We shed crocodile tears over our high streets then click online and finish them off | Barbara Ellen

Once more, there are grim reports that the British high street is dying. It’s time for people like me to make it clear how much we care. To become alarmed and talk urgently, nostalgically, of bustling streets, crucibles of commerce, the pumping arteries of local communities.

And more. The lost art of live shopping. Ringing tills, rustling bags. The magic and theatre of it all. But then we move on, the sentimental mists clear, the community-spirited sap stops rising. And next time we need to buy something, without much thought, we go online and we order it.

My name is Barbara, and I’m a high street hypocrite. I’m prone to misty-eyed blather about our wonderful high streets (yak, yak) and what a tragedy it would be to lose them (blah, blah). Next thing you know, I’m on the Amazon site, ordering a multiplug, when there’s a perfectly good branch of Robert Dyas down the road.

Nor am I alone (British online shopping has risen faster than anywhere else in Europe). I’ve become so idle, so reliant on deliveries, that going into real shops has started to feel unnatural. Too bright, too loud, too many colours. Sensory overload. Brain can’t cope. Help!

I’m exaggerating: I haven’t had panic attacks sniffing bath bombs in Lush. Still, with people like me, the gulf (consumer dissonance?) between our crocodile tears and our actions is striking. What’s the point of moaning about the death of the British high street, when we’ve all conspired to “kill” it?

It’s been a tough week for UK retail. Attempts to rescue the Wilko chain failed (with 12,500 potential job losses). John Lewis Partnership’s boss, Sharon White, has called for a royal commission to save high streets. In recent times, there has been social media-inspired looting on London’s Oxford Street. Thousands of shops have gone, as well as post offices and banks. While some high streets are holding up, others aren’t. While some brands have a strong online presence, others don’t. Increasingly, the direst forecasts seem feasible in this jittery climate of darkened stores, boarded-up windows and generalised high street lifelessness.

The myriad reasons are well documented. In more recent times there’s Brexit, Covid, changing work practices, the cost of living crisis making every penny count. Elsewhere, inflated rents and costs, not enough government support, Amazon’s woeful tax contribution, drives to turn retail outlets into housing, no free parking. The list sprawls on. But it includes the public, our mass turning away from the physical retail world. The modern compulsion to buy online, even when prices aren’t much cheaper and it isn’t inconvenient to visit a shop.

A while ago, I witnessed the slow death throes of a neighbourhood department store – it was like watching a giant beast being put to sleep. The local feeling was that when big ships like that sink, they drag everything down with them. The sadness was palpable. It’s not as though people delude themselves that high street shops are human (“Oliver Bonas is my friend”), but the people who work in them are human (where are they destined when high streets fall – for motorway malls or mega-warehouses?). And, for many, high streets are part of being human. The backdrops to our lives.

It may be different for younger generations. It’s probable there hasn’t been the same habit-forming, nostalgia-drenched exposure. No memories of drooling over the Pic ’n’ Mix sweets in Woolworths, or group-huddling around a solitary plate of chips in Wimpy Bars. Last week a survey suggested that Gen Z prefer starting business ventures online to casual (underpaid? insecure?) work on high streets.

Does it matter if high streets change shape, start becoming less about shops and buying things, and more about services and experiences? A brave new world of pop-ups, nail bars, blow-dry stations, vape kiosks, street food, tattoo parlours and yoga studios? My frightened, dusty, change-averse brain could just about cope – though, to loosely quote Missy Elliott, surely there are only so many times you can “get your hair done … get your nails did”? It’s all very well having a hi-concept high street that resembles a groovy open-air festival, but where can I buy some semi-skimmed?

Away from grim socioeconomics, there’s no doubt that important things would be lost from the deaths of high streets: community, tradition, human contact (even if we have our moments of desiring less of all of them). So why are bleeding hearts like me tilting back in our computer-desk chairs and passively letting the Bad Thing happen?

What is it about British people noisily and performatively mourning high streets, but not actively supporting them? In my case, it seems to be an unlovely blend of the aforesaid dissonance, weaponised idleness (seriously, you want me to move?) and a bumper-pack of denial. High streets have always been there. Maybe our brains can’t register that, one day, they’ll simply – pfff!– disappear.

The death of the British high street turns out to be the easiest of whodunnits. Wedunnit, me and you, the lethargic, mouse-clicking hypocritical hordes. Just not entirely on our own.

Barbara Ellen is an Observer columnist


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