I love London. Let me be very clear about that. I love it. I always have. From childhood visits to Covent Garden, the Barbican and, the dearly missed Museum of the Moving Image, to teenage gallivants round galleries and gigs, to dodgy parties in dodgy far-flung boroughs as a young man to whatever it is I do now - Soho schmoozing and Southbank culture, I suppose. I love it. It feels like 30 cities in one, each area feeling completely distinct. History butting up against progress. Every culture in the world represented somewhere. Metropolitan bustle and historic meditation. There's always something to see and something to do. I frequently toy with the idea of moving there but I can't help thinking that if I did, I'd miss going there. As is, I'm happy to spend a couple of days a week there. It's a great place. I understand why people flock to it. Well, I understand why I flock to it. Increasingly, I find myself questioning the motives of others.
All over central London, I'm noticing a new phenomenon amongst the tourists. Thankfully the enormous furry Union Jack hat craze seems to have subsided but it has been replaced by something more subtle, more insidious and more... baffling. Now, I'll admit, I've been confused by the whims of London tourists for a while. I don't understand, for example, the pull of Madame Tussauds. Come rain or shine, whenever I pass that building there is a MASSIVE queue of non-domecile pilgrims waiting patiently to... well, I don't really know what even goes on in there. I haven't been since the eighties and, even then, as a ready-to-be-wowed child found myself crushingly underwhelmed by what constituted little more than a couple of rooms full of shop mannequins that looked a bit like Noel Edmonds or Margaret Thatcher two seconds after their terminal breath had escaped their nostrils (yes, I know people would pay to see THAT). Terrifying lifeless renderings of boringly famous people just... stood there. I have a suspicion that their foreign language literature might be more criminally misleading than the English language version which is doubtless scrutinised by Trading Standards. Maybe they'd claim that there is no Farsi word for 'waxwork' or that the Inuit culture has an innate lack of comprehension when it comes to the concept of effigy. Either way, I'm fairly sure that the long queues are down to bamboozled tourists thinking that they're about to actually meet all of the 'stars' rather than a barn full of wickless candles in wigs. Maybe they're all just cattle-herded there as part of some horrible cheap package holiday which then sees them dragged through the rain across Tower Bridge in an open-top bus, photographed in front of Big Ben and then hatefully deposited in an Angus Steak House. I hope so. The Tussauds phenomenon is made all the sadder by it's proximity to the British Museum where they could see real sculptures, real history and real culture - much of it robbed generations ago from their own countries.
One of my biggest ponderings about tourists over the years is what the hell they DO in Leicester Square. They all go there. But I never see them inside the cinemas or comedy clubs, so they're not doing that. There's nothing to see there, apart from the odd below-par caricaturist and the vague possibility of seeing Pat Sharp emerge from Capital FM (something inside me is saying that he probably hasn't worked there since the early nineties, which would explain many a disappointed afternoon on my part). It's not beautiful or of any more historic interest than any other part of London. I suppose it must be the big McDonalds and big KFC. Which is sad but, at least sadly understandable. The Trocadero was once worthy of a visit, in the 90's it housed Alien War - anecdotally London's best film-related attraction of all time (I was too scared to do it. I'd sit, staring at the Alien Queen, and wait for my friends to come out. I was an idiot) - and for a while SEGA WORLD, which was AWESOME and the Pepsi Drop. But now it's like a weird old ghost town. Still has traces of it's neon genius but mostly is just a boarded up shanty-town of a building housing cheap shitty fire-sale shops.
But now, apparently, judging by this latest tourist phenomenon the YELLOW BAG OF IDIOCY, there IS a reason to flock to Leicester Square. There is a new all-dominating reason to trek to that hallowed part of town, there is a new attraction and I can't get my fucking head around it.
