One thing I always do when I start a new writing project – if possible – is go out and take some reference photos. I usually don’t actually use them that specifically – I rarely describe something featured in the pictures in precise detail – but I do find having them to hand, or even the act of taking them, helps me build atmosphere when writing. At least it does usually; it’s not a precise science by any means.
Anyway, it was one of the first things I did when writing my story Limited Edition for Arc magazine. Most of the action takes place around Avonmeads Retail Park, a very real place in south Bristol, just a few minutes walk from where I live. It’s easiest if I let Grids, Limited Edition’s main protagonist, explain how he feels about it:
“Avonmeads Retail Park, sandwiched between train tracks and a muddy river, half-hidden under the concrete sprawl of the traffic filled St Philips Causeway fly-over, looks out of place amongst the grid of infrastructure and housing, like a scrap of unwanted paper – like a discarded burger wrapper – that’s been blown on to this huge rolled out map, or a crumpled note pinned in place with electricity pylons and aerials. A nowhere-zone studded with near-forgotten retail brands and fast food franchises, a glorified car park that would have been abandoned to the rats and seagulls if you could download coffee, fried chicken and cheap household goods straight off the timelines.
Avonmeads is less than ten minutes walk from Barton Hill, from his ends, but it feels like a different world to him. Whenever there’s any trouble with youth in places like this the timelines erupt with opinions, people angry and shouting, saying why are people like him making trouble and tearing up their own community. He shakes his head and laughs to himself. Community? There’s no community down here. This isn’t a community space – it’s nowhere, a non-place. Nobody lives here, it’s populated only fleetingly by transient visitors – van drivers getting lunch, shoppers buying the few things they still can’t buy through their spex or print at home. Even the staff in the shops here – none of them live here, they just come for a few hours a day, a few days a week. And most of them don’t even hold that down for long – there’s about as much a sense of career down here as there is community. For a start the shops never stay for long – something opens, fills a short term need, then closes. Storefronts lie dead and abandoned, until someone thinks they’ve found another fleeting need, moves in, shuts down. Open, close, repeat.
No, the only thing that matters here is cash flow. It flows in and it flows out – in huge armoured, aerial-drone tracked, security vans. And that’s all it does. Nobody lives here, nobody works here for long, and the money doesn’t stick around – Grids ain’t no sociologist, but he’s pretty sure that’s not how a community is meant to work. And even if it is then he’s still not part of it, because he’s got no cash. Never has. And down here that makes him irrelevant, an outsider. It makes him insignificant.”
Don’t be misled though – that’s not exactly how I feel about Avonmeads. Sure there’s an element of my feelings in there – the part of me that finds consumer capitalism hollow and dangerous – but I always think it’s too easy for those of us with a little middle class privilege to dismiss the mass-culture of retail parks, multiplex cinemas, supermarkets and fast food chains out of hand. It’s a hypocritical, misguided nostalgia for a time when when everything was less uniform, more bespoke while most of us benefit from the cozy life that mass produced (post)industrial society gives us. The honest truth is that there’s not enough organic food to feed the population, not enough local butchers for everyone to shop in and not enough pre-war art deco cinemas for us all to take our families to. You can go to those places if you want – I certainly do on occasion – but don’t let yourself feel better than anyone just because you do. You’re not. You’re not really challenging anything about the status quo, and you end up just creating an artificial barrier between yourself and ‘the masses’, and run the risk of smugly flaunting your privilege.
Plus, I can’t deny I enjoy the slightly dystopian – or, to coin an overused phrase, Ballardian – vibe that Avonmeads gives me when I stroll around there. Maybe some of that comes out in the photos below. Have a look and tell me what you think. I’m off down to Avonmeads right now, to catch a movie and a burger.