It has been about three weeks since I ventured beyond my own postcode. The view from my study window is nothing but houses and golf courses as far as the eye can see. On days like this, the suburbs threaten to swallow me up and the menace of it feels as acute as any skulking figure in an urban alleyway.
One reviewer* described me as an ‘expert in the suburban macabre,’ which made me think about the British relationship with the suburbs and how that has influenced my work. Even when the setting is rural or urban, the complex British relationship with the margins of our cities has fascinated and inspired me. Karen in The Poison Tree is desperately ashamed of her solidly suburban background. It is her naive longing for a perceived bohemia that leads to the errors of judgement that drive the story. Paul, the male protagonist of The Sick Rose, feels both alienated and trapped by his (fictional) home town on the outer edges of the London sprawl.
The shame of coming from suburbia is a surprisingly rich seam to mine. But why? 84% of us live there, after all. And yet we remain pitched between two domestic idylls: a hip inner-city postcode with modernist interiors, or its rural equivalent, a country home festooned with Cath Kidston bunting and complete with Aga and boot room. There are magazines like Wallpaper and Elle Deco for the urbanites and Country Life for rural gentlefolk but no magazine for the metroland between the two states.
Suburbia has always been scorned by intelligentsia and the design conscious. Its sitcom streets and its school run politics are there to be mocked. It has traditionally been fashionable and intelligent to despise them – George Orwell called them ‘semi detached cells’. Great music and literature has emerged from the suburbs – almost all of it, from Hanif Kureshi to the Arctic Monkeys, is about escaping them. David Bowie, who spent his teenage years in Croydon, said, ‘It was my nemesis, I hated Croydon with a real vengeance. It represented everything I didn’t want in my life, everything I wanted to get away from.’ He could have been speaking for Karen. For Paul. For me.
I grew up in Hornchurch, on the eastern wingtip of the District Line, ostensibly a London borough but culturally a world apart from the spirit of the capital. My father grew up in the East End, and I hated him for leaving. To my young mind there was more allure in my grandparents’ grotty Bow council block than in the whole of suburbia. East London fizzed with a gritty glamour all the more exciting because I didn’t yet understand it. My mother was raised in West London, where her siblings still live, and it was always a treat for us to drive back through the city, climbing and descending from the Westway onto the Marylebone Road. One of my earliest memories is of gazing at Park Cresent, the sweeping Nash stucco just opposite Regent’s Park, with the Post Office Tower (as it was then) looming behind it and thinking, one day I’ll live there. By the time we got on to the A13, we were back in Essex where the houses formed endless screens of pebbledash and net, and I would stop looking out of the window.
When I was 22, I moved into a flat in Wimpole Street, W1, a skip away from Park Cresent. The rent was cheap, largely because the flat didn’t have a front door, central heating or a shower. There were ninety steep steps to the top floor. But there was always a house guest, always a party. The party scenes from The Poison Tree did not tax my imagination, and anyone who saw the inside of my Wimpole Street bedroom will recognise Karen’s attic room in the Capel’s house in Highgate. On flush weeks, we bought our groceries in Selfridges Food Hall. The afternoon I moved in, I remember leaning out of my garret window to see the back of Wigmore Hall, the iconic tip of the BBC HQ at Portland House and a very good-looking solicitor a few offices down stripping off his suit and putting on his cycling gear. I vowed never, ever to leave.
That was eleven years ago. Now home is a terraced house in Whetstone, a blip on the A1000 between Finchley and Barnet. It is neither fashionable nor central. A mile to the north, the London postcode runs out: two miles north and you lose your precious 020 area code, although to the 020 7 inner-London brigade, 020 8 is a fate worse than death anyway. I live here because my husband and I simply crept northwards on the map until we found an area we could afford to buy a house in. Like most suburbanites, we are here by default.
And do you know what? It’s actually… really all right. I’m married, mortgaged, a mother: it suits me to have three supermarkets, four playgrounds and two soft play centres within walking distance. Even if I had a bigger budget, I’d only move to a more fashionable suburb (yes, Hampstead does count as a suburb). My friends here – admittedly, other professional mothers, city refugees – say the same thing. The chances of my conflicted relationship with my suburban background slowly fermenting into a murderous rage are looking slim, and I am happy to leave that to the characters I create.
The trendy view of suburbia is starting to look lazy, clichéd even. In his cult book The Freedoms Of Suburbia, Paul Barker argues that the suburbs are more quirky and individual than the identi-lifestyles of the inner city or countryside. The estate agents have started to reframe suburban architecture: in many areas, 1930s semis with original fireplaces are now being marketed as period properties rather than potential developments.
The London suburbs have weathered the housing storm better than most. It’s the family homes have held their value better than the second homes or the first-time-buyer starter homes or the dockside lofts sold at the top of the market. The architecture of suburbia may be homogenised and uninspiring but the London suburbs can no longer be sneered at for their monoculturalism; healthy ethnic diversity is smoothed by middle-class values and property ownership, and we all rub along nicely. Kingston University’s Centre for Suburban Studies sums it up best, calling suburbia ‘a model for local living in a global society.’
The very accessibility of the suburbs is why they will never become a truly aspirational place to live: that’s why the urban and rural lifestyle myths are so pervasive, because most of us will never have them. To live well and easily on either of these poles takes serious money or serious compromise.
I’ve opted out of the urban dream and know that its opposite is not for me either. My family sampled the country idyll last year year, taking a house in Suffolk while a family of rats was ejected from our bathroom roof and the whole thing replaced (how fondly I look back on that episode). It was idyllic for precisely a fortnight, after which I yearned for the naff convenience of a Pizza Express that will serve two parents and a toddler with no booking at 4 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon.
I was born in the suburbs, had my fun in the city, but it is in returning to suburbia that I have finally grown up, and in suburbia that I will raise my daughter. I cheerfully expect her to hate me for it and disappear into the city as soon as she’s able. I bet she comes back, though.
These are some of my favourite novels that deal with suburbia – they range from the satirical to the gothic. It’s a subject I am unlikely to tire of soon. Can anyone recommend any more?
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureshi (sine qua non)
26a by Donna Evans
Spies by Michael Frayn
The Bridesmaid by Ruth Rendell
Metroland by Julian Barnse
Diary of a Nobody by George & Weedon Grossmith
Now You See Me by Lesley Glaister
*It was Rosie Ifould in Psychologies, talking about The Sick Rose.