Arts: How Penge got its groove back

Dull, narrow-minded, parochial, repressed: the suburbs have always been the object of sophisticated scorn. But behind the net curtains a cultural revolution is taking place. And John Peel has gone in search of its creative energy.
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The Independent Culture
Curtains will twitch. Lawnmowing will cease. Wheelie bins will sit untended and unloved, cars unwashed. Across the UK in the coming months, life as many of us know it will have to pause as we look for evidence of the most unlikely phenomenon: the sudden coolness of the suburbs. Yes, that's right, the streets and tree-lined avenues described by George Orwell as "a line of semi-detached torture chambers" and as a "bourgeois dormitory" of deadening mediocrity in Julian Barnes's Metroland, are, in 1999, basking in new-found hipness.

Described in Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia as a place where double-glazing flashes before people's eyes when they die, the suburbs have always had a bad press. John Betjeman, while he expressed a fondness for older, well-established London suburbs in his poems, gave us some unforgettable negative images of life in the urban sprawl. Slough, for example, has never recovered from his poem of the same name ("Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough/ It isn't fit for humans now,/ There isn't grass to graze a cow,/ Swarm over, Death!"). Inhabitants of Slough, prepare to rise up: this may just be your year.

Reading between the cultural lines, there have been signs for a while of this near-seismic shift in thinking. A recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Civic Trust showed that the suburbs face becoming the slums of tomorrow, and where once was comfy, cosy, bland living, there's now crisis, crime and decay.

This certainly contradicts the received wisdom about suburban life. And the style police have eased up a little in their disdain for it. Inner- city loft living was declared passe at the same time as interiors went all old-fashioned comfy on us - wallpapers, floral fabrics and Fifties prints are making a big comeback. Staying in was said to be replacing hectic social lives for the coolest dudes. And gardening seemed to usurp sex'n'drugs'n'rock'n'roll for everyone else. DIY, cardigans and lavender were inexplicably hot stuff last year; this year, according to Elle Decoration, it'll be sheepskin rugs, wicker baskets and kebabs. Very mid-Seventies Penge.

And then there are all the "real-life" docu-soaps, the nannies/neighbours/builders/pets- from-hell genre, the endless lifestyle media a la Changing Rooms and Garden Stories, all of it proudly suburban. These same streets are the setting for Stella Street, the comedy show that has Michael Caine, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and David Bowie living in what looks like Surbiton - for Bowie, at least, a return to his roots. In art, the Young British Artists have been eclipsed by a new generation of quieter, less shocking, more stay-at-home artists, as seen recently at the ICA's "Stay Young Die Pretty" and Charles Saatchi's "Neurotic Realists", who really could do with getting out more.

As if all this weren't enough, the journalist Miranda Sawyer is bringing out Park and Ride - Travels in a Suburban Land this summer, a journey which, we're told, will take in Croydon, Swindon, Cheshire wives and Scottish golfers, hen nights, Romford's bourgeois drug addicts, a meeting with The Lighthouse Family, boy racers and Essex girls. Sawyer's qualification for writing the book? She "spent her formative years in Wilmslow in a white ra-ra skirt and turquoise mascara". Until recently this would have been very bad news indeed; now it's precocious fashion sense in a to-die- for location. Maybe Kate Winslet will star in the film adaptation.

But the real launch of suburban chic begins this Saturday with Sounds of the Suburbs, a new Channel 4 series presented by that arch grandaddy of cool, John Peel.

A musical tour through Britain's suburbs and satellite towns, it paints a picture of youthful energy, eccentric genius and creative endeavour taking place across the land against the odds. East Kilbride, Newport, the Isle of Wight and Hull are just a few of the decidedly unglamorous pit-stops for Peel and the team. In the first episode, he gets to try that Lanarkshire delicacy, a deep-fried Mars bar; in a later programme the sound man gets stuck in cow poo.

So what's the big attraction? Why stick with suburban sounds rather than heading for the city? "As a bloke who has always lived in the country and rather disliked cities by and large, I was keen to demonstrate that you can do things from places other than the big cities," explains Peel. "The point is that it is possible, for people who are determined to do so, to get a band together, make music and do local gigs without necessarily moving to Manchester or Glasgow."

The programmes are not meant to offer a guide to the stars of the future. Instead, they're a celebration of that peculiarly British brand of musical creativity funded by Giros and part-time jobs - the antithesis of all the Cool Britannia/Britpop hype. It's a reaction against, as one of the featured musicians puts it, "a lot of dull people doing nothing with their lives". This chap, by the way, makes music in his tiny Oxford flat by attacking his guitar with drills and plastic false teeth.

It's this spirit which harks back, as does the title of the series, to the heyday and suburban birthplaces of much British punk; that incredible outpouring of angry, demented, brilliant energy from places that had never been on the cultural map before, epitomised by The Members' 1979 song, "Sound of the Suburbs".

While some of the featured music may sound very different from its punky predecessors, it's clear that there is still a strong sense of making music directly in reaction to the perceived blandness of suburban life.

Roger Silverstone, professor of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and editor of Visions of Suburbia, a collection of essays published last year, says it's not surprising each generation reacts against the suburban sprawl. "Suburbs are places people want to get out of. They are thought to be dull, narrow-minded, parochial, repressed, aesthetically unappealing and conservative." He adds that it's an accident of history that suburbs have had such a bad press, and it's largely to do with class snobbery.

"The middle classes moved out to the suburbs, but in the 1920s suddenly masses of people began claiming the same things: fresh air and private space. The middle classes, your HG Wells class and your intellectuals, were rather discomforted by this - there was some wonderfully Edwardian dismay about it all." In fact, Silverstone says, the suburbs were seen before this as rather exotic, and slightly saucy places. "The villas in St John's Wood, for example, were built partly for returning colonials and were also used to keep mistresses in. There was also a marvellous period in the late 19th century when the bungalow, that embodiment of suburbia, was seen as a place of Bohemian iniquity because it did away with the conventional boundaries between public and private rooms by having them on one floor."

So, you heard it here first: suburbs are cool and bungalows are sexy. Something to think about as you recline on your sheepskin rug, nibbling at that shish kebab.

`Sounds of the Suburbs' begins on Channel 4 on Saturday at 11.50pm. A sampler of the CD accompanying the series will be released on Shifty Disco on 1 March. The full double-CD is released on 29 March