The Suburban Sprawl


 The idea of suburbs is not new. Cicero used the word. Chaucer too, and Shakespeare, both quite disparagingly. I doubt that either ever visited Colindale. In their day, the suburbs lay beyond the city walls and the inhabitants were ne'er-do-wells and rogues. Scroll forward. Most of us, even reputable types, live in a suburb at some stage in our lives. The British version seems to have a built character all of its own and hereabouts the prime examples are the undistinguished and indistinguishable towns of Metroland. Our relationship with them seems to me to vary from ambivalence to dull resignation.  I want to explore that relationship.  

When I told people that I was going to do a post on the suburbs, quite a few broke into half remembered lyrics of the The Members song ' Sound of the Suburbs'. It opens with "Same old boring Sunday morning / Old man's out washing the car / Mum's in the kitchen, cooking Sunday dinner" and ends with "Johnny stands there at his window / Looking at the night / I said, hey what you listening to /There's nothing there". For them, that summed it up. I guess ee might call it metrophobia but that, believe it or not, is a loathing of poetry. 

Originally, the outskirts of the urban area were mainly places for the poorer classes; posher folk resided in the nicer parts of the city or out in the country. This started to reverse when the railways were stretched into the countryside by entrepreneurial characters like Sir Edward Watkin, the creator of the Metropolitan line and much else besides and grandfather of Metroland. He was our own top-hatted answer to Elon Musk. See my blogpost bioLink :  Edward Watkin

If you want an outsider’s view of the Victorian suburbs, which then counted places like Kensington, take a look at Henry James’ rose tinted and unintentionally amusing essay from 1877. Link Henry James : The Suburbs of London  .  He says 'The peculiar function of the neighbourhood of most foreign towns, on the other hand, is to be verdant and residential, thickly inhabited, and replete with devices for making habitation agreeable'. Keep  in mind that he was American so England is 'foreign'.  Or take a look at the paintings of Camille Pissarro from his time in Norwood. If you want the real thing, there are some in the National Gallery. Otherwise  simply google them. 

It didn’t take long before they were being actively mocked as sterile breeding grounds for dull people, by those that thought themselves cut from finer cloth. George Grossmith’s ‘Diary of a Nobody’ is a satirical gem to the extent that its anti-hero, Mr Pooter, now appears in the OED. He lived in Holloway, a new and ‘respectable’ suburb then and well known to him. Pooter is comfortable with his life but wary of ambition, as exemplified in his son Lupin who proceeds through life like Icarus and fuels his fathers struggle to reconcile his self-importance and deference. You can read it free here: (Link) The Diary of a Nobody. 

 If you are a fellow codger, you might laugh at him in the same way as you did ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ or an Alan Ayckbourne play. But Grossmith was actually more of a satirist than a prig. Many other contemporary caricatures are much more cruel and snobbish. H G Wells didn’t start ‘War of The Worlds’ with the destruction of Woking for no reason! (The town seems quite proud of it. There is a 7m high sculpture of a Martian in the town centre). 


My own interest here is not in what are now the Inner City suburbs like Holloway, but rather in the ‘outer’ suburbs’ built beyond them, in the reigns of the various Windsors. (During WW1, George V drew the understandable conclusion that the family name, Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, might not play well with the public, so he changed it to Windsor. If he wanted, he could have opted for Stanmore, Wealdstone or even something poshly hyphenated like Friern-Barnet!). 

It was a contradictory time, the 1930's saw the Great Depression but it  it was also a period of astonishing  population growth around London in particular as commuters supplanted cockneys and demonstrated a preference from renting to buying and could exercise more choice over where they lived.  

These new outer estates hung like barnacles off the tentacles of the railways. Areas like Metroland became more desirable than places further East simply because at the time they were better connected. In most cases they are not really very ‘outer’ , but just a further extension of the urban sprawl. (Barnacles cling to boat hulls, but do they cling to tentacles? Maybe not……). 

The demographics began to change. If the commute into the City was relatively easy, then many preferred to live in a clean, new, modern town, than in the hectic and grimy city centre. J.B. Priestley saw the dream as “a kind of signpost pointing to a sunlit main road of life” and an “escape from the houses with the outside toilet.” The hidden hand of the market then did its job; prices in old Victorian ‘inner suburbs’ fell and these became the home of the poor.   

Late Victorian Letchworth

I haven’t read widely enough to be sure but get the impression that Priestley’s view was unusually broad-minded. For many others, and in particular the self-appointed cognoscenti, Metroland was the antithesis of paradise and the monotonous planning and architecture represented the realisation of a reductive view of human potentiality which their highbrow sensibilities had to reject. In short, it was a place to relax after your lobotomy.  In ‘Coming Up for Air’, George Orwell (a resident of Canonbury at the end of WW2) describes Bowling’s suburban street as a “line of semi-detached torture-chambers”. Some used the ‘ad-hominem’ approach, matching dull people to dull places. T S Eliot expressed the impact on the collective psyche quite wearily:

 "A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many / I had not thought death had undone so many / Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled / And each man fixed his eyes before his feet”. 

