A savage malling

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Sometimes, when friends tell me tales of tedious childhoods spent in churches and Sunday schools, being preached at by pale, sanctimonious curates, the face that drifts into my mind's screen is that of John Selwyn Gummer. Eating sweets? Think about the starving of Africa, says the Reverend Gummer. A hand pleasurably engaged in your trouser pocket? Please go and stand outside - I think you know why.

This could all be very unfair. At home with Cordelia and the rest of the family, Mr Gummer may well be the opposite of all these things. He may wander around naked listening to Clapton on his Walkman, pausing to water his cannabis plants. But his public persona does not suggest it. For instance, he disapproved of women priests on the (today) almost incomprehensible grounds of schism between the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.

Thus, when JSG declares against something, I see the forces of the Counter- Reformation at work. Not far behind him ride the pointy hatted forces of the Inquisition, determined to stamp out modernity. In the week, therefore, that Mr Gummer has announced yet another initiative designed to prevent the spread of the out-of-town shopping centre, I find myself asking whether these malls are not vastly superior to the unwelcoming and dirty high streets that they are replacing - and to which the Inquisition wishes to us to return.

Let us examine the reasons that the Gummerians dislike them so. They intrude upon the countryside, it is said. But by no means is all countryside in any way pretty or pleasant. Just because something is located outside town does not make it Snowdon or Wenlock Edge. Bluntly, there is a lot of land out there that looks horrible. Next.

How about this then, reply the anti-modernists. Malls kill the brain. People travel to them in their cars and moon about the place like vegetables, when they could be hiking in the Trossachs, or listening to missionaries talk about their work. But I believe it was ever thus. Twenty years ago, my friend Paddy Johnston and his mates used to drive from Hampstead to Scratchwood service station on the M1 in search of excitement every Saturday night. Try another.

Worst of all, wail the traditionalists, these malls are killing town centres, depriving small shops of custom, denuding streets of people, leaving them semi-derelict and the preserve of the vandal, the drug addict and the poor.

This, I admit, is more difficult territory. I do not want to see our town centres die. But I don't want to shop in them, either. Well before the advent of the green-field mall, town centres were full of unfriendly, inconvenient, money-grubbing shops selling a poor selection of high-priced goods to burdened mums who had no alternative. They were awful.

In ancient times, folk put up with it. For a start, our mothers tended not to go out to work. They shopped nearly every day, struggling back with a shopping bag in one hand and us in the other. Because they were at home, they made shopping a social exercise, chatting to friends and leaving us in pushchairs outside the butcher's.

No longer. As more women have gone out to work, shopping has been masculinised. In the new domestic dispensation, women do the cooking, washing and ironing; men load the dishwashers and go to Tesco. And we do not want social experiences by the deli counter. Reading a shopping list requires enough concentration as it is without being distracted by friends wanting to talk. We will only forget the organic carrots and get shouted at. Shopping is a task to be accomplished with the minimum of fuss in the minimum amount of time. In, do it, check-out. Or, as the old phrase has it, wham, bam, thank you Ma'am. That is why men like malls.

"Ah", chorus Mr Gummer and the forces of reaction triumphantly. "QED. Get the women out of the pulpits and back into the shops". They may have a point.

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