Living on The Edge: Forgotten suburbs come into their own

In one of her early novels Iris Murdoch makes an important distinction between what she calls necessary and contingent areas of London. Anything west of Shepherds Bush, for example, is regarded by her central character as contingent and, in the Fifties, when the book was written, if someone had drawn a map of necessary districts of the capital, it would almost certainly have run from Shepherds Bush in the west to Tower Bridge in the east. Anything north of Camden Town would be dangerously close to contingent, and were you to find yourself south of Waterloo you would probably also be heading for urban irrelevance under Miss Murdoch's definition of the term.

All that has changed. The centre of London is now the really contingent area of the city. As anyone who has been there recently can testify, it is a wasteland, made up of taxis, red buses and shops selling plastic policemen's helmets. No one in their right mind goes there, or, if they do, they make arrangements to get out of it as soon as possible. All the areas that immediately surround it are similarly blighted: Bayswater to the west is a wilderness of hotels and parked coaches, Vauxhall is a terminally ugly jungle of four- lane highways and railway bridges, while the landscape to the north is so lacking in definition that it is possible to drive to Highgate before realising you are no longer in Tottenham Court Road. The City no longer counts, as it is now given over to another item not available in Dame Iris's youth - Massive Demonstration of Police Security Long After Terrorists Have Been and Gone.

London is now a city more like Los Angeles than anything else, a place we begin to imagine by conjuring up not the Houses of Parliament or Westminster Bridge, but districts - we should probably stop calling them suburbs - that are the only individual things left in the landscape. Hampstead or Wimbledon or Hackney have all become places in their own right, as famous, in their quiet fashion, as Hollywood - places that overshadow their mother city.

Paradoxically, as suburbs have to offer their residents more, as people no longer go Up West or Into Town, their architecture becomes a victim of its status. The old High Street or Market Square is not enough. Even Ruislip or Twickenham are supposed to inspire the passer-by with the kind of sense of awe experienced when entering, say, Versailles. The most obvious symptom of this is the shopping mall. And it is, as you may have noticed, always the same shopping mall. Every locality of London now aspires to the condition of a provincial capital. It has the same shopping mall, the same Our Price (with the same distressingly small selection of compact discs), the same Waterstones or Books Etc and the same NCP car park. Somewhere to the north or south or east or west of all this is a building that, at first, looks like a giant Tuscan farmhouse but, in fact, turns out to be Sainsbury's or Tesco or Waitrose. The newly necessary suburbs have spawned centres that, like Westminster and Soho, have now turned out to be rather worse than contingent.

So where now? Now that the centre of London and the centres of its suburbs have all become contingent rather than necessary, the fringe suburb offers the only hope - the kind of place that, up to now, has only been a name on your A to Z, hovering shyly on the edge of the real action. So - goodbye Highgate, welcome Muswell Hill] So long Hampstead, hello Crouch End] A long farewell to Wimbledon. Come on in, Raynes Park, Southfields and New Malden]

(Photograph omitted)