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  • Ben Thomas

Bicester Village - Part Two

You can view Part One of Bicester Village (and an introduction to the background of this creative piece) here.

 

As I’m walking along the luxurious paving, I can hear the scuttle of my own shoes alongside others. The sound intensifies when it’s a customer wearing high heels - clip-clopping -resembling the sound of show ponies. The paving slabs match the high-end feel of the place. It’s not boring grey concrete. It’s colourful bricks and they’re in diamond and square shapes and are spotless. Although I will say it does feel slippery as it has been raining in the country and because of the use of bricks and individual slabs, it is a tad unsteady in places, but even that feels like a design choice. The giant plant pots along the way have special distinct coloured floored areas for them. Nothing is random here; everything is meticulously calculated. Claude Lévi-Strauss – not related to the villager who lives here - once said that “alterations in scale always sacrifice the sensible in favour of the intelligible”. It feels like that here. Instead of having a plant pot, it is as though The Village is shouting out, making a point; “Here is a plant pot!” with its oversized versions. The Village is encouraging its visitors to see it as a real English village, but the only way they can achieve this is through fakery and exaggeration.


With Jack Wills on my right, I give him a wave as I hear that varied chatter again. Jack Wills is the shortened name of Jack Williams – the grandfather of company founder Peter Williams. But he lives on here - wearing a burgundy, cotton hooded top that strangely has his own name adorned across it in large letters. There are so many voices here. I can hear diversity and different languages through phone calls, Face Timing and families deciding what shops to go in. The echoes of these languages mix in with music bellowing out the doors of stores – Superdry being one of the offenders. Julian Dunkerton resides there; he’s always been a bit of a loudmouth obsessed with Japanese culture. He’s inside watching anime. There’s the frequent noise of suitcase wheels dragging along those uneven paving stones that join the assault on my auricles. People pilgrimage with empty suitcases, to fill up and bring them back home on the return flights. Imagine the cost on low-budget airlines for that. Wheelie bags are a recent invention –people used to lug around huge trunks by hand. Airports had trollies for baggage to aid those who weren’t the strongest. These days, you wander around airports and these luggage trollies have become obsolete. Wheelie bags have killed them off. More murder. I notice one family dragging two large suitcases underneath the direction signs – which are also a typical English country design - towards the station.


Continuing west, I sense that I’m heading towards the affordable, cheaper housing in the area. There’s Cyrus and James Clark’s shoe-filled bungalow for example. Unlike Hugo Boss whom I crossed paths with at the beginning of my dérive, their sign doesn’t glow and neither do their shoes. They’re practical and straight to the point people. Hugo Boss joined the Nazi Party in 1931, two years before Adolf Hitler came to power. I don’t think he and Jack Williams would have got along. At the east end where I started there was Hugo’s house and a quick glance at my map of The Village shows Guccio Gucci living in the middle and Sheriff Ralph Lauren at the west end where I’m heading for. Let’s take a moment to imagine a round table of these village men at dinner. A nightly convene with Jack Williams, Hugo Boss, Ralph Lauren, Guccio Gucci and others all sat round together discussing their latest innovations over cheese and biscuits. Jack Williams of course the outsider, he’s wasn’t a designer like the rest, but he’s there representing his grandson. It’s his name after all, not Peter’s. Don’t forget our friend Claude Lévi-Strauss – sorry I mean Levi Strauss. He’s at The Village dinner table as well dressed in his latest denim innovations. Each night one of them is hosting, offering up different dishes to their counterparts. Gucci with fine Italian wine and pasta, Ralph Lauren and Levi Strauss both refusing to serve Hugo Boss.


