Books: Sex and the loft extension

GEORGE LUCAS Park and Ride by Miranda Sawyer Little, Brown pounds 14.99
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Mirror, mirror. Few of us enjoy unauthorised portraiture of ourselves or those we love; when it is an entire slab of humanity under caricature, the result can petrify the soul. Thus should Miranda Sawyer's very individual Nineties suburban version of Cobbett's Rural Rides command rapt attention. It is a great success: while the extent of analysis is - intentionally - almost zero, the sheer pungency of her almost apocalyptic account of Britain's thriving suburban castes lends exceptional zest to a series of sharp well-aimed, acid toe-capped kicks at the airbag- protected undersides of those she apparently dislikes so very much.

The target is suburbia: cars, houses, habits, the lot. Prowling her way through seemingly dozens of deadly sins of her home town, Wilmslow, and many others like it, she constructs a sprawling, no convenience-spared multiplex of a hymn to much of post-Thatcher Britain, since bequeathed to both John Major and Tony Blair. The author's heart is worn not so much on her sleeve as on the apparently razor-bladed underside of her Face- bequeathed jackboots. She hates suburban comfort. She loathes safety. She flays home improvement. As for niche marketing consultancy, for this she has no time at all.

In a crowded field (the comparatively well-off, dull and obdurate have never been popular) she presents a rare inventory of materialism, an amassing of evidence of the antics of a newly dominant British tribe, living and breathing a life of DIY, school runs, golf courses and leisure centres. Most significantly, as she notes, it is of a size and critically fickle voting intention that "swings elections". Indeed, their opting in turn for Major in 1992 and Blair in 1997 was decisive in both polls.

And my, the political parties know it. Thus it is interesting that early on she confesses her shame as a suburban child whose heritage returns to menace her wandering mind: her special Alan Partridge-brand day-nightmare is of being "shrink-wrapped in pale pink New Man stretch corduroy, queuing to see Kramer vs Kramer". Her response was to deny her past and "burn every photo of my teenage root perm".

She says she hails from a land that is "universally hated" - although surely not, supposedly, by the growing multitudes who live in it (given their increasing power in the land they can probably deal with hatred fairly easily).

So off she whirls, at her best slamming the blatantly slammable. First there are golf courses: she smites an early brisk five-iron clubbing at sturdy grotesque "Golf Girls". Next for the cudgels step up suburban swingers (does anyone remember Piers Merchant?), the sheepish sex-seekers satisfying their passions often through the internet, although one couple gave up because, celebratedly, they "had the loft extension to get on with". A redundant accountant stoutly defends his perversions because meeting complete strangers helped him with his job interview technique.

The nationally average town of Preston (reminiscent of Homer Simpson, the first average American in space) finds her sitting awhile with Bob from Whitbread breweries, who keenly outlines pub-users' segmentation, from All Bar One (for young(ish) women) through various fiendishly directed brands including a final monstrous "chameleon" pub that transmogrifies by the hour to fit a shifting population not already ensnared. Humour re-emerges. "After speaking to Bob I really needed a drink." Thus she confronts another bar so slick it "made a chameleon brand look focused". Fabulously, the new drinking den had until recently been the local Conservative Club.

Such annihilation has been performed before. John Osborne did it. Sid Vicious was there. But this is prime stuff: she qualifies as Angry Young Woman of her time. Some readers may blanch at the lashing dealt to family members, but maybe they've been squared into the deal. Many targets are well-chosen, possibly deserving all they get, although not all are fair game. Indeed, rather a large number of very decent people living this way are not awful at all. But assuming the object is to shock, she succeeds.

She hits the target of post-Cold War peacetime torpor with eerie accuracy. We beat the Soviets, the almost subliminal logic runs, we (well, anyone we know) are rich, we were right all along. This world of shopping malls and ostentatious car-washing is Lenin's ironic final heirloom (Agatha Christie be remembered. It was the bourgeoisie in the living room behind "quality life" twitching curtains, with the three-foot wide television all along).

Sawyer's awkward problem is that suburbia, developed-world style, makes, however uncomfortably, ruthless good sense. Millions still in penury here and further billions worldwide would kill to engage in her minutely painted hell of niche-marketed bars. It is hard to blame those wishing their families to escape the crime, poor services and other harshnesses of urban living - and who could not afford the more svelte parts of city centres.

Nor, given population densities, is it possible for everyone to pile off into the UK's remaining rural paradise. There are simply too many to fit into it: any area settled would most probably turn - as she must deep down suspect - into her own beloved Wilmslow within seconds. Too many admire her cited drive-time "Soul-Lite" music (Natalie Imbruglia, Wet Wet Wet, and so on), clean facilities, crimeless streets. Nor can their passion for conformity be dulled. Wherever the tribe travels, it would just most likely build its temples and domes again.

Her victims would simply ask what business she has treating them so roughly. Their ascendency will continue until either markets crash (which few should welcome), or until efforts are made to reintegrate victims of urban squalor with their neatly separated cleaner suburban emigre cousins.

But few politicians are likely to ruffle Miranda Sawyer's targeted miscreants in so bold a way. For the time being, the game is up: suburbia's ascendency has some way to run, as has that of those clever enough to cater to its tastes. Now the latter are deft, deadly, and worthy of close inspection: a fair few would vaporise their own grandmothers and cast the old treasures in a PlayStation special limited edition, if they felt they could dare.

Why, sold at the right price, given a natty design, it might impress those neighbours that little crucial bit more.

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