My parents came to stay this weekend, so I gave them the grand tour around Birmingham. We went from the very new and shiny — but slightly soulless — Bullring, to the chaotic, noisy, vibrant indoor markets. I needed to buy some salmon fillets, so I asked at one of the many fishmongers' stalls in the market for "just over a kilo" of salmon. He duly weighed out the fish, then said, "Now, I'll tell you what I'll do. That's just under a kilo — see the price there?" He pointed at the readout on the scales, and I nodded, waiting for the sales pitch. "I'll put on 3 extra fillets, which comes to £10.50, but I'll only charge you £8.50. Is it a deal?" I was so charmed, and it was such a bargain that I gave in with a grin. While he was wrapping up my purchase, he noticed my parents looking at the chicken on his stall (he also sold meat), and started another sales pitch involving an enormous quantity of chicken for a knock-down price. My Mum politely explained that they wouldn't buy any as they were going to stay with my brother afterwards and so the refrigeration requirements would be a bit complicated. The guy looked at me steadily and said — with one of the best deadpan expressions I've ever seen — "Don't bring them again."
That's what I miss about new shopping malls — the human interaction. You would never get that combination of bargain prices and comedy in the new stores. The markets are full of the shouts of stall-holders yelling out their offers, bright colours, tacky products, cows feet, caribbean bread, wild mixtures of smells and the bustle and banter of people. It makes the Bullring — and the even more upmarket Mailbox — seem cold and sterile by comparison. I took some pictures on my camera phone in both places, so you can judge the atmosphere for yourself on my flickr page.