Frances Lincoln £25 (240pp) £22.50 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop : 08430 600 030
The Freedoms of Suburbia, By Paul Barker
Friday 18 December 2009
In the dazzling photographs of sunrise gates, stained-glass leaded lights, topiary hedges and garden gnomes which illustrate Paul Barker's heroic defence of suburbia, the sun is always shining. It's all good. Milton Keynes is praised for its calm sense of order, and getting town centre planning right when it started with a giant shopping mall.
In suburban Britain, class has now given way to lifestyle categories based on spending patterns and the elective affinities of brands. Waitrose we are told is strictly for the PLUs (People Like Us), as against Iceland which is for PLT (work it out). This is where over 80 per cent of the population now live by choice, to the chagrin of many planners and cultural commentators, but to Barker's approving delight.
Where detractors regard the suburban bungalow as the epitome of conformity, the author sees an icon of sturdy self-improvement, tracing its roots to the Chartist colonies of the late 19th century along with the self-build plotlands settlements after the First World War. Individuality and idiosyncrasy are the hallmarks of suburban style, so that no two bungalows or semi-detached houses - eminently adaptable - ever look the same. Sheds, conservatories and roof extensions abound, and a single street may contain every colour of paintwork known to man.
Not everything convinces. There may be trouble brewing in paradise, and not just amongst the quarter of a million people now apparently living in mobile homes – suburbia's dark secret. While praising the relish in collecting, evinced in the suburban love of bric-à-brac and baroque interior display, Barker also records the unstoppable rise of IKEA, apparently forgetting that the Swedish store rose to prominence with the slogan "chuck out the chintz!" He is sanguine on the trend to pave over front gardens for parking, which has led to whole streets looking like a row of used-car lots, with no visible pathway to the door (which in a lot of modern housing is no longer at the front). Given that the front garden was once central to the child-friendly morphology and emotional geography of the suburb, its mass extirpation may come to be seen as an environmental and social catastrophe.
While Barker's enjoyable tour d'horizon focuses on the opportunities and pleasures of the invincible suburb, it is also a polemic against top-down planning and the tendency of political and cultural elites to want to tell other people how they should live. Yet even Barker occasionally lets slip an improving zeal when, in praising Croydon public library, he observes that "books are one road to freedom". I almost reached for a copy of Isaiah Berlin.
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