smallerThen in the early 1980s, after years of bitter argument, much of the area known as the Kite was raised to the ground to make way for the Grafton Centre shopping mall. A lot of terraced housing, shops and popular meeting places were destroyed.

355px-Cambridge_Grand_ArcadeIn early 2008, after a long period of construction, the Grand Arcade was opened, making the now decrepit looking Lion Yard, to which it was attached, look like an afterthought.

Traffic now queues for hours to get into one of the expensive multi-storey car parks that sit alongside these cathedrals of commerce. Shoppers eventually emerge from their cars, tired and belligerent before they have even begun.

It is hard to understand why anyone would put themselves through this misery. Yet the social and commercial pressures are such that great numbers do. Thus in the minds of the greedy bastards responsible, it is all a great success, and the disregard for aesthetics and history is thoroughly justified.

So a unique and beautiful old town has been transformed into just another multi-million pound trading centre, with the same stores and products found in any walking street in Europe.

Perhaps the big winner is internet shopping. Given the choice of a day in the concentration camp conditions in town, or a quiet couple of hours at home in front of a computer arranging to have purchases delivered to your door, what would you prefer?

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