The Arndale Centre

The Arndale Centre

Until I came to Manchester I hadn’t really visited a shopping centre. My retail experience was limited to the Thursday market in Enniskillen. Woolworths and an imaginatively-titled rival across the road called Wellworths were about the biggest shops I’d ever been in until I landed up on Market Street and feasted my eyes on the early seventies monster that straddled about seven acres of bomb-site between Victoria Station, Oldham Street and Deansgate – the biege monolith that dominated downtown Manchester, The Arndale Centre. One of the biggest shopping centres in Europe, it fascinated and repelled me in equal measure. I loved the story that in 1974, Man Utd and Glasgow Rangers hooligans fought a pitched battle before their ‘friendly’ using material from the under-construction site, presumably clunking each other over the head with the bile-coloured cladding tiles. I had some great moments in there, slacking off college to go record-hunting, looking at the girls choosing their gear for a night at Rotters or chasing Georgie Best’s autograph in WHSmith, but I would never care to enter its dreary malls again. It just bestrode the city centre in a mean brutalist way, the planning of which now seems quite inconceivable. Much of the exterior was swathed in huge sand-coloured concrete tiles giving the impression of an enormous public toilet. It was opened officially by Princess Anne in 1979 when the Mayor of Manchester apparently remarked ‘I didn’t think it would look like that when I saw the balsa wood models’. It even had a huge seemingly pointless tower, presumably where the management perched themselves. But the whole business of escalators, winking Christmas lights, sports shops selling cheap trainers and every football shirt under the sun, the meat and veg and cheap jewellery and tat in the basement all fascinated me. So did the punters – bored housewives, alcoholics, gangs of predatory moustached teenagers, they were all in there, an escape from the rain, a chance to jump on the early eighties consumer gravy train and live the Viv Nicholson dream. Sprend, spend, spend, everybody. Littlewoods, British Home Stores, HMV, Top Man…there was even a covered footbridge to a glittering Marks & Spencers where we once followed Martin Platt from Coronation Street to see what he was cooking for his tea. It was hot and stuffy with a succession of dead-end malls all bathed in artificial half-light and there was the constant threat of abuse or worse from the roving gangs of casually-attired softlads and lasses. I was once spat on by a drunk whose phlegm unknowingly hung to the back of my jacket until I got home. Attached to one side of it was a bus-station which doubled as a mugger’s paradise and served grim northern satellites to where thankfully I never needed to venture. I probably bought clothes for the first time there, most certainly a watch and a few records. But even then I wasn’t really a proper consumer and soon discovered second-hand and the more leftfield joys of Affleck’s Palace. It seemed ironic that after all my visits to Wellworths, when a security man at the door would rifle through my schoolbag in case I was carrying a bomb, that the Irish troubles caught up with the Arndale in June 1996. The footbridge was destroyed but amazingly the main shopping centre wasn’t so badly damaged. Still it was a good excuse to give it all a major overhaul.

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