Pleasantly gaudy flowers in drives, parks, playing fields: Martin Parr's pictures, says Cressida Connolly, remind us that summer in the suburbs is England at its best
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The Independent Culture
WHENEVER people talk about their earliest memories, there is always someone who says that they can remember lying in their pram. Sometimes people born before 1960 recall an expanse of sky intersected by a criss- cross of string - like tennis net - which cautious mothers used to fix over the baby carriage, to protect their infants from the perceived menace of cats. Today's children will probably recollect the rustle of clear plastic, with its faint marzipan smell, shielding them from bugs and inclement weather. Aside from this generational variation, everyone's mental image is identical: they remember apple blossom nodding above their curious eyes and bright, bright blue beyond.

These pictures answer that nostalgia. Intentionally or not, they offer a pram's-eye view wherein everything except the flowers in the foreground is hazy, peripheral. Like memory, it is a world of perpetual sunshine. This is what things must look like to toddlers in their pushchairs: cars and buildings reduced to blocks of fuzzy colour, the people in the distance to indistinct, almost abstract flashes of movement. Here is a safe, pleasantly gaudy suburban Britain; a place without sun-dried tomatoes or irony.

Ever since John Betjeman turned his wry attention to the suburbs - "Pear and apple in Croydon gardens/ Bud and blossom and fall" - they have been vaguely infra dig. People admit ruefully to having come from suburbia, but everyone's in a hurry to leave. Their conformity is considered stifling, a prison from which the individualistic or creative - into which category most people, or anyway most young people, assign themselves - must escape if they are to realise their potential. That's why Hanif Kureishi's novel The Buddha of Suburbia, about a boy who can't wait to get out of Beckenham, is such a hit: because it addresses the urban craving which comes with growing up. There is a prevailing notion that nothing ever happens in the suburbs. The action is all in the heart of the city. (That so radical a writer as JG Ballard should voluntarily reside in such an environment has always caused incredulity; as if quiet, leafy streets were inimical to such a bizarre imagination as his.) It's OK to live outside the city if your home is miles and miles away, in the real wilds of the country. But to be on the outskirts is to be on the outside, beyond the pale. Residents of London assess each other's credibility from their postcodes. People who haven't set foot in Soho for years still boast of their proximity to the West End - "We can be in Shaftesbury Avenue in less than 20 minutes." As if anyone would want to go to Shaftesbury Avenue, anyway, unless on the way to Maison Bertaux in Greek Street, England's best tea-shop.

This is all wrong. The suburbs are not just the seed-bed of a thousand sitcoms, a hinterland of Alan Bennett's imagination. They are not petty. People live their lives in these streets: not only whistling on a bicycle or growing hybrid tea roses or polishing their cars, but the serious stuff: falling in love, having children, dying. The cultural legacy of decades of screen advertising is that we expect our lives to consist of a series of great moments, all played out against commensurately grandiose backdrops. A cup of coffee must be accompanied by a clifftop epiphany; buying a T- shirt means smouldering in the Amazon; a new car will bring multiple orgasms on the Riviera. When our lives don't match up to these images, it's easy to be disappointed. It's easy to forget that real life actually takes place in the interstices. And real life, for many of us, will happen in the suburbs.

Suburbs were meant to be a kind of utopia. Originally conceived as havens for workers from polluted and overpopulated cities, they were designed with the optimum health of their residents in mind. Parks and open spaces, wide tree-lined streets, ample gardens were all planned to provide physical and mental refuge far - but not too far - from the madding crowd. Some of Britain's best-loved institutions are to be found here: the bowling greens, the pillared white bandstands, like hollow wedding cakes; the Art Deco lidos, the Tudorbethan public libraries, the adult education centres with their edifying arts and crafts murals. Garden cities - Bournville, Port Sunlight, Welwyn - are the apogee of such civic endeavour. But all suburbs are garden cities, more or less. Nowhere in rural England is there such profusion of blooms, of greenery. There's nothing fanciful about the street names: Acacia Avenue, Pear Tree Lane. Park your car overnight in a suburb and by morning your windscreen will be covered with acid-yellow laburnum flowers, or the candy-floss pink of ornamental cherry blossom. Walking along these streets on a windy spring day is like being a bride showered with confetti.

During the past decade or so most rural towns have become pretty much like suburbs too. Social comment has focused on the fact that high streets have become homogenised and the building of new homes falls always to the same few firms of developers, all but ironing out regional variation. The butcher, the baker, the family greengrocer have given way to a never-ending replication of shops selling scented candles and greetings cards. Country towns are like meaner versions of Edwardian suburbs, because modern development is predicated on money, not altruism. The public baths have turned into lucrative fitness centres. There are no scout huts or community halls, no churches or putting greens on contemporary estates. The generous avenue has been replaced by the cramped cul-de-sac. Even so, such communities offer relative peace and privacy when set against inner-city housing.

Summer in the suburbs, as these pictures illustrate, is England at its best. The smell of hot tarmac and fresh lawn clippings, the vivid flowers behind neat railings, the plump blackbirds half-hidden in laurel hedges all speak of security, calm and order. It's a world where chaos might not exist, where everything has its place: the tartan picnic rug with fragments of last year's hard-boiled egg shells still embedded in its wool; the coal-tar soap in the downstairs cloakroom; the gardening gloves always folded neatly next to the secateurs. It's the ideal place to bring up children. We all end up wanting to go home again, wanting to replicate our childhoods for our own offspring.

"Some of us get grand ideas about travelling to distant lands like Tibet in search of enlightenment," writes the self-help guru Andrew Matthews, author of the best-selling Being Happy. "But the meaning of life for most of us is probably in the suburbs." You can climb every mountain, if you want to, but my guess is that he's right.

Cressida Connolly's new book of short stories, 'The Happiest Days', is published by Fourth Estate, price pounds 12.99