Ralph Lauren – in a 1920s-style men's suit - is discussing his latest moves in philanthropy and his donations to the American Democratic Party. Hugo Boss snorts at this, his politics don’t mix with Lauren’s. Strauss insults Boss in his native tongue and Boss slams his cutlery down on the table at whatever was said- spilling some of his drink over his own luxury suit. The loud clattering noise fills the room whilst Williams is watching it all unfold – baffled at the scene. Guccio Gucci – sat in the corner - lights up a cigar, its smoke forms a musky scent in the dining hall, and he chuckles at the argument – despite not understanding a word. Lauren, Boss and Strauss continue at each other until there’s a knock on the old, wooden oak door. It’s Cristóbal Balenciaga - late as always - and joining him is his close friend Christian Dior. There’s often rumours about the pair. They come with gifts for the dinner and a smile on their faces. Dior is sporting a black leather jacket and brings a pack of playing cards for the entertainment later and Balenciaga with a bottle of Spanish wine that tastes ripe and fruity. Gucci isn’t fond of this; he’s always believed his bottles are finer. The pair settle down into the awkward atmosphere at the table and the dinner party continues. Balenciaga covers his cotton canvas trousers with a serviette. The next course comes out, served at the table by Cath Kidston – dressed in a flowery apron patterned with small illustrations of farmyard animals - who’s been slaving behind the scenes throughout the evening.


Speaking of dinner parties, I’m starting to smell the food joints, and I decide to head into Itsu – a fake Asian food chain - for lunch. Now you may ask why I call Itsu “fake”. Well it is. Itsu was set up by Brit Julian Metcalfe, co-founder of sandwich chain Pret-a-Manger and founder of Metcalfe's Food Company. Their HQ is in London. In September 2013, Itsu opened its first shop outside London, in nearby Oxford. Not one bit Asian. Educated at Harrow School in north-west London, Metcalfe could have been nearby to where my father was - at the similarly named Harrow County School for Boys. A strange connection between the two of us. When Metcalfe occasionally turns up for the Village dinner-dates, he dresses in culturally appropriated Asian clothing, but everybody sees through the façade.


After my stop for lunch, I turn right out of Itsu and continue walking west. Since I’ve stopped it has started to become dark. I was in there for around thirty minutes and had my back turned to the front door, so I didn’t notice it happen. Outside, the seating areas for those eating have now turned on their heaters. Despite exposing customers to the elements, it looks rather cosy – there’s a confusion here of what is inside and what is outside - as the seats are sofas with large cushions rather than a typical picnic bench. They must have to wash this furniture more often than the average sofa owner. It reminds me of The Netherlands rather than an old English town – I’ve visited my mother’s family there on many occasions - where these outside terraces are common. Set ups such as these signify a collapse of distinction between inside and outside. It is like the strategies of casinos in Las Vegas, that ban clocks and windows, so unaware gamblers spend extra time than anticipated within. By blocking out a conception of time to those inside the walls – a concept of responsibility is lost as well. No need to rush to work, no need to rush to the shops. You can stay inside and do what you like. It’s similar here. Obviously, there’s a concept of time and you can see the outside – but there’s a feeling of being away from boring, stressful, usual life. Everything here is skewed enough to make a person forget their responsibilities and their bank balance.


That cold breeze from earlier has dropped but the chill of a clear night takes over. There’s a relief in me that is glad to have the windy afternoon replaced by the still evening. The Village feels friendlier as the sunlight begins to die out and the decorative lights and lamps start to turn on. I look around and admire the scenery. In one of the few moments I’ve appreciated here, I notice children giggling and laughing - but their sound doesn’t intrude my thoughts. Unlike those indoor shopping centres that I mentioned earlier, noise doesn’t echo and bounce around maddeningly. Even in this area where The Village seems busier.


