A tale of two suburban fantasies

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The Independent Culture
AN acquaintance phoned me last week, to say that his wife was alarmed by a column I had written about being threatened by a knife-wielding teenager in our local park. "The thing is," he said, "we've just bought a house in Crouch End, and now she doesn't want to go and live there. You've put her right off the idea."

I was racked with guilt, and promised that I would ring his wife immediately. So I did, and told her that Crouch End is a very nice place to live, and that I've gone back to the park many times since encountering the teenager, and it's been fine: no gangs, no weapons, no psycho- paths. As for the knife incident, I said, it could have happened anywhere: like all those countless random crimes that occur in big cities and small towns every day of the year. She sounded reassured, and we arranged to meet with our respective children when they move to London later this month. "You'll like it here," I told her. "I'm sure you will." And I gabbled on about the school fete (tombola, cake stall, and tomato plants for sale); and the celebrations to mark the building of the local Clocktower 100 years ago (the Crouch End Festival Chorus sings extracts from Carmina Burana; the Crouch End Art School sculpts a model tower entirely out of cheese).

What I didn't tell her was that I have developed a mild obsession with crime: out there, in the scary urban hinterland, and in safe suburban backwaters, too. These are the things that have been bothering me: a recent robbery at a nearby cashpoint machine (OK, so it was at midnight, but still, it's close to home); an afternoon mugging in Muswell Hill - up the road from here, and even more respectable - in the carpark behind Marks & Spencer (what is the world coming to?).

But worse, far worse, was the abduction and rape of a woman in Regent's Park: in broad daylight, in central London, just beyond the Rose Garden where I played as a child, near the kiosk where I buy lollies for my children on Sundays. I've been brooding about this crime: thinking, what happens if someone tries to grab you? Do you scream? Or does no sound come out when there's a knife at your throat, like in bad dreams?

When you think about these things too much, life becomes impossible: you can't go out, in case something terrible is lurking at the end of the street. It gets to the point where you start worrying about the most innocuous of occasions - like the aforementioned Clocktower celebrations. I didn't like to admit it, but there was no getting away from it - I was alarmed at the prospect of attending the "Saturday night sound and light spectacular" in Crouch End Broadway. Who knows what might happen there?

In the end, the thought of sitting in front of the lottery results was worse than the idea of going out alone, so I decided to take a look at the centenary jubilations (billed, in the leaflet I had picked up at the school fete earlier that day, as an occasion to celebrate not only the Clock-tower, "but also the life of Crouch End today").

I sidled down the road, past the bit where any number of bogeymen might hide in the bushes, without any mishap. A few hundred yards further and I was at the Broadway, with plenty of other people around, many of whom I recognised (even in London there are villages). We gathered at the Clocktower, an endearingly ugly Victorian monstrosity that was erected in 1895, in honour of a local politician called Henry Reader Williams. It is thanks to him that we have so many local parks and woods (saved from the speculative Victorian builders who turned Crouch End from a quiet village to a prosperous suburb at the end of the last century); which is why the Saturday night extravaganza included a commemoration of Williams's "environmental vision". That's what it said in the leaflet, and that's what we were supposed to be watching. "A sound and light performance artwork which uses the Clocktower as a giant projection screen for animated images of our relationship with the natural environment."

I couldn't actually make out the images, though there seemed to be some blurred trees and leaves and dappled sunlight; and you couldn't really hear the sound, because we were outside Woolworth's, which was staying open until midnight and playing Take That through its sound system to mark the occasion. Inside the shop, there was frenzied activity around the Pic 'n' Mix sweets, encouraged by a man dressed up as a Victorian town- crier ringing his bell and shouting, "The Clocktower is 100 years old! Woolworth's is open! Spend your money so I can get paid, quick, quick, quick!"

Anyway, despite the noise, it was an uneventful event, and the peculiar lack of excitement to be had made it all the more enjoyable. There were no muggings, no stabbings, no robberies. The only sign of blood was on my neighbour's child, who was wandering around with a large nail stuck in her forehead, courtesy of the St John's ambulance crew at the school fete earlier that day (10p for a false black eye; 20p for a fake head wound). And though the sound and light show might not have been entirely to Henry Reader Williams's taste, his ghostly pale stone likeness that peered down from the tower should have approved of the spirit of the proceedings, for Williams believed that a healthy, happy suburb is made up not just of well-built houses but of parks and schools and wide, tree-lined streets, where people come together in a cheerful community. His views are doubtless outdated (as archaic as the "patriotic songs" that were sung at the Clocktower celebrations: "Jerusalem", "Land of Hope and Glory", "Loch Lomond"); and I do not wish to suggest that membership of the Chrysanthemum Society, of which he was president, or the Allotments Association, which he championed, would solve my own problems, let alone the ills of contemporary society.

Nevertheless, there is something to be said for what he advocated: a quieter, kinder way of life, in a place where young men brandished garden forks, not knives, and parks were for serene perambulations, not gang warfare. Perhaps his was always a mythic vision - a small world that existed in the heart, not on the streets, even 100 years ago. But you can see why it was such an attractive fantasy, both then and now. !

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