PsychoGeography #55: The sound of the suburbs

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Footlocker in Brixton on a Saturday afternoon.

Footlocker in Brixton on a Saturday afternoon. The ordered civility I remember from my own childhood, when Startrite sandals were fitted by mock-obsequious girls in "shk-shk" nylon, has given way to this curious free for all. Four or five video screens dangle from the dark ceiling of the shop, and four or five Britney Spearses jiggle and jive and gurn. Assistants in the black and white shirts of American basketball referees seem to accost customers at random. On the walls are rack upon rack of hybridised training shoes. The training shoe as combat boot, ballet slipper, jackboot, wheel-less sports car, alien appendage - is there any limit to the versatility of this footwear?

I could get stressed. The little boys have run amok, they've tied their Action Men on to lengths of string and are whirling them about their ears. My eldest - at 14 emphatically too old to be out shopping with his dad - lounges over by the clothes rails. Doubtless in his fervid mind he is running a string of bootylicious hos in the 'hood. That leaves me and my daughter, struggling to find the right chunk of rubber and leather in the right size. At last we achieve this and debouch into the sunlight, where Mormon missionaries and the Nation of Islam do battle for the souls of the pullulating crowd.

We have to be yanked out of all this intense urbanity - only the 'burbs have the requisite balm. The five of us entrain from Brixton station, and within half an hour we're in Petts Wood, an interwar garden suburb, heavily Arts and Crafts-influenced, two miles from Orpington. Almost instantly the tension courses from my shoulders, flows across the pavement and enters those of my eldest son.

Christ! How he hates the suburbs - I can see the distaste etched all over his face. I know what he feels like, how the red brick, the pantiles, the stained-glass fanlights are all bearing down on him - because I felt exactly the same way at his age, as if I was about to be suffocated by the sheer orderliness of all the neat verges and linseed-oiled garage doors. Just to make him feel worse, I offer to rent a house for him and his mates so they can debauch together. There's only one catch - it has to be in Petts Wood.

We stroll on and into the substantial chunk of primordial woodland left immured by London. Sessile oak, beech and silver birch crowd around the sandy track, the sunlight twinkles from between the interlocking boughs, the little boys cavort, the adolescents even begin to frolic a bit. Two miles brings us to the remains of Scadbury Manor, a medieval moated house. It's been excavated and the tall brick chimney-pieces and barrel-vaulted cellars are exposed. In the weed-choked moat some coots do their thing. We stand looking through the fringing trees, to where the Swanley interchange of the M25 grumbles in the mid-distance.

I am ridiculously happy. I love these interzones, where country and city do battle for the soul of a place. I can sense the last few roads of semis below us in the valley, and beyond them open fields. We're only a few miles from the village of Down, where Charles Darwin lived out his years selectively breeding pigeons. I like to think he would've appreciated this dérive as a sound survival mechanism, the only possible way to stay mentally fit in the psychotic entrails of a 21st-century megalopolis. Then we walk on to Sidcup through cluttered, darkling fields.

Sidcup is one of those suburbs that have achieved the sublime status of placename-as-insult. Pinter made much of the place in The Caretaker, whose trampish protagonist is forever on his way to Sidcup to "get me papers". We don't get to see much of the place. Darkness is falling as we limp into town. There's time for burgers and kebabs in a Turkish-run chippie before we proceed to the station.

On the train are Sidcup lads and lasses glammed up for a Saturday night in the smoke. I lean over to my eldest: "See that chap over there," I whisper. "We're so far out in the sticks he's unashamedly sporting a mullet!" My son winces. But then, as the train clatters over the silvery river of tracks that are being fed into London Bridge, I can see the tension seep out of his shoulders. He's safe, back in the warm, beating heart of his natal city. I, on the other hand, feel dreadful again.