The man whose views on the growth of suburbia probably resonated loudest was John Betjeman, born in Gospel Oak. He seemed torn. On one hand, he was a nostalgia junky who mournfully reminisced about the lost countryside of his youth, even though that was mostly spent in Inner London. He even made a film on ‘Metroland’ pursuing this theme. At the end of it, he ruefully reflects, “The houses of Metro-land never got as far as Verney Junction. Grass triumphs, and I must say, I'm rather glad”. You can find it online. (Look for the 1973 BBC version). But you will also get the idea from his poem ‘Middlesex’. Link: John Betjeman : Middlesex 

On the other, reading this and his other poems, he seems almost fond of the inhabitants of the new suburbs, maybe accepting that while they had cost him his idylls, they did seem to like their new homes and rejoice in its comforts and pleasures. 

Verney Junction : Grass Triumphed

It is ironic. My memory is that his appointment as Poet Laureate in 1972 was greeted by the public at large and scorned by snootier arts critics. But he was also interested in vernacular architecture and the same critics might have applauded the disparaging tone he used for much of that. 

My own home is in an unremarkable area in Inner London built up in Edwardian times. People are fond of it and secured a ‘Conservation Area’ designation. This didn’t extend to the post WW1 Development immediately adjacent to it and it is hard to find any examples of residential Conservation Areas in such areas outside of the 'Garden Suburbs' like Letchworth. The twenty or so year gap made a difference and I am intrigued to know why. Do people simply dislike modernism or any other architectural ideology? Are they art heart simply traditionalists who do not want to stand out in the crowd rather than stand apart from it?  I aim to do another blog post later on the style of the 'semis' of suburban Metroland.

Betjeman’s rustic ravings might have resonated with the urban middle classes, but they flocked to the field-munching suburbs nonetheless. I lean towards Priestley’s view. The message handed down among the hoi-polloi through the fifties to seventies was that the prize in the game was the suburban dream; a decent salary, a nice house, a saloon car and 2.4 children. (This was certainly the aim of my parents, who ran a small suburban pharmacy well enough to only fall short of the target by 0.4 children).

Dream Homes

Since Betjeman, lots of writers and TV shows have ‘gone to town’ on suburbia, mostly for comedy. A favourite of mine even now is the creator of Reggie Perrin, David Nobbs, with whom I shared the suburb of my schooldays. But the most interesting was J G Ballard.

People have different takes on his stuff and many dislike his novels because his characters are often just place holders in his dystopias. This lack of an approachable human dimension, seems to lead people to assume that he loathed the social and cultural voids and he was certainly quite scathing in his descriptions of the inhabitants. In one of his later novels (Kingdom Come) he wrote that ‘Beyond Heathrow [there] lay empires of consumerism … a dormant people who had everything (and) grazed contentedly like docile cattle”. But many years earlier Ballard had chosen to live in the suburbs, in Shepperton, which he described as the 'paradigm of nowhere'. 

He seems (to me at least) to see it as some sense a blank canvas, devoid of potential and thus forcing people to be creative in terms of lifestyle choices, even if this means turning goth, punk, or to violent rebellion.  Admittedly there were some daunting constraints, but isn't that the point? It is just too easy to be boho in Soho! I like to think that Ballard, unlike Betjeman, would have approved of the neighbours painting their semi in lime green stripes.

Ballard at home in Shepperton

What might these choices be? Some chose to glamourise their life through revolt, a process beautifully satirised in the character of Wolfie in the BBC’s Citizen Smith, or to seek validation through escape. Much earlier, Alan Watts became a Buddhist in Chislehurst, eventually leaving for California in the 1960’s to preach a road to Nirvana paved with drugs sex and alcohol. It can do that to people. Others simply embraced their discontent; Hanif Kureshi’s ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’ was rooted in his own experience. Musically, Bowie started life in his ‘Beckenham Arts Lab’. The punks in the “Bromley Contingent” or Jagger in Dartford, were all revolting in their own sweet way. Mods and rockers at least had some style. For a North London saga, you could do worse that than 'London Made Us', the thoroughly entertaining autobiography of Radio London's Robert Elms, who seemed to know all the stars before thy began to twinkle. 

Point being, that on balance as much came out of the suburbs as anywhere else and perhaps the real counter-culture is their conformity of non-conformity. Perhaps the sameness of the housing was equated with a sameness of the occupants, victims of a lack of imagination rather than income and choice? 

