Living: it's new, it's modern, it's subtopia

People who live in the metropolis feel it their duty to be snide about suburbia. It is a place with no centre, endless rows of houses wrapped in ring roads, a place where the soul dies. But look again, says Paul Vallely: it's the perfect post-modern civilisation. Photographs by Colin Gray

Paul Vallely
Friday 10 October 1997 23:02

Let us take the 17.58 to suburbia, calling at Surbiton, Esher, Hersham, Walton-on-Thames and Weybridge. If we alight at Wimbledon, and change to the Kingston loop line, we will connect for Shepperton, where lives J G Ballard, author of Crash, which, you may be surprised to hear, he considers to be a suburban piece. "The suburbs might seem to contain uniform and dull lives, but this is simply not the case," says Ballard, "in fact, they're at the cutting edge of all social change." You might be forgiven for thinking we're dealing with irony here. Ballard's words are quoted in the publicity for the Royal Festival Hall's two-month season of lectures "Acacia Avenue: Journeys in Suburbia", which begins next Saturday. But Ballard is serious.

Touring the endless crescents, avenues and groves of the English suburban landscape there is so much in the way of mock-Georgian and mock-Tudor that it might seem that mockery is the appropriate response to this world of pillars, pediments and porticoes. Are we in Shepperton? Or might the privet, patios and potting sheds be Esher, Potters Bar, Ongar, Rickmansworth, Edgbaston, Cheadle Hulme, The Wirral, Headingley, Jesmond or any of a host of unnamed suburbs?

It is not just the hanging baskets, crazy paving and doorbells that play tunes - they are correlatives of an attitude to life. In this world of rhododendrons and laurels, only the leaves appear to have much in the way of variegation. Its hedges and fences mark out the precise boundaries by which Englishmen and women define themselves and their castles. It is a place of status, snobbery and stultification. It is an anthem to home ownership; somewhere to raise the children safe from the dirt, squalor and crime of the inner city. It carries its shell of self-certainty with it on holiday (the caravans parked on its drives are a kind of suburbia on wheels) and beyond - in vast garden cemeteries laid out like a suburbia for the dead.

It is the duty of those who live in the metropolis to be snide. It always has been. EM Forster called the suburbs, "a land of facilities, where nothing had to be striven for, and success was indistinguishable from failure". George Orwell spoke of "semi-detached torture chambers". To Cyril Connolly, they were worse than slums: "Slums may be breeding grounds of crime, but the middle-class suburbs are incubators of apathy and delirium." More recently, Martin Amis has said: "In Britain, 'suburban' is a synonym for 'uninteresting'." City dwellers, according to Nick Hornby, author of Fever Pitch, don't understand suburbs full of Tories and church-goers and men washing their cars. And there is an obverse to the caricature. Behind the propriety of its controlled parking there is hypocrisy among the hyacinths. A place like Surrey has one of the highest divorce rates in the country, and a reputation for kinky brothels. Not to mention situations to prompt News of the World headlines aplenty of the ilk: "He's a church-going champion of the bowls club but, on the side, dirty Douglas runs a string of hookers."

Some critics are more subtle. For the architectural and food critic, Jonathan Meades, who is one of 14 South Bank Acacia Avenue lecturers, suburbia is a bogus place. Contradiction lies at the heart of its fantastical denial of modernity with its Victorian gothic towers and its Start-rite nostalgia for what Sir John Betjeman dubbed the Tudorbethan. "It rests upon a deep-seated English conviction that the rustic is superior to the urban," says Meades. "In France or Belgium, suburbs look in to the city, but in England, the aspiration of the suburbs is to pretend to be the country. All its imagery is bucolic. It's trying to pretend that one is living in a way one knows one isn't."

But compromise rather than self-delusion is at the heart of the suburban ethic. It is most aptly symbolised by the process of commuting, that daily transference between home and work which represents a psychological oscillation: what another Acacia lecturer, the novelist Michael Bracewell, characterises as between the pastoral and the urban, between ability and ambition, between comfort and convenience, between innocence and experience. Indeed, compromise is part of its creativity, according to a third Acacia lecturer, the biographer Philip Hoare. Suburbia was a democratising influence. "It was a place where if you had a dressing gown and a cigarette holder you could be Noel Coward. You might never get to St Tropez, but you could play it in the am-dram production of Private Lives. It invented a new style and a new language." Cocktail cabinets in suburban villas were kitsch downsized bites of sophistication (real cocktail drinkers didn't have cabinets; they had someone to make them).

