Right side of the tracks: What is the appeal of suburbia?

Created by the railways and hated for its cosy, mock-Tudor, allotment-keeping ways, suburbia and its values have shaped modern Britain. Michael Bywater peeps over the privet hedge
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The Independent Online

We have become a suburban society. The comic-book values of the 'burbs are engraved on the tablets of the law. Fear, timidity, nosiness, suspicion.

The idea that safety is the highest good, and that the main purpose of living is to exclude the possibility of anything unexpected. A loathing of the country: mud, yokels, snobs, hunting, vile horses, horrid dogs with blood on their chops, shooting, rain, inadequate signage and street lighting, inexplicable shrieks in the night, drunken big-bellied peasants with Type 2 diabetes driving home, lurching from one muddied bank to the other, pigs (flu), chickens (flu), eggs (salmonella), cheese (listeria), turkeys (Bernard Matthews), woodsheds containing something nasty. The country is tolerable when corralled as a theme park for the kiddies (water features, rides, an "Experience", brochures) but otherwise: no.

A loathing of the city, too. Swaggering young men, individuals of interest to the police, those whose citizenship cannot be proven, groups likely to conspire, parking, congestion, people drinking on the pavement, people drinking in shebeens, dirty bookshops, insider trading, unhygienic street markets, litter, smoking, unregulated vehicles plying for hire, loud music, fighting, people taking photographs of policemen, inflammatory mosques, talking to the driver while the vehicle is in motion, standing too close to the platform edge, evasion of fines, failure to show ID.

Ban it all. Make it all punishable. Institute surveillance. Identify and eradicate malfeasance. Be vigilant. Look before you leap; then, don't leap; leaping is an offence and no excuse to say you looked. Remember: everyone is a paedophile. Have you passed a CRB check? Why? Why? Why did you think it necessary to submit to a CRB check? Very suspicious as I think you will agree.) We know who you are. We know where you've been. The innocent have nothing to fear and we decide what's innocent.

When in doubt, don't. Simple. And always be doubtful. Isn't that suburban ethic? You never know. Better safe than sorry. Keep your head down. Keep your hands to yourself. Keep yourself to yourself. We don't go in for that sort of thing here.

Just like the Galilean, the suburbs have triumphed and the world has grown grey with their breath. Both the Tories and Labour, each in theory utterly opposed to it, have all the same embraced the suburban ethos and placed it at the heart of Brit2000. Maybe it's not surprising given that the core of that ethos is the commandment "Thou shalt do what thou art told", a maxim more precious than rubies to the withered souls of politicians, but, all the same: we have become what we most despise.

We still despise the suburbs. But perhaps that's because the suburbs are the only thing left that we can despise. Every other target of the fine rich English heritage of indiscriminate contempt has been fenced off under penalty of law. But still we can hurl abuse at the suburbs, at their architecture, their inhabitants, their habits, beliefs, speech, pretensions, delusions, possessions, jobs, hobbies and manners. While adopting their principles wholesale and effectively unopposed, we are still allowed to curse at the idea, perhaps as a consolation for having to conform to the reality.

Yet we remain fascinated. Even for those who've never lived there, or who have managed to escape, the contemplation of the suburbs arouses in the English soul a deep and inexplicable yearning for nostos, the Homeric notion of a perfect return to Laburnum Drive where God – or Barratt Homes, His representative on earth – will wipe away all tears, the cat will be purring, the dog safe, the kiddies clean and happy and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. The test of a foreigner, however fluent, was to ask them to say "squirrel". They couldn't. Germans say "Skvivel". Americans say "Skwerl". Japanese say "Skrirriro... skri... sklirr... skli..." and then get tongue-cramp and stare at their shoes.

