Manicured lawns, privet hedges, mock-Tudor frontages, neat rows of identical family homes. Charles Darwent explores a uniquely British environment - where the city meets the countryside
I can't remember now what I'd expressed shock at: some kind of sexual revelation, probably, or something to do with Class-A drugs. At any rate, my soon-to-be ex- friend Gavin raised one sculpted eyebrow and said, in a Chelsea art-school drawl, "God, Charles - you're so suburban."

Smart? I'll say it did. For one thing, I lived in Notting Hill, the epicentre of hipness and urban grit. Granted, the house had a garden with a herbaceous border and there was a parade of shops next door. Oh, and foxes raided the wheely bins. And my neighbours drove a Range Rover. But this was Britpackland; even the local supermarket was owned by Tom Conran, dammit.

He was right, though, Gavin - it is possible to live in Notting Hill and be suburban, for the good reason that Notting Hill is a suburb. The idea may cause consternation in W11, but it is true. So are Primrose Hill and Knightsbridge. So is Clerkenwell, even the loft apartments in St John's Street. As the contributors to a new book, London Suburbs, point out, London has been suburbanising itself since the time of Chaucer. By the 17th century, the city was already famous for it: the Spanish ambassador, describing London to the Queen of Spain in 1657, predicted that "there would be no City left shortly, for it will all have run out the gates to the suburbs."

Suburbs may conjure up images of Ruislip and Pinner but the first of them were Hoxton and Aldgate, just outside the walls of the City of London. Suburbia is a place, adjacent to a city, from which people commute to that city. The early burghers of Hoxton may have commuted on horseback, those of Pinner by the Metropolitan Line - but both were creatures of the suburbs.

The trouble with suburbs is that they have a way of becoming urban, requiring the building of yet more of them in pursuit of the great British dream: what PG Wodehouse's Psmith - a reluctant inhabitant of East Dulwich - referred to as "the parcelling out of the countryside as gardens". Psmith had things the wrong way round, of course. Suburbs are not formed by an incursion of the countryside into the city but by its opposite. Roughly speaking, country folk move to inner cities and city dwellers - country folk themselves a generation or two before - move to the suburbs. You can't have suburbs without urbs; to use the Latin, no rus in urbe without the urbe. The process is endlessly self-defeating, like a dog chasing its tail.

John Nash built Park Village East - the prettiest of all suburbs - in the 1820s; 75 years later, half of it was torn down to make way for railway tracks needed to feed the newer, bigger suburbs beyond Regent's Park. In 1954, the Elaine of John Betjeman's poem, Middlesex, walked to the outskirts of Ruislip in search of the "few surviving hedges/[which] Keep alive our lost Elysium - rural Middlesex again". Ten years later, Middlesex was abolished, its last hedges rooted up to provide semis for a million more Elaines.

Given this melancholy trend, it is curious how quickly London's suburbs became things of comedy. You can count suburban tragedies on the fingers of one hand: Brief Encounter was set in a notional suburb, though Trevor Howard was escaping from it as fast as British Rail could carry him. By contrast, Chaucer kicked off the suburban sitcom as a genre around 1380 with his description of the aspirational Guildsmen and their wives, all fur coats, brass daggers and keepinge up with ye Joneses. Six hundred years later, they were to find their apogee in that Queen Regnant of Suburbia, The Good Life's Margot Leadbetter.

The amusing thing about Margot, as with all suburban comic figures since Chaucer, were her pretensions. One hero of London's suburbs, a Regency architect called Richard Elsam, designed a stately home for Vauxhall Road that was actually a nest of jejune clerks' semis disguised as a Palladian mansion. Margot would have loved it. Tending her Surbiton garden, she wore an Hermes headscarf and green Hunter wellies; asked to pour brandy on a cut, she dithered between Hine VSOP and Remy Martin. Like suburbia itself, Margot was neither fish, flesh, fowl nor good red herring: an urban matron dressed as a countrywoman, a middle-middle-class housewife with pretensions to the gentry. The Good Life, needless to say, had a cult following in Surbiton.

