Art and romance in England's suburbs

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MY patronage of the arts is not quite on the Borgia scale, I grant you, but not everybody has commissioned a portrait of his family, 6ft by 4ft. It has been done by an old friend of Mrs North's. He is a proper artist: he has the haircut made famous - made into a statement - by Stanley Spencer and Eric Gill. He wears, of course, John Lennon spectacles, but they look pre-war on him. He smokes a pipe and wears the kind of Derbyshire tweed jackets with a different pocket for every species of prey. He lives, not in the Golden Valley between Hereford and Hay-on-Wye, where you expect there to be artists and poachers, but in Highams Park, just by more-famous Chingford, in north-east London, where you do not.

Well, that last bit is not quite true, is it? The suburbs of England do, of course, heave with eccentricity, dissidence and mild anarchy. Betjeman, Jagger and Frayn have all done their bit in showing that a front garden and a door with a little stained glass are pretty in themselves and bring out the best in most of us.

Now that spring is beginning to flex its muscles, and there will be blossom in all those many Orchard Rises, I find it terribly easy to remember the giddiness of adolescence, when with little more than a cup of tea and a lingering memory of the softness of a teenage breast and an exploratory french kiss to sustain me, I could hardly breathe for the excitement of walking home and hearing the birds sing their heads off in the scented breeze, down quiet streets where Hillman Minxes roamed, and a Vauxhall Cresta was the last word in expressive vulgarity.

Frankly, I think teenagers who bother with drugs should simply be granted the ordinary, intoxicating, out-of-body experiences that blasted through any of us Surbiton teenagers about 1960. Drugs are for the middle-aged, surely? It was, by the way, in one of the streets of that suburb, when the creosote of the new fence painting was still heavy in the air, that I first wore a poncho. I made it out of an army blanket, some time before we all got into paisley shirts and red velvet.

Life seemed so dangerously intense, so dangerously whole, and I felt so preternaturally alert to the galloping promise of the season and the age, that I remember feeling I could comprehend every molecule in the entire world. This was a bit before I read Teilhard de Chardin, and I therefore did not know that this business of making creation into a sacrament was, well, the loveliest silly idea we are ever likely to have. I think it was learning physics that did it to me: the wonderful knowledge that grew out of seeing Brownian movement: everything connects and reverberates. That and the dawning realisation that girls seemed to say yes, and all one had to know was what one was asking for.

But when I wonder where one might live next I don't quite see myself in Surbiton or Chingford. I think I fancy something a bit more obviously lively. Kentish Town perhaps, or Stoke Newington again. Places like these seem to have the promise of everything convivial, if only we could grow out of the present cult of muttering surliness. They have comely architecture; races and incomes so varied that none need feel the urge to be assertive; proximity to everything that matters, whether you go in or out of town; they are comprehensible, but anonymous. And yet they do not have the dormitory quality of the suburban; they are not waiting rooms where most people recreate themselves before going back to the fray. They are the fray.

Every time I go back to my old inner-city stamping grounds I am reminded how nearly perfect they are. If they aren't fun to live in - and they are not - then society must be doing quite a lot wrong. They were, after all, beautifully planned: they are models of planning. We cast about for explanations as to why we seem unable to convey to enough of our fellow citizens the cultural genius - the genius for living - which the English should count as their single greatest contribution to the world.

We suspect that the person who lays out our streets is as important as the priest and the playwright; as signal as the TV executive and the teacher; as the software programmer, the policeman and the politician, in the little collection of professions which have to examine themselves in the matter of making the world a place that helps make people whole. Perhaps every cohort of people my age wonders how civilisation can survive the latest affectation of behaviour. The modern question - can sweetness survive Nintendo? - is the latest in a long line. Probably it can, but I am not sure I see it.

Anyway, it was off to Chingford to an eccentric household to see the painting of us all done in the back garden of our old house in Stoke Newington where we lived for 10 years before we moved to Hereford. It is a representational delight: you can see the bomb damage repaired in a harder, lighter brick, but the handsome London Stock looks well. The overall effect reminds me a bit of an illustration in a Ladybird book: 'See, here is Daddy with a glass of wine. Look, there is Mummy. She is saying, Daddy, it is 10.45 and time to go shopping, and for God's sake change your shirt.' It is a portrait of a family caught at a time when it could say: so far so good, fingers crossed.

The day we saw the painting, some musicians came along the muddy track which separates the painter's house from the shard of Epping Forest it overlooks. They sat in the bay window of the front room, warmed by a coal fire under a proper mantelpiece, drank sloe gin and played recorder music from the court of Elizabeth I. Then the vicar and his wife came and we all sat down to roast pork and parsnips followed by country puddings from an old recipe.

The painter's household is quite amazingly untidy. There is no television and many half-finished model yachts. You trip over music stands and easels. The boys use handmade wooden guns and make papier mache pith helmets. They make me feel bourgeois. I may not be wacky enough for the suburbs.