Alongside the fairy lights and the lamps made to look like old gas varieties, the classy, logo-covered, retractable awnings are starting to come out. The dwellings in The Village are often moved around, so it must be a pain to change these features. A couple of members of staff must be anticipating rain as they wind out one for Dior. Another pair of people walk by smoking. This time a Chinese pair. I’ve noticed a few Chinese tourists smoking whilst here. More than their English or European counterparts. Smoking in China is widespread, as the country is the world's largest consumer and manufacturer of tobacco. It’s estimated that there are 350 million Chinese smokers and that China produces 42% of the world's cigarettes. Easy to see when standing in The Village. Whilst I’m contemplating this Asian history I’m made to jump back into reality as I hear someone shout my name.


“Ben!”


I look around but fail to see anyone familiar. A woman rushes past and shouts my name again but catches up with a man who was heading inside Fendi’s place. She says something in a language I don’t recognise and follows him into the shop. Wasn’t for me. I don’t know anyone here.


After this distraction I carry on past Ugg and Salvatore Ferragamo’s homes on the left and N.Peal and Smythson’s on the right and reach an open area. On my left there’s a children’s play construction resembling a wooden fort. On my right I spot an archetypal British red telephone box outside of Café Wolseley. The café appears upper-class and resembles something out of London – explaining the telephone box outside. It reminds me of The Ritz near Green Park and Buckingham Palace – that second most visited place by Chinese - where the flagship Wolseley outlet is right by. It fits into that ongoing uchronic theme of classic England that The Village is going for and I’m seeing why Value Retail markets their villages as “international tourism shopping destinations”. As I move a few yards forward, I pass a Dolce and Gabanna adorned house with a strange greenhouse extension and now reach another interesting feature in the middle of the pavement. There’s a centre piece statue of a pair of bears here with a sign stating, “no climbing”. I don’t understand the connection between the bears and The Village, so I seek out a nearby staff member.


The staff I’ve seen here resemble bell hops. They’re in red velvet uniforms with a fez adorning their head and a cape over their back. They’re Lauren’s police force of The Village. It’s a uniform that is the mix of a hotel bellboy and a beefeater. They are here to help - even fellows like me who aren’t here to shop – well, I hope. The uniformed lady I approach holds another handful of those limitless maps and offers me one. I decline as I already have one in my bag for reference and proceed to ask about the bears.


“Could you tell me why there are bear statues here?” I ask.


“In all honesty sir I have no idea.” She laughed and continued, “I know the central bear has been here since the beginning and they’ve added more over time, that’s all I know about them.”


With a prayer room on my left, I spot Michael Kors cleaning his windows – he missed the earlier dinner, too busy on the phone with political dignitaries. I carry on after my quick chat with the staff member. I pass by Ralph Lauren’s children’s store. It’s one of three of Ralph’s properties situated in The Village. All for different target audiences and are spread out down the street. Again, that tactic of getting folks to walk past all the shops is here. If you’re looking to deck out the whole family in a certain brand, expect your Fitbit’s step count to go up. This Ralph Lauren establishment is one of several in this centre area that have queues outside to get into – let alone to pay. There are barriers ready in the street for this scenario, they are the sort you expect to see at a theme park or music festival event rather than the entrance to a small store. To my right, in the centre of the street is a glass display box for one of Prada’s prize possessions. The box contains a single piece of jewellery and is lit up emphasising its shine. It glints and captures your eyes. A security guard stands nearby, keeping an eye on both the queues and the display box. I’ve noticed that although they’re understated in how they dress- I’ve seen a few already – they’re integral in keeping the wheel turning, keeping the model village perfect.


My mind wanders when I have the thought of the attraction being like a model village. I begin to imagine The Village and its occupants being inside a snow-globe structure whilst Malkin oversees everything going on from above. We are on his mantelpiece, every customer here a tiny dot as they scurry around like ants filling his giant pockets. The untouched streets and buildings remaining perfect and preserved under the dome. I stumble over one of the paving stones and it awakens me from my nightmarish vision. Malkin shook the globe. Those uneven paving slabs coming back to haunt me or perhaps save me from tumbling down the rabbit hole of my imagination. I look around to see if anyone noticed and spot my first staff door to the right. It’s well hidden and I wouldn’t have noticed it if I wasn’t peering around after my trip. I question what’s behind there, it’s a door to the backstage of this ever-running show.