For one of the stranger things about London's suburbs is that they exist both everywhere and nowhere. No one in their right minds would describe Notting Hill as suburbia, yet it is; only a madman would deny that Surbiton was suburban, yet people who live there do, hotly. As a rule of thumb, a suburb is definable as somewhere where other people live. Musing on the universal truth of this, I ring friends who live in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Their house has the word "Suburb" in its postal address; they drive a Volvo estate; they paint their half of the drainpipe which divides their semi- from its Siamese twin, but not the other half. Do they live in suburbia? The question is met with offended silence, then peeved denial. Hampstead Garden Suburb used to be a suburb, they say, but it isn't any more. So where does suburbia begin? Where it always does, comes the answer - a couple of miles away, past Alexandra Park, over the hill, somewhere else.

And that, really, is what makes suburbs so funny. They are the demographic equivalent of masturbation and farting - they are a fact of life, but nobody wants to own up to it. Why? Looked at objectively, there is nothing particularly shameful in JM Richards' analysis of suburban values in his 1947 classic, The Castles on the Ground: "Ewbank'd inside and Atco'd out, the English suburban residence and the garden which is an integral part of it stand trim and lovingly cared for in the mild sunshine it is each individual Englishman's idea of his home, except for the cosmopolitan rich, a minority of freaks and intellectuals and the very poor".

It all sounds rather charming, in fact. Yet the curtain-twitching, Sunday- car-washing ridiculousness of life in the suburbs transmits itself to generation after generation of new suburban dwellers, even to new Britons - witness Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia or the deeply suburban Bhangara Muffins in the television comedy Goodness Gracious Me.

What makes the whole thing more perverse is that suburbs aren't really like that anyway. Cynthia Payne plied her trade from a semi-detached whorehouse in Streatham, complete with net curtains and a privet hedge. (Not inaptly, Madame Sin's clientele was composed of middle-aged men who liked to be spanked, and where better than in a house that looked as though it had been built for the Ovalteenies?) The suspects in the Stephen Lawrence case live in a neat quadrant of Lewisham semis. Yet still we mock, although, if London Suburbs is to be believed, maybe at our peril. HG Wells' prediction that Londoners of the year 2000 would have "the whole of England and Wales south of Nottingham and east of Exeter as [their] suburb" is coming true, even if he got his dates wrong. Watch Margot Leadbetter, and weep

`London Suburbs', introduction by Andrew Saint, is published by Merrell Holberton, pounds 25. The book is available at the special price of pounds 22.50 to readers of `The Independent'. Send credit card details or a cheque (payable to Merrell Holberton) to Merrell Holberton, Willcox House, 42 Southwark Street, London SE1 1UN.

The sound of the suburbs, page 45

Miranda Sawyer, writer "I'd always dismissed the first 18 to 20 years of my life as boring, essentially because I was from suburbia. Then I thought, that's ridiculous - you can't dismiss your childhood; and a third of the country lives in suburbs. So I went back and had a look for my book. I started off with the cliches - I went to a couple of wife-swapping parties. It was like being at a wedding, and everyone got a bit fruity towards the end. Suburbia is the idea that you take the best bits of the city - with free parking and no Big Issue sellers - and mix it with the country. It's a good idea if you are under 12 or over 35.

`Park & Ride: Travels in a Suburban Land' is published in August

Gillian Wearing, artist "Me and my friend in the Birmingham suburbs went from being skinheads to being punks. We started off at 15 and then went through every fashion till we went to London. You could see the old people were getting uptight, but this was the Seventies. It was nice to see that you could stand out. We could be fashionable, because we didn't have anything else going for us. I've definitely always wanted to live closer to the city. But when I came back from New York for the first time, I thought London looked like a suburb."