Bowie's home in Beckenham

My own interest in the suburbs stems in large part from my (far from uncommon) ambivalence about them. Scroll forward to my schooldays, living in the sixties in another far corner of the London suburbs. The ‘swinging’ bit was a rumble of thunder in the distance, while a superfluity of songs, TV shows and novels mocked our eventless lifestyles.

In contrast the inner city was thought to be a roiling environment where things happened; sexy, dangerous, exciting things. So we tiptoed into town when we could to put a toe in the water, dropping in but never dropping out and sadly much too late for the Summer of Love.

The image beat the reality. Money was short, drugs were pricey, STD’s were rife and the beer was awful no matter where you were. The demi-monde were actually a  seedy and frequently skint lot and the city itself was run-down and literally dirty. (The first of the Clean Air Acts was doing its job but at that point the decades of accumulated coal dust hadn’t been rain-washed off the buildings).

London 1960

A more direct exposure to the dream time of the counter-culture came in student days in the early 1970’s when the idea persisted that life should be a meaningful and aesthetic experience and the suburban dream was abhorred for its perceived shallow, complacent bourgeois materialism. Although most of us were lefties, this was not an inclusive vision. The labouring masses were ‘othered’, seen in echoes of Eliot as Undead. the undead. Among my peers, Charlie’s rise to Chocolate Factory heaven was exemplary, but there was no empathy for the Oompa-Loompa’s. 

Some of the more indoctrinated, determined and adventurous disappeared off to India, but the vast majority eventually accepted their fate while trying to clinging to the rags of their identity as despisers of the ‘system’ they were in hock to.

Here, I am just apple bobbing in my rotting tub of reminiscence?

Scroll forward again, into Thatcher’s Britain and after. Things changed again. Higher prices and the loss of blue collar jobs in London pushed legions of middle income families with children and what was left of the ‘working’ classes (named with the delicious Victorian implication that others don’t work) back towards the periphery. The caked black dirt was disappearing from the inner city facades. Notting Hill went from from Race Riots and Rachman to the pastel paradise of ‘Love Actually’. There were places to go, stuff to do and the inner suburban demographic was younger, better educated and often well heeled. Shoreditch became trendy, gentrification on steroids. I wonder what Dell Boy and Rodney would have made of Peckham now, with £2m houses, pubs closing and sporting a craft Sake bar.

Meanwhile, the outer suburbs no longer beckon to those who have the luxury of choice. In the Wembleys, Wealdstones and Ruislips, the inter-war housing is now older and often tattier, front gardens concreted over and numerous ‘improvements’ of questionable taste and quality added. The demographic is much more diverse both in origin, age and employment, as those who have nowhere else to go nestle alongside those who never escaped. Hyacynth and Richard Bucket in their retirement, have been joined by the Kumars at No 42. They are less conservative and less Conservative, fewer blue or white-ish collars and more T Shirts. 

Research shows that while the inner cities still have local concentrations of poor people, most of them now live in suburbs while the aspirational conveyor belt now takes people further in or further out, beyond the M25 to the St Albans, Amershams and Maidenheads. There is now even a Government 'Suburban Task Force'; you won't get one of those for the rural Home Counties!

The Bucket's

What are we to make of it all? I want to think that the outer suburbs have been unjustifiably branded as being bland and boring, marked by mass produced housing and identikit shopping parades. I like to think that the self-appointed critics are cultural and social snobs, panning the places where most people live in order to validate their self-regard and questionable tastes and opinions. That in fact they offer decent housing in decent places for decent people and that, since so many of us live in them, that in laughing at the suburban sit-coms, we are actually laughing at ourselves. 

But am I kidding myself? I can choose where I live, have been able to for a long time, and have never chosen to live there. It is bland, there is little on the doorstep, and you can feel people’s resentment at trudging through working lives that are unrewarding in many ways. They are often prejudicially seen as simply dormitories for commuters, serviced by men in white vans and women trying to prop up the family income between the school runs.  The crush of commuters on London Bridge in Eliot’s vision is not history. But Metroland is not changing in interesting ways, so perhaps the best that I can say is that, it doesn’t work for me, but if it works for you, that’s fine. I remain conflicted.

That conflict plays out in some odd ways. Many commentators are suggesting that the shortage of housing in our green and pleasant land should be addressed by relaxing restrictions on new development on the green belt surrounding London and some other cities. They correctly point to the amount of land in them that isn't green or pleasant and I am acutely aware that the most wailing comes from the mostly better off people who actually live in them. 

But pseudo-rationalist planning bumps against politics here. Surveys suggest that the public as a whole values the green belts and as a practical point I can attest that developers, given half a chance, will not be limiting their ambitions to the grotty bits. Maybe a better answer would be to treat the extensive suburbs to a bit more care and attention, upgrading them while adding more houses. The aim should be make them once again an aspirational 'lifestyle' choice? Would  Betjeman approve? 


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