Monday Book: Suburban homesick blues

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE RUMOUR is that nothing ever happens in the suburbs, but plenty of dreams are harnessed there. This lack of activity can breed creativity; many rock stars and songs were launched from such origins. There's also the dream of the suburbs itself - calmness, convenience and self-created beauty. The suburbs attract people who value physical comfort above all else, who prefer substance over style. Is this languid aim, and the soft affluence that goes with it, one of the reasons why the suburbs have been held in such disrepute for so long?

Miranda Sawyer's account is part memoir, part reportage. Her reminiscences have many heart-warming moments. Typically bashful about her roots, she put aside all things suburban once she was located in London, "but sometimes, at home, in private, I'd slap on the fake tan and day-dream of a soft- top Mercedes."

The tow of suburban tradition still drew her, and she eventually reached a crisis point. She looked in the mirror and saw "a woman whose hair was dyed a little too blonde, whose dress-sense was a little too young; who was wearing blue nail varnish and a good slather of self-tanning lotion; who drove a turquoise car, who wore pink pearly lipstick and thought it would be brilliant to have a smart kitchen." So she went back, to reclaim her past.

What makes Park and Ride so likeable is Sawyer's partial distance from her subject, but also her complete understanding of it. Equally endearing are her no-nonsense, suburban-ish judgements. She refers to an eco-protester's jewellery as "diddly little earrings in uncomfortable places" and has no hesitation in dismissing an exhibition at Birmingham's Ikon Gallery as: "Young British Artist goes to Toytown, plus `I am woman see me roar' wall-stencilling, both rubbish". She champions "melodic club-pap" over "noodly Urban Hymns by the moany old Verve".

Finding herself at a loss for a partner to take to a wife-swapping party, she delivers the most sensible account of the current state of the sexes: "I never had a wife to swap. I still don't; and I can't borrow the wife of any of my male friends either, because very few of them have managed to persuade a woman to exchange the spoils of her independence (car, career, flat, bubble baths as and when) for a Sony PlayStation and the entire works of New Order, stored alphabetically."

Contrary to any other account of the suburbs within living memory, this one is done with a breezy assurance, and in a spirit of affection.

While the Scots recognise a suburb when they see it, it is apparently unknown to the Irish or Welsh. The suburbs, rather, are "a manner of living, an attitude to life, an atmosphere" - places that have been "bypassed, superstored and multiplexed". Common features are crunchy driveways, pedestrianisation, "sodding cobbles" and people having combed their hair before they've come out. CK, DKNY, Cafe Rouge and Pizza Express are all frequently sighted, and all flourish.

Sawyer rhapsodises on the joys of cars and driving, and revels in the enthusiasm she finds among suburban car-cruisers: "Why walk, when you can gun the accelerator?" In suburban clubs, people make more of an effort. Women come gift-wrapped; men wear brightly coloured shirts; they drink flaming Lamborghinis.

She visits a shopping centre conceived with the ambition of Michelangelo: a marble palace whose first shoppers emerge dazzled, overcome and blubbing with joy. A Preston restaurant - Fives - contains five different themed areas serving five different styles of cuisine. "It's all fake, this," a waiter confided, cheerily. Whatever the suburbs might be accused of, they could not at present be taken to task for a lack of energy.

The suburbs have never been out of step with the cities - both have always been modern compared with the countryside. But a quiet uniformity, and corporate decisions, still rule. Sawyer meets a man from Whitbread breweries, explaining All Bar Ones, Harvesters and other outlets that have been scrupulously designed to cater for ferociously defined target groups. Does some shadow of a class system still prevail in this segregation, an are-you-in-my- group mentality? This happens in the centre of British cities as well, though.

Towards the end of the book, Sawyer claims that she did not have to move to suburbia because suburbia had moved to her. She makes a case for Croydon's plans for the future being similar to those of Richard Rogers for London: "Suburbs take the best bits of a city and put them in a greener environment." This is probably true. Her loyalty and enthusiasm for the lately improved suburbs is understandable in a media person tired of London's empty posturing.

Park and Ride is a great respray on the suburbs, with many new insights. It will educate the ignorant and maybe make those who have hidden their roots look back with pride rather than shame.

The reviewer's book `Britart' will be published by Serpent's Tail in 2000