It would be as good a test to wire them up to an MRI scanner and show them a picture of a Metropolitan line rounding the long curve between Watford and Moor Park, whether in high summer (the leaves brushing the carriage roof, birch and cow-parsley lining the banks) or winter (snow on the sleepers, low sun glinting on the lines, the pylons blurred with mist). In any other brain, the regions handling low-level perplexity and uncomprehending boredom would light up, everything else remaining dormant. In the English brain, though, everything would turn a soothing shade of comfy. The summer scene would summon scents of privet and hollyhock, the drift of pampas grass and the lawnmower smells of two-stroke motors and freshly-cut grass, diamond glitter of car-wash hoses, the summer garage perfume of 3-In-One, petrol and warm mildew. In winter the mental scene would move indoors: the Ercol chair is warm and yielding, the remote control is to hand, the air calm with the incense of Pledge, supper is in the microwave and the boiler has just – whirrrrrr-whomp – kicked in; soon, Dad will run the kids down to The Parade to get the bus in; it's a full moon and the air smells of frost, as it always does at full moon whether there's frost or not: it is, for the kids, the smell of promise; for Dad, the pleasing counterpoint to the warmth of home. And all summed up in that daily moment when the Metropolitan line train trundles out of the tunnel on to the overground tracks. A daily resurrection after the small Calvary of the morning trip in the other direction.

There, maybe, is the defining feature of the suburban dream, and you can see it summed up in a pair of images on display at a new exhibition, Suburbia, at the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden. The posters were commission by London Transport from Paul Nash in 1936: "Come Out to Live", exhorts one; "Come In to Play" invites the other.

In the first, a greyscale image of the City – its aerial perspective suggesting not only smog but the sheer unmanageability of London – explodes out into a Modernist pastoral fantasy of suburban life: the En-tout-cas patent all-weather tennis court, the wide, tree-lined streets, a sunset with fair-weather cumulus clouds (the LT roundel where the sun might be, in a more astronomically accurate picture) and, oddly, a development of white geometric Modernist houses – odd, because the classic suburban style of the between-the-wars suburban development was a faintly joyless, neverland mock-Tudor style, denoted by phony half-timbered eaves, and, in the upper price ranges, diamond-leaded windows.

Why this became the dominant style of suburban domestic architecture is a mystery. Was it because it was in direct opposition to the Modernist style, which people simply didn't like? Was it a sort of false nostalgia, like the Portuguese saudade, a yearning to recapture something you never had in the first place? Or was it perhaps to distinguish London's suburbs from the City, Tudor being the one architectural style which London hardly had, since it had all burnt down in the Great Fire of 1666? Whatever the reason, says David Bownes, senior curator at the London Transport Museum, Modernist architecture was fine for stations – think of Arnos Grove or Bounds Green – but not for home. "The Tudor homes – though they were sold with ad copy like 'Buy a piece of Old England' – were 'modern'. They just weren't Modernist."

Nash's other poster – "Come in to Play" – reverses the iconography. Rain gouts down; the nets have been removed and standing water obscures the court; the bare trees bend in a fierce wind; clouds scud across a gibbous waning moon; the concrete houses are grey and desolate. But, in Town, Eros stands backlit by street-lamps and a bright jeweller's window ("Diamonds & Rings") while an expensive car pulls up at the kerb and the corner of a neon sign advertises "Guinness for Strength" – a reminder, perhaps, that the new suburban developments may have had their little parades of shops (butcher, newsagent, greengrocer, radio and bicycle shop, sub-post office) but very seldom a pub.

Nash's posters were commissioned, like so much other great design on London's transport, by Frank Pick, who displayed a simultaneously Fabian and commercially persuasive concern for good and consistent taste. Pick commissioned the magnificent "Underground" typeface from Edward Johnston in 1916, still in use today; he's commemorated by a blue plaque outside his Golders Green house as "Pioneer of good design for London Transport", but really he might be considered the creator of the first great piece of large-scale branding. Indeed, you might call him the man who branded London – along with the suburbs, whose salient features are encapsulated in the artwork he commissioned.

The advertisements extolled the freedom from renting, an escape (ironically, we might feel) from faceless grey boxes; when to travel to avoid the rush. Many ads are aimed at women (whose travel, then, unlike men's, was discretionary): here's a man and woman choosing wallpaper, here they are going to the cinema, here are the winter sales, here she is going "In to Town" for shopping. Nothing is done in suburbia. That's where home is. Everything else needs a trip. Suburbia itself was, and remains, a sort of a nowhere, betwixt and between: neither the countryside, with its isolation, its inaccessibility, its odd and, to the outsider, inexplicable social demarcations and customs and its strange hooting noises in the middle of the night, nor the city: impersonal, vast, dirty, expensive, unnavigable.