The language was that of John Betjeman, the laureate of The Laurels, whose suburbia was well-born, genteel but proud of its modernities. It was manifest in his love of brand names. The Ascot hot-water geyser sat happily amid his chintzy-chintzy cheeriness. Those who think that Ian Fleming was the inventor of product placement should look to Betjeman's capitalised proper nouns: Weights cigarettes, Bourneville chocolate and Epps's cocoa, the Ransom mower or the Meccano set, bought at Selfridges.

His suburbia was a class as much as a place, peopled with doctors, chartered accountants, solicitors and their wives. It was a middle class which had crept into the space which once yawned between the aristocracy and their tradesmen and hirelings.

Phone for the fish-knives, Norman

As Cook is a little unnerved;

You kiddies have crumpled the serviettes

And I must have things daintily served.

Thus Betjeman wrote in How to get on in Society, packing in as many non- U terms into the sentence as he could.

But he was satirising the Mitford conceit about U and non-U language as he was the vulgar aspirant who fell foul of it. For all his beady eye, he held in great affection this new tranche of society which took its identity from what it purchased. An old divide was being broken down and trade names, like trade itself, were slowly becoming acceptable. Where other middle-class authors, like EM Forster and Evelyn Waugh, changed their accents and aped the manners of the aristocracy, Betjeman always sounded the same, according to another Acacia lecturer, the broadcaster Frank Delaney: "He was perfectly secure in that suburban society."

They are still there, the houses of Betjeman's genteel folk, which grew in the London suburbs in the early 1920s. The mass-produced houses spread slowly like a stain across the land carrying with them God, gardening and golf. But if the homes remain, their occupants have changed. Old Suburbia has given way to New. The distressed dowagers and retired colonels have been displaced by financial advisers and holders of car franchises. The tennis courts, croquet lawns and Edwardian pebble-dashing have been ousted by garden gnomes, outdoor carriage lamps, car-ports and security garage doors. Betjeman's fading gentility has been replaced with the Romford pretensions of Abigail's Party. Security and probity has lost out to negative equity with businesses gone bust, small shops closed and nightmare years of dole and repossession. What was once a place of restraint and deferred gratification is now a temple to acceleration consumerism, spurred by the advent of the motor car which transformed discreet station hinterlands into a mighty conurbation.

The car brought new freedom for the inhabitants of suburbia, but at a cost. The pre-lapsarian parades of shops have gone. The grocer, greengrocer and baker have succumbed to the out-of-town hypermarket, and their premises are now occupied by boutiques which sell antiques, aromatherapy oils and what Alan Bennett has described as places which sell "out-of-the-way mustards". It is a nostalgic heritage industry recycling of the old suburbia.

The car sets a new definition. Commuter company cars from outer suburbs make war on the inner ones, staging dawn raiding parties to steal the parking places by the stations. During the day, four-wheel-drive vehicles with beefy engines, Desert Dueller tyres and cattle-grid fenders progress between the shops and the health clubs. This, they declare, is leisure as lifestyle. It is life as day-time TV in a miniature suburbanised version of the round which the late Princess of Wales perfected and which is continued as if in her memory.

Change is nothing new in suburbia. In Jacobean times, the term was, according to another Acacia lecturer, Nigel Williams, author of The Wimbledon Poisoner, a synonym for brothel: "And thou unto the suburbs", is a line of dismissal from Marston's The Malcontent. In the Victorian and Edwardian eras, the suburb was an emblem of respectability. True there was Pooter, but writers such as Conan Doyle lived at Norwood and Pevsner was able to distinguish between high- class suburbs such as Richmond, Twickenham and Kew and the lower-class likes of Sutton and Epsom.

Some four million homes were built in Britain between the wars, most of them almost identical semis. With them, suburbia became, as Nigel Williams puts it, "a place without soul, where eyes are not on higher things but on the minuscule mores of the neighbours". But the cocktails which were shaken in the suburban cabinets were two parts boredom to one part fear. Beneath the comfort and complacency and the deadening ritual of commuting, individuals led lives of quiet despair, caught in an existential crisis. By the 1950s, the poet Stevie Smith, who lived with her mother in an undistinguished terraced house in Palmers Green, north London, was probing the angst of the isolated suburban woman. Twenty years on, the playwright Alan Ayckbourn, initially dismissed by critics as a boulevard dramatist, began to peel back the dark night of the suburban soul. Suburbia became an allegory, a theology even began to emerge in which suburbia became a sacramental sign of an inward metaphysical angst.