This is a building in Central London. 35 THOUSAND square feet, spread over 4 floors. Dedicated to M&M's - you know, M&M's - Smarties with fucking 'M's on them. The least exciting imported chocolate product of all time. A bit of chocolate in a sugar shell. If you're feeling adventurous... you can get ones with a peanut in. M&M's. There is, admittedly, a place for M&M's and that place is a corner shop or a cinema. They are as mundane and perfunctory a processed food as one could imagine, they're up there with Doritos, Pringles and Fanta as one of the staple uninterestingly ubiquitous corporate processed snack foods. Not in the realm of esteemed products such as, say, Heinz Beans, Kelloggs Cornflakes, Coca Cola and, indeed, the Big Mac - all brands with rich, interesting, and long histories which seem somewhat worthy of mild cultural celebration. We do already have a confectionary-based 'world' in the UK - Cadbury World in Birmingham. Cadbury World is great for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it celebrates the genuinely rich history of the Bournville village and manufacturing in the UK. It includes a historical tour through the development of chocolate, you get to visit an area where they're actually making chocolate, so you can see the manufacture process. There's a kiddie ride, there are facts all over the place, you get to sample unique types of chocolate and you get a little fun education. The second reason it's good is that it's something to tangibly 'do' in Birmingham. Possibly the only thing. It's a genuine historical, cultural, local attraction. I understand these attractions. I get how there is a SPAM museum in Minnesota. I get why people visit the Jack Daniels Distillery in Tennessee. Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream factory tour in Vermont. I even understand why people are drawn to the original Starbucks in Seattle. These are brands which have become a beloved part of our lives and culture, their history is arguably as valid as any other culture-shaping phenomenon. But an M&M's World in London is as incongruous as a tribute to the Chicken Cottage Meal Deal placed in the middle of the Champs-Élysées.
M&M's have no cultural ties to London, or even the UK what-so-bloody-ever. No matter how many fake red buses and phone boxes they try to fill four floors with, there is no cultural REASON for it to be in London. We didn't even have M&M's in the UK until the late 80's at the earliest and when they surfaced I remember the general reaction at my school being 'they're just Smarties that don't taste as nice'. I'm not saying there wasn't an era in my life where I didn't scoff them, I'm just saying there is no basis for a 35,000 square foot monument to them in the middle of Central London and even less reason that it should be so mind-bogglingly successful.
And successful it really is. In the interest of research, I decided to check it out. Here's the first thing that surprised me - it's not an attraction. There is no cultural element to it whatsoever. Not even a pretence towards education. It is a 4 floor, 35,000 foot shop. And all it sells is M&M's. Admittedly, several more colours of M&M's than you might have previously seen (I'm sure you'll have seen the colours themselves elsewhere, though - in nature or on the internet, perhaps) but if you were hoping for some kind of transcendental M&M lover experience, really you're still stuck with chemically chocolate or chemically chocolate with a peanut in it. So what do they fill the four floors with? Merchandise. Cheap - yet horrendously overpriced - tatty looking sweatshop-scented plastic nik-naks featuring M&M's with eyes. Fucking tons of it. Let's not forget that M&M's isn't even an iconic brand - it doesn't have the logo flourish of Coke or JD, it doesn't have the age-old character ambassador like Tony the Tiger, the Smash Robots, The Laughing Cow or the Honey Monster. It doesn't even have the heritage status of say Colman's Mustard or Heinz ketchup. Four floors of overpriced corporate shit that one couldn't even bring home to remind them of London as it has no connection whatsoever.
"What's that, Jon?"
"Oh, it's an Andrex puppy soft toy"
"Yeah, I bought it in Moscow."
"Wow, it's a RUSSIAN Andrex puppy soft toy?"
"No, I think you can buy them anywhere but when I think of Russia, I think mainly about a mundane British grocery brand which is available there too"
I suppose there are two actual attractions to M&M's world - the first is their variety of enormous M&M-with-eyes based nods to actual London landmarks. A photo on the M&M Abbey Road or next to the M&M beefeater presumably cancels out the tedious need to actually visit boring old sites of genuine historical interest. The other would be that we all love commerce now, spending money on brainlessly branded items is de riguer so why not have some 'fun' and buy an M&M's t-shirt which says the world 'London' on it somewhere? Demonstrating both your spirit of adventure and your utter subservience to your corporate overlords.
One of the saddest things about this is that, tucked away down a little mews in Notting Hill, sits The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising. I spent a highly enjoyable couple of hours there recently. It incorporates Robert Opie's insanely eccentric collection of British food packaging. A brilliant place which traces this country's affair with corporate branding over the last couple of hundred years. It gives you insight into the development of our current obsession with globalised marketing whilst offering the warm familiarity of the grocery packaging we all grew up with. It offers the joy of brand recognition with a historical, sometimes political and heavily cultural slant. All on one floor. And most refreshingly... the gift shop is crap.
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