I now walk past Gucci’s house - he’s not in - situated right in the middle of The Village. You can see Gucci’s front garden from the roads that bypass the shopping village and the building feels as though it’s a centrepiece. Guccio is a proud man. Outside is another bear statue, this time singular and it’s surrounded by impressive hedging. Gucci’s has more on its exterior – this time a holly wreath surrounding a large, extraordinary clock. To my right are two further telephone boxes with tourists posing beside them. On the floor next to them the words: “Do it for the Gram!” are painted. A call to Instagram and another marketing ploy. There’s signs alongside the bear that also read: “Don’t forget to hashtag it. #bicestervillage”. There would be no failure to do so here. Free Wi-Fi covers the whole village - encouraging you to sign up to a newsletter as you log in. A quick click and you’re on fast Wi-Fi, meaning you can “do it for the gram” or “hashtag it” as much as you need - if that’s your thing. When you start to step back and spot these details, they expose The Village as the regime it is - it calculates everything to advertise and to get custom. The Villagers are waiting to prey on any individual who visits and gets their smart phone out. They’re commoditising that virtual space I spoke of. The way they have designed The Village, the way The Village looks, the little pieces along the way such as these photo-ops. It’s a theme park rather than a shopping centre, confirming those Value Retail bullet points from their website. There’s no chance to forget about commercial tourism in The Village when walking around, even whilst I’ve stopped for a moment, I hear foreign languages, the smells of hot drinks sold from a small window, the sight of countless logos on bags again.


Speaking of hot drinks, I walk a few yards and enter one of Metcalfe’s Pret-a-Manger stores for my own since it’s become chillier since the sun set. I walk up to the counter and ask for a Chai Latte.


“Sorry we can’t make those right now.” The lady behind the till states.


“Oh okay, what about a hot chocolate?” I ask back.


“Oh, that’s the one thing I was hoping you wouldn’t ask next, we can’t do them either.” She replies.


I decide against getting anything for now, knowing there’s plenty food and drink stalls around The Village. I don’t know why they bother to meet up for dinners here, with all these available. “That’s okay, I’ll leave it for now.” I state before moving out of the shop. The one time I decide to conform on my trip and try to buy something it’s not available. Malkin’s tactful designs has failed me here. Or did I beat the computer-game level? Or was he watching me inside his snow globe and deceitfully stopped me from buying anything. Revenge for tainting his perfect village. I feel like pointing a middle finger to the sky, aiming through the globe’s glass and seeing what happens. It’s surprising that hot chocolate wasn’t available, of all the hot drinks it seems one of the most common. I understand the Chai Latte though, that was me being fancy. I turn right out of the shop and head to a doughnut and drinks cabin further down the street and attempt again.


“Hi, can I have a latte please?”


“Sorry but we can’t do any hot drinks at the moment as our steamer isn’t working.” Another lady replies.


I laugh and move on. Another place where I can’t get a hot drink. I bet I wouldn’t have this problem if I was Ralph Lauren’s second cousin. I decide against trying again and plan that I’ll stop off somewhere on the way home, I’m not too far away from the Western end of The Village now. I spot the only cash machine seemingly in The Village, which comes as a surprise to me. It’s located alongside one of the busiest buildings – the tax returns for international customers. They prefer card payments here.


On my right there’s a building undergoing refurbishment. Construction boards that are usually plain and ugly are instead decorated here with flamboyant paintings of trees and cartoon customers. There’s no sound of any work. The sound of drilling or hammering wouldn’t fit into the atmosphere they’re trying to create here. That would break the fourth wall. A farm shop near the train station is moving into this unit. I know from research beforehand that this area undergoing refurbishment before burnt down. On the 1st of April 2014, Carluccio’s Restaurant – the prior occupants - had a fire within its kitchen which later spread to the roof. This caused the whole village to evacuate. Staff and inhabitants having to take refuge across the road in the nearby Pingle Field. The restaurant closed for months and never reopened. Carluccio later died in 2017. It’s the only empty lot I’ve spotted in my time here.


