METROPOLITAN LIFE Last week, American cinemagoers met the Mall Rats, teenagers whose second home is the shopping centre. Alex Spillius flushes out the British version - mall mice
the time required by Obaid, a tall, lean 18-year-old, to ponder the question of why he and his friends hang out at Wood Green Shopping City was just as short as his answer: "Girls". His response, delivered with a shy smile I'm sure many girls of his peer group would appreciate, is not the whole explanation, but a significant part of it, and by that measure at least his friend Spiros had a worthwhile day.

It started on the first floor, near C&A. "I clocked her and she looked back at me," Spiros explains nonchalantly. "Then she turned around again and I waved back. She went down the escalators and I followed, just started chatting, you know, chatting her up. She said to walk her to her bus stop - so I did and I got her phone number. We might go steady." This was the last word from Spiros before a Pizza Hut deep pan Hawaiian pizza consumed his attention. "Thanks for that," he said, rising to leave before the last glob of pseudo-Italian sludge had reached his stomach. "I've got to be somewhere else."

North London's Wood Green Shopping City was one of the first mammoth malls constructed in the late 1960s. Inside its dour redbrick casing there are several high-street names, and a number of those one-off "fashion" stores that supply cheap office and disco wear. On my first visit, there are few people about. A small boy in an Arsenal shirt entertains himself by circling a dustbin at speed. An old woman with a headscarf and a fag in the centre of her mouth tows a wicker trolley. A couple of teenage girls in leather and denim contemplate shoes through a shop window. The muzak is surreal in its tunelessness.

Then, upstairs, is a collection of lads - Obaid, Spiros and friends - their cackles reverberating around the dozy chamber that is, they say, a second home, and has been since they were 13 or 14. When younger I sometimes saw crowds of kids hanging out in shopping centres, people who had less homework, I guessed, or homes too small perhaps to greet friends in. But still I wondered, why a shopping centre? Where worse to pass the time? Having investigated, the only question is, where better? The shopping centre is warm and bright and on busier days there are plenty of people to look at.

An American film, Mall Rats, which opened in the United States last week, provides some histrionic answers: pathological boredom, drug dealing, theft, gang fights. But as so often when American and British street life are compared the latter is refreshingly tepid. Shopping malls up and down the country are less arenas of extreme delinquency than somewhere to loiter, most innocently. They could be held to signify how we have failed our youth, left to idle their best years in some dull emporium, but it's what happens when they've grown out of hanging out by potted trees and second-rate cafes, when they start looking for work, that counts more.

That the Wood Green crowd suffer from a dearth of alternatives doesn't bother them greatly. "It drags sometimes if you're here on a Saturday for five or six hours," says Obaid. "But if you are walking around, chatting to girls, it goes quick."

From their base of a couple of benches near the top of the stairs this nexus of Nike wearers sit and chat, surveying the scene, such as it is.

Occasionally one or two depart and return perhaps a few minutes, perhaps half an hour later. There is always somewhere else to go, a packet of 10 B&H to buy, a new tune to check out in the record shop, another girl to say hello to. Occasionally the security guards warn them off resting on the banisters. "It makes the place look untidy," says Chris, 17.

"There isn't a lot else to do," shrugs Obaid. "We're here after school and Saturdays. In the evenings we're at the snooker club or a pub. Saturday nights at a club." Some of them have evening or Saturday jobs; some of them are doing GNVQs or thinking about going to college; all of them come to the shopping centre knowing they will find friends. This is their manor.

Racially they are a mixed bunch: Afro-Caribbean, Greek-English, Asian- English, but they are all primarily Urban. Hair is worn short, trousers baggy. They wear baseball caps, bomber jackets and facial fluff. They are obviously not privileged but far from destitute, keen to be employed later on but pessimistic about their chances, a little surly but good- hearted.

Lance is by far the oldest of the group - at 26, though he looks no more than 22. "Unless you're a robber or a thief it's the only place to go," he affirms, perhaps with a little melodrama - Wood Green isn't an area badly blighted by crime and violence. However, the shopping centre is subject to sporadic incursions by a gang known as the Triad Gremlins, hailing from a rougher, tougher neighbourhood, Green Lanes.

The Triads are distinguished by punky hair and ultra loose clothing - particularly red baggy trousers with stars down the side. Their favourite hang-outs are the Trocadero in Piccadilly Circus and Rowans, a bowling alley with knobs on in Finsbury Park.

"We don't go anywhere on our own if we've heard they're around," explains Chris, who once had some trouble. "This little git bounced me, innit. I said what d'you bounce me for? They jumped me from behind, stole my cap, smacked me. I was in hospital." His revenge came soon when he duffed up one of his attackers.

"He's in Feltham for armed robbery, when he gets out they're going to be after me." Is this worrying? "Nah."

Obaid points out: "There is too many of us, if there was any big trouble we can get the numbers, make a few calls." But there's enough Triads to ensure the Wood Greeners never step inside Rowans.

They assert, probably truly, that they take no liberties at the Shopping City. No thieving, no harassment, otherwise where else would they go? The fifth-floor car park is another matter however. It looks like a safe place for a joint, and earlier Spiros revealed this is where "you take girls to get to know them a bit better", a testament to teenagers' resourcefulness in finding places for a grope. "Sometimes the security guards catch you," shrugs Spiros. "But I just say I'm getting some air. Then he says where's your car, and I say it's on another floor."

The fifth floor has also seen the odd skirmish between rival Wood Green gangs, according to a group of Turkish and Turkish Cypriot origin in their late teens. "If we see a Greek guy with a Turkish girl then there's going to be trouble," says Ossie.

"If there's a fight we know which side to take," adds his friend, another 19-year-old, who insists on calling himself Al Pacino. "At school I was friends with all types - black, white, Greeks - but when you get a bit older you mix with your own, you feel more comfortable, a bit more aware of your culture."

But Ossie and his friends are not the Sharks and the Greeks are not the Jets. The fights - all unarmed - are "very rare" in the words of another comrade, Mehmet: "And we know all those guys." Their gang is more about companionship than criminality.

That said, Ossie and Co were once banned from the Shopping City for six months for being drunk. Their chosen tipple is the tramps' favourite Tennant's Extra (9% proof). "I can drink four cans and no problem. We go up to Ally Pally to drink. Nice up there, man. We call ourselves the Park Bench Tennant's Crew," beams Al Pacino, a handsome, bright-eyed lad, who, like the others, is at college doing a B-Tec and would like to go to university.

Sensing the others' disapproval of his grandstanding, he applies some thought to his next comment. "We've got no money for proper drinks so we drink that. I've got no grant for college, my parents are in Turkey, so my brother supports me." He expands on his theme: "When we see blokes our age driving round in convertible cars, it gets to us. The dust from their car hits us. We've got nothing. So we come here, and if we get lucky, we meet some girls."

At this, the only girl in the group, Netia, 16, tuts and raises her eyes. Of course, she doesn't visit the mall to find boyfriends. "I don't, really."

Siobhan, 16, was sitting on a bench outside the centre with a friend. "There's some quite nice shops in there. It's all right but there should be somewhere else to go, a youth club or something." Recently, she says, girl gangs have started causing trouble - some girls tried to nick her purse once, and there's so many muggings in the local newspaper people are afraid to come down to Wood Green.

Obviously she hasn't been put off. Is this partly due to boys? "Some of my friends say it's all right here if you're on the look out, but I wouldn't know." Just then she turns to her friend, smiles dreamily and points across the floor. "We've seen him before, he's gorgeous isn't he?"