Af­ter tour­ing the ru­ins of high-end re­tail, I ran into a moder­ate Brex­i­teer

Spend­ing on Bri­tish high streets fell last month at its fastest rate in six years

The Irish Times - - World News - De­nis Staunton

The faintest throb of trance mu­sic soft­ened the hush in­side the shop, bare save for rows of small, plain bot­tles lined up on the shelves like in a med­i­cal dis­pen­sary.

A thin young man in a blue, fish­er­man’s smock with a beard straight from the court of Fer­di­nand and Is­abella was on his knees ar­rang­ing a win­dow dis­play in­volv­ing a cac­tus, a bot­tle and some sand.

“Can I help you find any­thing at all?” he said with­out look­ing up.

I told him I didn’t know what I wanted but that his com­puter would be­cause it was what­ever scent I bought last time I was there.

A young woman popped up from be­hind a counter, silently tapped my name in, found what I was look­ing for and handed it to the young man. “Ab­strac­tion Raison­née – how in­ter­est­ing,” he said, his eyes nar­row­ing.

“It feels so fa­mil­iar and yet it’s ex­tremely cheeky. Don’t you think?”

Twist of rhubarb

As he de­scribed how the twist of rhubarb dis­rupted the calm of the ve­tiver, which in turn con­trasted with a beguil­ing mix of nut­meg and tobacco, cre­at­ing a para­dox of aus­ter­ity and li­cen­tious­ness, I re­alised that we could talk all day, not least be­cause there was no sign of any other cus­tomers to in­ter­rupt us.

On ev­ery other block in this well-heeled cor­ner of Lon­don, an­other shop is boarded up, its win­dow ad­ver­tis­ing “an ex­cit­ing re­tail op­por­tu­nity” for any­one who wants to rent it. In a clothes shop on Sloane Square, a sales as­sis­tant listed for me all the stan­dard enemies of re­tail, start­ing with the in­ter­net and end­ing with the weather.

“And of course there’s the Rus­sians,” he said, glanc­ing over his shoul­der.

“They’ve dis­ap­peared. Well not ex­actly dis­ap­peared but they’ve gone, you just don’t see them any­more.”

Many of the wealthy Rus­sians who live around Bel­gravia and Chelsea have gone to ground since the lat­est fi­nan­cial sanc­tions from Wash­ing­ton made the cost of do­ing busi­ness with some top oli­garchs in­sup­port­able.

Now that we were es­tab­lished as con­fi­den­tial friends, the sales as­sis­tant leaned across the counter and re­vealed an­other sus­pect for the de­cline in sales: Brexit.

‘‘ On ev­ery other block in this well-heeled cor­ner of Lon­don, an­other shop is boarded up, its win­dow ad­ver­tis­ing ‘an ex­cit­ing re­tail op­por­tu­nity’ for any­one who wants to rent it

“To be hon­est, I didn’t vote. But if I had I’d have voted Out,” he said. “We didn’t un­der­stand what we were do­ing, they didn’t ex­plain it. Now the City’s go­ing to get hit and in­ter­est rates will go up.

“And the Euro­peans want to pun­ish us for leav­ing, don’t they?”

High street

Spend­ing on Bri­tish high streets fell last month at its fastest an­nual rate in six years, down 5.4 per cent com­pared with April last year, and al­most one in 10 shops lay empty.

On the other hand, fig­ures re­leased this week showed that more peo­ple in Bri­tain are in work than at any time since records be­gan and wages are start­ing to out­pace in­fla­tion.

“Brexit Bri­tain is boom­ing. Re­main doom-mon­gers talk down the UK’s econ­omy . . . yet a record num­ber of Bri­tons are now in work and more for­eign­ers have jobs than be­fore the ref­er­en­dum,” trum­peted the Daily Mail.

A few hours af­ter tour­ing the ru­ins of high-end re­tail, I ran into a moder­ate Brex­i­teer Con­ser­va­tive MP at a party and asked him how he thought ev­ery­thing was go­ing. “Ev­ery­one is just so bored,” he said, draw­ing out the vowel into a yawn.

Af­ter an amus­ing dis­play of dis­loy­alty and a rit­ual warn­ing about the folly of Ire­land’s ap­proach to the ne­go­ti­a­tions, how­ever, he lapsed into a weary re­hearsal of the prom­ise of life out­side the Euro­pean Union and the wis­dom of Theresa May’s ap­proach.

As I watched him go through the mo­tions on Brexit, as so many of his col­leagues on the Tory back­benches do ev­ery day, I re­called a mo­ment last Fri­day night, when I found my­self in a seedy night­club in a sketchy dis­trict of Rio de Janeiro.

A fat drag queen was flanked by two skinny ones, dressed as ma­jorettes in satin tu­nics and tall plumed shakos, grip­ping plump, crim­son pom­poms.

The portly star and the ma­jorette on the left were all vigour and en­thu­si­asm as they stepped, stretched, shook and shim­mied.

But the fig­ure on the right, a lugubri­ous se­nior cit­i­zen with a five o’clock shadow, could scarcely lift a leg, gaz­ing ahead with an ex­pres­sion some­where be­tween de­ter­mi­na­tion and de­spair as she gave the pom­poms an oc­ca­sional, limp, desul­tory jerk.

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