The rise of suburbia, particularly between the wars, repositioned the very idea of a city, and particularly of London. In his Dictionary of the English Language (1755) Samuel Johnson defines a city as "a large collection of houses and inhabitants" and told Boswell (who was wondering if London was better to visit than to live in) that "when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford".

A little under 200 years later, men were tired of London, and life unaffordable. A city – the city – was no longer a large collection of houses and inhabitants but a relentless machine, Moloch, Willam Blake's "Great Wen". The city was filthy, impersonal, choked with smog and humanity; even in Dickens's time, a man might walk for two hours to get to his work and two hours back again to a small, rented flat in a poor building under the thumb of an unregulated landlord. London had become a city for the working-class down and the upper-middle class up; the "middling sort" were stranded. And, of course, it was no place for children.

What happened, most startlingly in the 1920s and 1930s with the new railway suburbs, was a wholescale and unprecedented uncoupling of work from home.

Previously – whether urban or rural – work and home leaked together, if only for geographical reasons; now, they were clearly demarcated, signalled at each end of the working day by a physical journey: a rite of passage in the liminal space of the train. You boarded in one role, alighted in the other. At one end, the umbrella; at the other, the spade. Horticulture was crucial to the suburban ethos, beginning with the station gardens themselves, a source of pride and bitter competition. In the suburbs, you had that atavistic Grail of humanity's immemorial inner peasant: the bit of land to call your own.

To the intelligentsia, the suburbanites might be victims, slaves to the city; but to themselves, it was the other way round: the city was a resource, something to be exploited to finance the landlord-free, traffic- and pollution-free dream: that an Englishman's home was his mock-Tudor semi at the end of the District line.

The great suburban migration was a different class of animal to the slow expansion which had led Pooter to his clerk's villa in Holloway – the sort of house which, now, a junior city lawyer might be glad of a two-bedroom flat in. This was not so much an expansion as a centrifugal force, and it was only made possible by the railways. Not that they were guided by ulterior motives. In particular, the Metropolitan Railway, until its incorporation into London Transport in 1933, acted both as carrier and developer. A poster of 1926 showed its branch lines stretching out way beyond London proper, to Amersham, Stoke Mandeville, Great Missenden, Hillingdon and Uxbridge: it built the lines and the houses and would even arrange mortgages. (There has been a suggestion that perhaps the world's most famous and iconic map – the 1933 Harry Beck schematic diagram and its descendants – was chosen to disguise the true distance of outlying stations.)

We may rail against the Underground now but it was a thoroughly virtuous circle, particularly in the development of the suburbs. It could have been better; for example, the suburban rail services could have been wrapped up into London Transport, had it not been for pressure from the internecine "Big Four" railways – the London, Midland and Scottish, London and Northeastern, Great Western and Southern Railways, in 1933. Better still had LT been allowed to go on developing the very suburbs to and from which it carried people, and reinvesting the profits in better services.

But that, of course, depends on acknowledging the good in the suburbs. How we sneer! The main reason, says Hoyle, was (and is) pure snobbery. The suburbs were the middle classes getting above themselves. "The upper class didn't like it. The architects didn't like it. The intellectuals didn't like it. They despised the lower middle classes. They hated the clerks." So, too, did the landowners, despite their handsome profits. Who were these upstarts making a hybrid of the countryside, buying into the fantasy of safety, green space for the kids, the combination of the best of town and countryside? Who did they think they were?

The answer might be: they weren't sure. The history of the suburbs seems to be the history of an odd, introspective deracination. Some writers, like John Betjeman, found this enchanting. Others – Keith Waterhouse, Leslie Thomas – looked at the suburbs as they looked at everything else: with affection, as a stage for human idiosyncracy. Tom Sharpe in The Throwback also saw suburbia as a stage on which was enacted terrible bloody mayhem, as served it right. And others – George Orwell in particular – saw something darker still, a sort of massive con trick, a living death. Frank Reynolds' cartoon of 1923, The Bitter Cry of the Suburbs, shows a clerk on a suburban station beside a 10-year-old railway poster announcing "Come to the country. CHEAP FARES", and another, recent, one reading: "SEASON TICKET HOLDERS: INCREASED RATES". His brow is furrowed, his pipe clenched. "They tempted me to come and live out here," he complains, "and now they make my life unbearable!" For Evelyn Waugh, living in Golders Green was unbearable anyway, because of snobbery; he'd walk across the hill to to post his letters so that they would be franked "Hampstead" instead.

