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A Year among the Robots

January 3, 2011

Like my life, Thus broadcasts have been patchy and intermittent over the past year. One reason is that I felt I could add little to the depressing and inevitable commentary on the new UK government that I hadn’t already said long before they slunk into office. While the BBC Victor Meldrews, Guardianistas and other Hounyhyms are staging a tiresome and confused rearguard New Labour whinge fest, the Telegraph heehaws haven’t quite woken up to the fact that they are actually in power, mainly because every time an unpleasant piece of Tory legislation is run up the flagpole to see who’ll salute, the stooge on the end of the lanyard is a Lib Dem. Probably more about this anon, but right now I frankly can’t be arsed.

The second, more potent reason for my unusual verbal continence is that my recession started earlier than most, forcing me to become a retail tycoon. For the last 18 months, amongst other things, I’ve been been selling tin toys, robots and Day of the Dead stuff in a shop near London’s raffish Brick Lane. For a while I was also living in the shop: no, not above, but actually inside, among the robots, Mexican skeletons and tin ducks on trikes. At night, suspended on a platform bed, inches from the ceiling, huddled under my John Lewis Egyptian cotton duck down duvet – got to keep up standards somehow – I listened as carousing Shoreditchers stabbed the shop window and drunkenly promised to buy each other ‘one o them fucking cool robots.’ I even heard people claiming that they had actually met ‘the robot bloke’ – my opening hours, dictated by fate and other expediencies, boasted a sign which said ‘often open at random.’

The Brick Lane Robot shop at night, guarded by a savage devil dog – alright, my whippet, William

Entombed in my fortress of solitude, besieged by revelling 2 am window shoppers, I mused on wiring up a robot, programmed to start marching and  beckoning while a loudspeaker intoned ‘buy me, then, you twat’  in a Dalek monotone (not dissimilar to the Shoreditch accent). I got as far as briefing my new friend Ben, a Fabricator – more about these Brave New jobs later – to work out the mechanics of such an automaton, which has precedents in the scary mannekin midget shoemakers (sometimes monkeys) occasionally seen eternally hammering soles in the windows of old-fashioned cobblers. But like many of my schemes, cost and effort got the better of me so I endured enforced insomnia sustained by only the imagined prospect of revenge. Plus, by day, these middle class sans culottes were my customers. And the customer is always right.

Brick Lane Robot shop, Christmas 2010

The shop started out under the name of Thus, but unsurprisingly, everybody knew it as the Robot Shop. As a shopkeeper, I became an Illuminatus of the Brick Lane pageant. Aloof from the paddling hoi poloi whose role was to wander aimlessly, gawping at less-than-worthless multicultural tat, gobbling Ethiopian vegan lemongrass burgers, served by Cambodians from trestle stalls, I was a baron, a seigneur, a bloke with a shopfront and stock. People were drawn like moths to the flame by my George Wallace ‘Stand up for President’ 1968 election campaign buttons, plastic prison rosaries designed to stop religious perps strangling themselves and others, elephants on Lambrettas balancing beach balls, Colin Powell GI Joe figures. The list was endless, and I haven’t even got to the robots – I probably will, later.

Like Microsoft, Apple and the Body Shop, the Robot Shop was an accidental empire. Thrown out of home, I rented the storefront premises from an eccentric friend who had bought cheap land in a desolate area of Sweden to pursue his dream of living in a 10 foot hut in the style of Hojoki. In true English middle class fashion, this required 25 acres and a large house, but was entirely consistent with living in a shop – but not trading – for the past 12 years starting at a time when the street vied for the title of London’s most dangerous – certainly most seedy – thoroughfare. (The opening shot of ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels was filmed on Cheshire St). My retail odyssey began on my first lonely weekend at the shop, in the dog days of a hot August, when I lined up a few tin robots and a couple of Turkish Iznik plates in the shop window for decoration only and left the door open to dispel the stifling heat. I was affronted when a couple of scarecrows wandered in and started browsing my stuff. Two hours later I had sold the robots, some books and refused offers on my dog. I sourced more robots from the internet, put up shelves, bought a credit card machine, carrier bags, an open/closed sign and a till. The rest is history.

Actually, it will soon be history, for success breeds failure in enterprise Britain. Although the robot shop, like most of Cheshire St, traded to subsistence levels on the crumbs of the footfall from the Sunday Brick Lane market and echoed to the cries of midnight drunks returning from student shebeens the rest of the time, the landlord’s response to the recession has been to double the rent on my expiring lease. So London’ only robot shop will soon cease to trade and I will be obliged to think about doing something serious about my Micawberish situation.

I’ve been thinking of opening a branch in Bloomsbury, where I now live, and extending the franchise to include counter-cultural artefacts, bottle gardens, bonzai trees and coral reef aquariums. But it’s still at the planning stage. As a retail guru, I need to check out whether the 30 Minute Fancy Dress Hire premises which I have the option of acquiring failed because the idea was completely and ingloriously hatstand, the shop was painted fluorescent puke green with a strange golden throne as its centre piece and the owner and staff could not speak English.  The USP was possibly flawed: I guess that too few of the baffled tourist punters wished to wander in and around the British Museum dressed as March Hares, Beefeaters, Batman, gorillas, vicars, tarts or the Queen of Hearts, especially in the teeth of the worst British weather for 100 years, even if the security blokes had let them in. If I were New Labour, I’d employ consultants and focus groups to give me the answer. But since I’m not, I think I’ll go with my instincts. Expect robots in Bloomsbury some time soon, unless I get a better offer.