It’s been, as the PM likes to put it, 62 quarters (that’s 16 years to you and me) since we last had a technical recession (that’s two quarters in a row where the total value of everything we make, buy and sell in the UK falls). That is, by any country’s standards, rather good – the American’s can’t claim half as much – but they don’t call it a cycle for nothing: where there’s ups, there’s downs. Introducing Recessionist.
Just south of Shadwell station is Tobacco Dock, a lavishly built shopping centre which opened in 1989 and promptly failed in 1990 as shoppers and cheap credit became rare. Due to some mysterious force it remains open and perfectly preserved; one small corner of the early 1990s that stubbornly refuses to wake up to the new millennium.
Local boy Lawrie Cohen saw potential in the 200 year old, grade 1 listed, squat brick warehouse as the Docklands transformed in the 1980s boom. Twice the size of Covent Garden the centre was an enormous undertaking and brought in support from the Government, the Docklands Development Corporation and the ‘it’ architect of the day, Terry Farrell. The flagship stores were Next, the Body Shop, Cobra and Monsoon but it also boasted Justfacts – London’s finest Filofax accessories shop – and Uneasy, the UK’s first shop selling modern designer chairs, and nothing else.
Uneasy is how the owners were feeling a year later when the customer starved tenants were in open revolt. Filofax accessories and designer recliners were not top of anyone’s shopping list in the dark days of 1990 and the project soon collapsed with debts of £100m.
Since then plans have come and gone: a Sealife Centre, “turbo rides”, a cinema and a factory outlet re-launch were all pitched and failed. In a desperate attempt the receivers brought in Gerald Ratner, of “…because it’s total crap” fame, but even his oratory couldn’t bring in the punters.
The site was bought for a bargain £8m by a secretive Kuwaiti company called Messila House, who told the Times in 2005 that they were going to re-launch the centre only to promptly disappear and never mention it again.
Today the sole tenant, Frank and Steins cafe, continues to trade to a bunch of loyal locals and workers from its lonely unit in the basement. A grand piano sits mournfully in Henry’s Cafe Bar, which limped on until 2004 thanks to the alcohol demands of nearby News International. Snippets of 1990s nostalgic abound: the centre map shows us the way to Our Price records and stickers in windows invite us to pay for our purchases with Eurocard or Access; no chip and pin here.
A lone security guard promises great things are planned and raves about the quality of the restoration, ‘any day now’ he says, ‘look at the quality, all the best’. We wonder if he has been driven mad by the futility of guarding an empty mall from no-one.
The building is beautifully restored in a manner that in the 1980s would no doubt have been considered ‘sympathetic’. Two rusting fake pirate ships, built to entertain the children, add more of a Clyde than Caribbean atmosphere. The PA system shouts out ‘you’re on CCTV, you’re being watched’ as we explore the deserted plaza but watched by who, and why?
Perhaps 15 years from now we’ll walk around the soon to open Westfield Centre with similar fascination. Only time will tell but for now there’s at least one place in London where it’s always recession and never recovery.