The rootlessness of the suburbs was no mere fiction; David Bownes says that, behind the neat privet hedges (a giant one greets visitors to the exhibition) there was, to begin with at least, little sense of belonging. "People weren't much involved in local society, either the pre-existing community or their own. But of course there often weren't any pubs or centres where people could come together." The very social uniformity, too, could militate against an active community. "They were all middle-class," says Hoyle, "which might account for the idea of keeping up with the Joneses." Worth remembering that the Italian for suburb is "borghetto" – little borough – from which we get the word "ghetto".

But maybe it's that very ghetto uniformity and rootlessness which gave the suburbs their odd, comforting allure. Suburban life – certainly for the literati, who are of course the ones who write about it – is like Turkish delight: terribly tempting, but we know we shouldn't really. Yet suburban values aren't that bad: safety, security, comfort, fitting in, living within your means, having a bit in reserve: these, until they tip, as they can, into a bitter sort of Daily Mail paranoia, are perhaps the most commonplace aspirations of humanity, and none the worse for that. If we impute terrible vices to suburbia – wife-swapping, Abigail's Party pretension, emotional frigidity, meanness, xenophobia, caravanning – that may say as much about us as it does about them. And if the safety-suspicion-and-surveillance ethic we blame on the suburbs has infected the state as a whole ... then perhaps we should at least give an ear to the call of the spade, the laburnum and the season-ticket.

Suburbia is at the London Transport Museum (Ltmuseum. co.uk) from 15 October 2009

My suburbia

Kate Moss

The model grew up in the London suburb of Croydon. She has said of her youth: "I knew I wanted to travel, because my dad worked in the travel business and I knew I wanted to leave Croydon ... I'm not retiring in the near future and when I do, it definitely will not be to Croydon."

Ian Curtis

The late lead singer of cult band Joy Division lived in suburban Macclesfield. He once said of his time there: "In sixth form, we all had this idea, 'Well we'll go down to London and get some kind of job'. When I left, I got a great feeling: 'I'm free, I'm free!'"

David Bowie

The musician and actor grew up in Bromley, Kent, from the age of six. He once said of the area: "It's the greyness of it all ... It was a man-made Orwellian society ready-cast in stone. I think all my generation just wanted to escape."

Alan Davies

The actor and comedian, on discovering his grandfather made his fortune by constructing suburban properties in north-east England, said: "The suburban life I grew up in filled me with horror and dread ... it gives me the willies ... I'm slightly dispirited he wanted to be MFI. He built suburbia. What a thing to do. I don't blame him, though. He just built the houses."

Hanif Kureishi

The playwright and novelist used his childhood in Bromley as inspiration for his novel 'The Buddha of Surburbia' and once said: "...in the suburbs, where concealment is often the only art, but where there is so much aspiration, dreaming and disappointment ... there is a lot for a writer"

JG Ballard

The late writer lived in Shepperton, Middlesex, for more than 50 years. He has said:

“Living out in Shepperton gives me a close-up view of the real England – the M25, the world of business parks, industrial estates and executive housing, sports clubs and marinas, cineplexes, CCTV, car-rental forecourts … That’s where boredom comes in – a paralysing conformity and boredom that can only be relieved by some sort of violent act; by taking your mail-order Kalashnikov into the nearest supermarket and letting rip.”

Sir John Betjeman

The poet and broadcaster, who died in 1984, grew up in the London suburb of Highgate and often wrote affectionately about suburban life:

“Gaily into Ruislip Gardens
Runs the red electric train...
Out into the outskirt’s edges
Where a few surviving hedges
Keep alive our lost Elysium – rural Middlesex

(Taken from ‘A Few Late Chrysanthemums’, 1954)