But most of Britain's literary novelists did not see that. They continued to reflect the elite's distaste for suburban middle England. "If future generations try to reconstruct late 20th-century Britain from our critically approved novels," says J G Ballard, "there will be a large hole where most people's lives should be. You could indeed rebuild the Victorian world from Dickens, turn-of-the-century Dublin from Joyce; but not today's Britain from today's novels." It is only in Britain. In America, John Updike writes prize-winning novels about a man who runs a successful Toyota franchise in Pennsylvania and plays golf on his days off. It is hard to imagine one of Updike's English peers doing the same for a Volvo dealer from Worcester. "The trouble with writing a novel about the suburbs is that you'd have to go and live in them," says Martin Amis. No wonder the contemporary novel has collapsed, ripostes Ballard: "Most people don't recognise themselves in the modern novel. The serious English novel isn't read by people because it is irrelevant to their lives; it's only kept alive in the intensive care unit of the Booker Prize."

Yet if literature has abandoned suburbia, visual art has not quite. The legacy of Stanley Spencer's suburban surrealism has passed to painters such as Anthony Green, for whom sex is always sizzling behind the suburban strawberry patch, or even Beryl Cook, who reveals the secret passions which lurk beneath the matronly floral frocks. But it is in television sitcoms that suburbia finds its most modern cultural expression. It is here the sociological shifts have been charted, from the postcard view of suburban aspiration of the 1960s with Thora Hird and Freddie Frinton in Meet the Wife to the more stable affluence of the Seventies' Terry & June. More recently, Reginald Perrin revealed that the rat race now begins in the home, and in One Foot in the Grave that it will end there, too.

Life, of course, is more complex than the sitcom can cope with: when they came to film The Good Life, a saga of self-sufficiency in Surbiton, the film-makers found to their chagrin that Surbiton didn't look much like its name suggested, so they had to go to Ruislip for the external shots. Expect the unexpected, is JG Ballard's line: "Suburbia is the cutting- edge of social change. The people here are comfortable and well-off enough to be able to explore different pastimes and hobbies, and to experiment with different lifestyles. Everything started here - from the fitness crusade to wife-swapping. Hi-fi systems and VCRs enabled people, for the first time, to choose their own music, and not have it dictated to by a metropolitan elite who decide what goes on the radio, or into concert halls or art galleries." In the suburbs, ordinary people took their lives into their own hands; they may not have been activities which the metropolitans approved of - but whether it is gardening, the tennis club, building a car from a kit, developing new computer programmes or using them to sample rave and dance music - the activities of suburbia can be active in contradistinction to the TV-watching passivity with which they are generally characterised. It is about controlling and shaping - the same impulses which create art.

Even the boredom of suburbia bears its fruit, as an incubator of artists and outsiders. "The blandness of the environment provokes some of the most extreme acts of rebellion," says Philip Hoare. "It is as if to compensate for the disgrace of being suburban, they had to be more radical and challenging." Quentin Crisp was born in Sutton. Punk rock was essentially suburban: Malcolm McLaren came from Croydon, Siouxsie and the Banshees were from Bromley and Sham 69 from Hersham. Ninety per cent of all punk bands came from the suburbs, Bracewell says in his book on pop, England is Mine. Suburbia was a place to escape from as much as a place to come home to.

"Metropolitan elites are trapped in the past," insists Ballard. "The paradigms the nation follows are suburban." Suburbia, a place with no centre, which is simply an endless iteration of houses, ring-roads and shops, where people's values are self-defining, becomes in the end the perfect post-modern civilisation. "It is the glory of everyday nothingness elevated to great drama," to adapt the words used by the actor Timothy Spall about the great writer of modern hymns to suburbia, the film-maker Mike Leigh.

Such are the lives of most of us now. "The entire western world has been suburbanised," says Nigel Williams. It's been democratised, says another Acacia lecturer, Phil Redmond, creator of Brookside. "When I trained as a quantity surveyor in the 1970s, all the houses on an estate were identical," he says, "but now they'll build a four-bedroomed detached next to a two- bedroomed bungalow." It's partly divorce, but it is also social mobility. "People on the way up meet those on the way down; there are always people passing through. Private enclaves, council houses, Barratt homes - it's all suburbia now." And thus it is that history ends, not with a bang, but with a Wimpey

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