JG Ballard, writer "I think suburbia is enormously undervalued. I consider it to be really the centre of life in England - in the Western world - the most creative zone and the only urban area with its eye fixed firmly on the future. All the most important innovative trends that have emerged since the Second World War, such as car ownership, television, the leisure society, wife-swapping and alienation, first flourished in suburbia. It's no coincidence that the Rolling Stones and the Beatles both emerged from the suburbs.I consider the city to be an outdated structure."

Gina Bellman, actress "I grew up in wide open spaces in New Zealand, barefoot and climbing trees. When I was 11, we moved into semi-detached hell in Edgware, north London. It was a double-whammy for me - not only was I coming to my teen years, but I'd given up all that land. We were the last stop on the Northern Line, and there was always that feeling of being at the end of somewhere. There was one bus that I used to catch into town as a child, and I remember the physical feeling of relief when I had crossed the Finchley Road. Even now, when I go to visit my parents, I have the same response, after 20 years of crossing that border."

Greg Williams, writer "If you grow up in suburbia there are a couple of ways you can react. Firstly, you can conform and live a not unpleasant life in which you end up marrying the girl you sat next to at school. Alternatively, you can react against that narrowness of experience. My overwhelming memory of suburban London is of an aching sense of existing at the margins of what's exciting about the world. The only way of living there is to be able to cope with the fact that someone, somewhere else, is always having more fun than you. Make that everyone, everywhere else."

`Football Crazy' is published by Fourth Estate in August

Phil Redmond, creator of `Brookside' "One of my greatest memories was living on that legendary last street before the countryside, on a post- war council estate in Huyton, just outside Liverpool. One day we would go left into the city, and the next day right, out into the country. Teenage high jinks, around the shopping precincts, was classed as vandalism, but in the cornfields, they were called high spirits. But as soon as you get to the age where you start thinking about getting married and settling down, you want to get back to suburbia. It's part of the natural process. If you grew up in a terraced house, you want to move to a semi-detached with a garden, and so on. Urbanisation is for 16-24 year-olds."

Michael Bracewell, writer "The narrator of my new novel, whenever he thinks of the suburbs, thinks of seeing an aerial view of mortality. You are seeing the whole of human life spread out like a grid at its most undisguised. I have always felt that if you want to find the really extraordinary characters, you will find them in suburbia. Quentin Crisp was born in Sutton in 1908 and the idea of him travelling up to London in the Twenties, wearing make-up, is incredibly parallel to my own experience in the late Seventies. The half-dozen punks in Sutton would congregate on Sutton station, and I was gobbing with the best of them. It seemed we had all turned into Quentin Crisps."

`England Is Mine' is published by Flamingo

Claire Rayner, writer and counsellor "Suburbia wasn't my original choice for a place to live. My husband always said, if there was a flat under the the statue of Eros, I'd live in it. He wanted to live in the countryside. So Harrow was a compromise. It's a neighbourhood - we go shopping on Saturday mornings, and it's part of the pattern of our lives. Suburbia is geographical - it's not a state of mind. You make it what you want. What I make of it is my garden, the different smell when you get out of the train, the fact that I can sometimes see the sky and the stench of a fox first thing in the morning."

Piers Gough, architect "I now live in the East End of London, in what the Victorians used to call the suburbs. To be honest, I would find it really hard to enjoy an evening knowing I have got to get on a train and go home. Being able to hop on a bus and go places seems to be much more the thing. But when I go and visit people in the suburbs, and the birds are tweeting and the gardens are looking gorgeous, a certain amount of remorse comes over me."

Laurence Marks, writer (with Maurice Gran) of `Birds of a Feather' "I used to live in Southgate, in north London and the truth is I have always lived in suburbia. I left it in my head in about 1968, when I started going out with somebody who introduced me to her family - they opened up a window to a world that was just so urban. Birds of a Feather was the epitome of suburbia. We wrote it from a room in my house and - as most people left the suburbs every day - what we were left with, by and large, was small-minded, middle-class, middle-brow, unadventurous people. When I came back to live in London, I wanted to be able to walk to the cinema, the theatre, art galleries. So I moved to Mayfair." Interviews by Rachelle Thackray