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The Covid-19 era has been a sensitive time for the high street. To a roll of honour that includes TM Lewin, Monsoon Accessorize, Le Pain Quotidien, Warehouse, Victoria’s Secret, Cath Kidston and Laura Ashley, we must now add Café Rouge and Bella Italia, which went into administration last week. These brands won’t all vanish entirely. Some have been bought out of administration with the hope of saving the profitable parts, but many will be slips of their former selves – an alarming thought in the case of Victoria’s Secret.
Some of these businesses were already at risk, thanks to a combination of rates and rents, Brexit, Deliveroo and Amazon. There’s no shame in going out to coronavirus, and you might argue it’s better for some of them in the long run.
At this point it’s easier to try to work out which will be the last high street businesses standing. My money is on Greggs, Timpson, and Games Workshop, which is now worth more than British Gas. Unless you’re selling key items such as sausage rolls, keys or plastic elves, the retail reaper is on his way.
My daughter was born just before lockdown, and while I wouldn’t say I was necessarily looking forward to taking her to Café Rouge, I had hoped we might be able to walk past and peer in, in the same way I plan to point out interesting graves.
“When I was your age this was the height of sophistication,” I would say, gazing in at the peeling rattan furniture. “Café is French for ‘cafe’, and rouge is French for ‘red’, so this meant ‘red cafe’. You could get a baguette with warm lettuce and chargrilled chicken slivers for just £12.45. Frites were extra. Frites is French for chips.”
Now I wonder whether the high street will seem like a relic of a past era, a mysterious place where fathers could still pop out on Christmas Eve to buy a foot spa.
“Dada, what’s a TM Lewin?” my daughter will ask, looking up wide-eyed from her history book. “Well,” I’ll say, “it was a shop where you’d go to get four superficially presentable office shirts for £100.”
“What’s an office?”
“It’s where you’d go to do your job. It was also the name of a shoe shop.”
“What’s a job?”
“Well, before King Mike Ashley granted Mummy and Daddy this strip of land to toil, we would go to a little room and sit at a computer while we waited for the pub to open.”
“What’s a pub?”
“Oh yes, sorry. Pub is the old word for Wetherspoons.”
It’s easy to mock the high street brands, but they became chains for a reason. Once upon a time, they offered something exciting. I loved Byron when it opened. Notting Hill types can be snooty about Monsoon, but in market towns around Britain it’s a byword for exotic chic. These chains also set a base level of quality. Bella Italia is no Padella, but the point is that with a Bella Italia around, every new pasta restaurant must be at least as good.
Restaurant closures tend to sting more because they are the setting for meaningful events. I’ve never been dumped in Oak Furnitureland, and now I never will be. It’s telling that the moment Prince Andrew lost the British public was when he brought up Pizza Express. You can abuse your position as a prince of the realm, conduct nefarious relationships and be a laughably ineffectual trade negotiator, but woe betide the minor royal who drags La Reine through the mud. As an alibi, Woking was compelling because it was relatable. We could all imagine Pizza Express in Woking, even if we’d never been. It was also oddly plausible. No self-respecting royal would be seen in a KFC or Nando’s, but Pizza Express? Perhaps he was one of us after all. (He was not.)
Like everything else in this rainy, class-obsessed isle, high-street shops and restaurants are as much about belonging as commerce, which is why we take them so seriously. The most memorable fact in the Salisbury poisonings was the fateful trip to Zizzi; a sign that this crime had truly penetrated to the heart of middle England.
Few things provoke national terror like the suggestion that John Lewis or M&S might be in trouble. Woolworths was practically given a state funeral. We feel the loss of these places, even if we hadn’t been for years. Cut us and we all bleed Rouge.