Exile on Main Street


Yesterday we spent a few deeply and surprisingly pleasurable hours wandering Main Street in Vancouver. Deeply, because they built the slow and easy sense of relaxation that is impossible to summon by will but arrives finally like a conquering force, transforming all it finds. Surprisingly, because I hate recreational shopping. I hate that it exists, that it is what lots (and lots) of people in the affluent part of the world I live in do for fun (“Hi, my name is Milton and my favourite thing is to consume products or to walk about looking for and subsequently coveting things I want to have sold to me in the future”) and I physically hate wandering about shops without purpose. My body quickly becomes stricken by a torpor that even a growing sense of trapped fury cannot break through.

But yesterday we wandered about a shopping street looking, and sometimes going into, shops, and it was deeply pleasurable. It could be that the tide of relaxation was always due to reach its high water yesterday afternoon and that this blissful onset coincided with our time on Main Street. Whenever I’m lucky enough to have a holiday, it noticeably takes a long time for the tension of lift. It’s sad to reflect that it takes at least four or five days away from the everyday stresses and routines of life at home and at work before relaxation can get a foothold. It means that weekends are never even close to being enough. Occasionally I’ll feel the edge of it coming in on the Sunday of the four day Easter break but that’s quickly eclipsed as work rises darkly behind the horizon. 

So, sure, I was due to start feeling well, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that something about the process of drifting up and down that street didn’t have a lot to do with it.

The businesses on Main Street created a sense of well being. Which is stupid, but I can’t deny it. For now, for today at least, this street and the people who run the businesses here have nailed a certain vibe, a particular but hard-to-pin-down aesthetic that, for a relaxing middle-ager like me, oozes warm pleasantness. They are all, in detail, different from one another. Here is the Regional Assembly of Text selling their own handmade cards and stationary which no one needs but most passers by can’t help but want. Here is Red Cat Records, a straight down the line record store eschewing fancy interiors for racks stuffed to the hilt with vinyl and CDs. Here is a fish and chip shop selling battered salmon from a open front. Next to it a bar with a sign outside reading ‘Today’s soup: whiskey’. And here is a store who’s front declaims ‘Welcome Home Eugene Choo‘ selling… Well I assume they’re selling something.

Between them are new retro interiors, clothes with bold illustrative prints, grocery stores that also sell Haruki Murakami novels, a bike shop packed with new and second hand bikes literally piled on top of one another and a soap dispensary that does nothing specific but still manages to make you want to fill your home with soap and it’s apparently many accoutrements. Cafés and bakeries too. And a mechanics and a Veterans Centre. In the middle of all this at least one residential house that screams “Instagram me!” In such a needily pretentious way that I assume it’s a film set or artwork, put there for that very reason.

I can’t bracket these places as hipster, or even knowingly trendy to use a much more off-trend adjective. They are instead, for the most part, unironic spaces created and curated with care and love by people with various but usually appealingly good taste. The contrasts between them are clear but, apart from a certain retro industrial ‘we just welded and hammered this old place together’ chic, it’s hard to say what it is that binds them together. Maybe it’s just the street they all face. 

Somehow, being around a bunch of seemingly unrelated places that are just done so well brings a certain salve to the soul. 

A couple of weeks ago Google paid a lot of money to buy an app called Jetpac. Jetpac is a clever idea, which is cute enough to sell the app to users, based on interesting technology which was intriguing enough to sell the company. Whilst the end results are weirdly baffling, the idea behind them is a doozy. They have, they claim, analyzed all publicly available geotagged photos from Instagram and have used these to compile machine rendered city guides, in the form of ‘best of’ lists. 

Which locations have the most smiling women? Which bars have the happiest looking people? These must be the best bars in the city! Which spots are most often frequented by men with moustaches? These, my friend, are your hipster hangouts. Which coffee shops get snapped most often? You get the picture.

Cute idea, as I think I may have mentioned. And, hearing about the buy out as we prepared to make the trip to Canada, I downloaded it and looked with interest at the places it told me were the top of Vancouver’s particular pops. As we headed away from Main Street, I scrolled through the various top tens for the benefit of our guide, the exquisitely well-attuned Sarah, and she scoffed at the choices the robots had made. I drew my own conclusions from the fact that none of the wonderful places I’d seen on Main were featuring, but various Tim Hortons were. Either this app and me, or the rest of the human race and me, were just out of step with each other.

Listening to Sarah give her immediate reactions to the places being recommended by the app, it struck me with a certain force that there is no longer anywhere in the world, or at least no city, on which I could offer similarly well-qualified views. We left Manchester 11 years ago now. I have great trouble remembering the names of the places we used to spend our time back then. Even if I could remember them, at least half will have closed. I left Leeds more than twenty years ago. Called upon recently to give reassurance to a colleague who’s daughter is heading there to University this autumn I could only fall back on ‘she’ll have a great time’ and ‘of course it will all have changed since I was there’. In other words, ‘I have nothing of any value to share with you’.

Now my nearest city is Exeter and I go out there maybe three or four times a year. If Jetpac has a list of the best places to have your office Christmas meal then I am slowly compiling some experience which could be brought to bear. For anything else, forget it.

How did this come to pass? I know nowhere. I belong to nowhere that anyone would know or need to know about.

Come to think of it, I live in the middle of nowhere, and I know that nowhere pretty well. I just don’t expect anyone else to be interested in to have taken snaps of it or to be asking robots where the best places to hang out are. Nowhere just isn’t that kind of place.


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