Towards Tescopolis

by Steve

Woman in supermarket, child in trolley

There was an interesting article on the Guardian website the other day from one of the judges of the Granta list of best British novelists under 40. Now, as this list is collated every ten years and I’m now in my thirties, unfortunately I will never be a Great Young Novelist as decreed by Granta. We shall overlook the fact that I haven’t written a novel, or anything approaching one, and probably never will, and perhaps focus for a moment on yet another sign of me slowly getting old. I was just about willing to accept that I was never going to be a professional footballer, but I figured being an acclaimed novelist was less time-dependant. Little did I know. I guess I better aim for a Nobel now. Anyway, back to that article…

The article’s standout lines were:

“It is unashamedly the first best of British-Hyphen novelists, and even within “British” fiction, it seems as if writers are keen to explore the specificities of regionalism rather than the bland Tescopolis. The list shows that the novel can be both realist and metafictional, post-colonial and domestic, avant-garde and traditional.”

This was picked up by the author Will Wiles, on Twitter.

This idea of writing about ‘Tescopolis’ really captured my imagination. We’re all suburban now. Well, at least the majority of us are, those of us who can’t afford to live in city centres, who don’t have exciting jobs, who aspire for nothing more than a comfortable life. There is the homogenization of the high street. Walk through any provincial town, or through any shopping centre, and it looks the same.

“41 per cent of UK towns are clone towns and a further 23 per cent are on the verge of becoming clone towns”

Saturday night isn’t a dinner party sipping Pinot Noir discussing Proust, and it is not slumping in a council estate stairwell smoking crack. It is more likely spent sat in front of the TV, watching what everyone else is watching, enjoying a takeaway, a treat to look forward to all week.

I’m not suggesting we are all the same. Far from it. But while British people come from an ever-increasing range of backgrounds, their day-to-day experience, what they come across from the supermarket to the television set, is pretty similar. Sure, they meet these commonalities in very different ways, but the mise-en-scène is often the same.

But who is chronicling this? I don’t pretend to be amazingly well-read, far from it, but I read enough and I’ve rarely seen much that really tackles the ‘Tescopolis’ so many of us inhibit, or pass through.

“More than 80 per cent of us live in areas that can be classified as suburban and yet ‘suburbs’ have played a secondary role in regeneration and urban policy.”

And rather than make simple judgements on suburbia, popular culture and consumerism, I’d like to see a literature that meets it in a far more nuanced and sympathetic way. Television, for its faults, can bring solace and comfort. An indian takeaway with a can of beer sometimes just makes things better for a while. Retail therapy sometimes is just that. Of course all these things have their limitations, their obvious downsides, but they are far more complex than just Bad Things we should look down upon.

There is true drama and humanity in your local Wetherspoon’s, or Nando’s, or indeed, Tesco. These are the places we go, for better or for worse. These are the places that offer escape, but that also trap us. A meaningful literature should face the ‘bland Tescopolis’ head on, and should question its blandness. It should explore the immediate value and appeal of all these things, why people are attracted to consumerism, popular culture etc. And it should also explore the long-term effects, on the high streets, on our economy, on our souls. What does living within a Tescopolis do to us? And why do we stay there – because we have to, or because there is an underlying appeal we don’t dare acknowledge?

I would like to see a literature that covers all these issues in a clever, human way. A literature that treats the subject and the people it describes with a certain dignity and understanding. I want empathy over anthropology. So many of us spend our time and money in a Tescopolis of one form or other. Fiction, perhaps more than any economic or sociological study, can explore what this might mean for us, can explore how the Tescopolis can be attractive and repellant, and quite often both at the same time.

“customers are only sincere when spending”

Who is capturing the uncanny and the absurd and the compelling in the supermarket, the shopping centre, the chain resturant, the bookies, the pub?

Of course, there may already be lots of writers covering this that I just don’t know about. Or I might have just got my definition of Tescopolis and its relation to literature wrong. I guess this is my disclaimer – that I might just be ignorant and missing the point. Something to think about, anyway.

Image from the Nationaal Archief, via Flickr