I continue walking on and spot another Asian restaurant. It looks bizarre as it’s insides look oriental, but it’s outsides remain the traditional British village chic. I smell the food drifting out as customers leave and wonder if these Asian restaurants are only here to cater for the large contingent of tourists. A few steps forward and I’ve now reached the end of The Village. Dominating my eyes is the sight of the third and biggest Ralph Lauren house. This has an impressive facade with two giant company flags decorating the entrance which resembles a balcony. Sheriff Ralph usually watches over The Village from here – ordered by Malkin to do so. He’s a lacky for the maniacal overlord – being the feet on the street keeping peace within The Village. There’s also a set of two oversized teddy-bears sitting in the entrance with company jumpers on. I decide to settle down on a brick wall with a slate top – still fitting that classic British theme despite being opposite a giant American enterprise. It’s rather cold on my arse – like where I started on my fancy green bench - and this is the only place to sit down and make my notes. There are toilets to my right and a final set of red-dressed staff holding maps. I hear one of them in conversation with a couple arriving.


“What is it that you do?” The man asks them.


“I just stand here.” The staff member laughs, before giving them directions to a store I didn’t catch the name of. She hands them a map before smiling as they head off back towards where I began. I find it amusing – the response the lady gave – as from what I’ve seen they do indeed just stand around awaiting requests.


If I were to carry on walking past this point, I’d reach the main car park for The Village. This is worth observing if you’re a fan of expensive sports cars with personalised number plates. I’ve never been into cars myself, so it doesn’t appeal to me. It shows the affluence of the residents. I get the sense – after spending a couple of hours here – that this is not a shopping centre. This place isn’t even a typical tourist destination. The language and ethos of The Village is perverted by commerce and commodities. The international appeal and flair combined with the commercialisation and money here have created an unparalleled spectacle. One Debord would be nauseated by. Debord would revile every resident who resides here. I’ve witnessed The Village on three planes of existence today: 1. The Village as an old English hamlet populated by Hugo Boss, Ralph Lauren and friends. 2. The Village as a stage show manufactured by Malkin and his theatre company friends. 3. The Village as a virtual, number-built world obsessed with commerce that resembles The Matrix with Neo and friends. Each of these levels bleed into one and other and that breeds unadulterated uncanniness. And that uncanniness - as Freud said - “is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar.” I believe therefore Robert found this place to be distinctively creepy because of these sensations the uncanniness caused. Sensations that the Villagers, Malkin and commerce have installed within him. On each separate level, these three forces would have some familiarity about them – whether viewed as good or evil – yet mixing them has creeped out Robert, myself and every now and then a like-minded Chinese tourist.


After my visit to The Village I went digging for the history of those bears. I rang up the number for the media department and asked if they could tell me why they chose them for the emblem of the outlet. They told me that somebody would get back to me by email where they would detail me the reasons, of which they didn’t. I tried again a few days later – this time by email – stating why I wished to know – I told them I was writing an article about the history of the place. Again, I was not given a reply. Are more secrets being kept or is Malkin’s empire looking down their nose at me – not wishing to waste their time with someone who broke their rules. I’m not the only one who has tried to peel back the curtain on this show. Various newspaper reports have had the same issues – “Bicester Village declined to comment”. A tag line at the bottom of most articles concerning The Village. Are the villagers too scared to comment? Perhaps that’s why the Chinese are so inclined to visit – familiarity with a totalitarian regime. The Villagers here are trapped. Trapped in a snow globe, trapped in a stage show, trapped in that regime. The consumers who turn up to shop in hordes are their only interaction with an outside world.





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