A Bittersweet Love Letter to the London Suburbs
Nov 6 2013
Is there any aspect of the British experience that comes in for more derision than suburbia? It's generally regarded as the jellied eel or the Sunday Sport of residential concepts: an acquired taste for people with no taste. Relentlessly mocked by everyone from John Betjeman to Hyacinth Bucket, only that lonely Shepperton radical JG Ballard gave them the time of day, and even then he couldn't resist painting them as harsh, sterile worlds existing on the precipice of a horrifying near future, chock-a-block with perverts and terrorists.
I grew up in the suburbs and I can't help but feel they've got an unfairly bad rep. In recent times, only Liberal Public Enemy Number One Paul Dacre has stood to defend their existence, stating in last month's Guardian-slewing Comment Is Free article that the lefty rag was read mostly by people "for whom the word 'suburban' is an obscenity". Now, Pauly D's a man who's been known to chat a fair bit of breeze in his time, but it's an interesting idea that perhaps plays into a largely silent but growing rift between suburb-dwellers and what he calls "the metropolitan classes" who populate our inner cities. No doubt he's touched on something, but if you can think of a worse character witness than Paul fucking Dacre, do let me know.
Dacre's enemies seem to regard anyone who lives beyond Zone 3 as a kind of modern Superdry hillbilly. To them, suburbanites are unfortunate obstacles standing on the wrong side of northern line escalators as they drunkenly make their way home from O2 Arena shows. They're the people who go on street art tours and eat at Harry Ramsden's, shepherded in and out of the urban nucleus on high-speed train routes and in pink hen do limousines, making a nuisance of themselves in Leicester Square chain pubs.
By and large, they aren't a species that our filmmakers, novelists and lifestyle bloggers have much interest in romanticising. Sure, they'll sentimentalise the simple country folk, with their earthy ethics, good jackets and strong cheese, but the 'burbanites are left to dwell in obscurity with their Sky Sports packages and Micky Flanagan DVDs. Possibly it's because they despise them, possibly it's because they fear them, but most likely it's because they used to be them.
The story art loves to tell is that of the Bildungsroman, the rite of passage yarn about the young man who goes to the city to carve his own name upon the world. It's a tale as old as time, told by everyone from Tristram Shandy in The Adventures Of Tristram Shandy to Mark Wright in Mark Wright's Hollywood Nights. We've been told that achievement can only be found in a journey, and that those who stay behind are still smoking shit weed on the same park bench down the road from their mum's house well into their thirties. Or worse, sickeningly content with their long-term relationships and sound financial decisions all over your Facebook feed. Whatever path the people left behind took, it's one that a lot of us thought we were better than, with all our bohemian delusions and "creative urges".
The closest thing you'll find to a suburban Midnight In Paris or "Empire State of Mind" is a YouTube video of someone's journey to Fulwell on the 281, or the occasional pirate jungle DJ shouting out a crew getting ready for a night out at Club Boulevard in Ealing. There are very few love letters composed about Ponders End, Mitcham or West Drayton, apart from the occasional snarky poem or Jamie T album track. If you're from there, you're told to get out while you're young, that the 'burbs will rip the bones from your back – that they're a death trap, a suicide rap.
But what if you're forced to move back to the same streets where you played wallball and shot pigeons with BB guns? It's not a story that's often seized upon (Garden State did it badly; Adventureland did it well), but through a typically modern set of circumstances, I've found myself back on the same West London streets where I grew up. And you know what? It's not been the nightmare that most of my mates told me it would be.
In fact, it goes beyond merely deciding not to impale myself on a rusty shopping trolley in the Thames beneath Putney Bridge. I've actually gone as far as to fall in love with the most typically English kind of existence in the most typically English kind of way: stoically and covertly.
At first I thought I would be wandering alone in a residential desert, where the only mirages are multiplexes that don't show movies with subtitles, pubs with play areas that close at half ten and a wide array of A-road Pizza Huts. I assumed that moving back to the world that I spent so long trying to escape could only ever be a backwards move, an admission of failure that I might never recover from, like Han Solo if he was trapped in the dusty sofa booth of a Zone 5 Wetherspoons rather than frozen in space carbonite.
But I was wrong. After years spent in the cheek-by-jowl human zoo of North-East London, I'd totally forgotten that the London suburbs are oddly beguiling and almost spectacular, in their semi-detached, semi-affluent, semi-deprived kind of way. I'd forgotten about the skies that become vast plains of violet come 7PM, pinpricked by the glaring landing lights of the Airbuses slowly falling into Heathrow in the west and Gatwick in the south. I'd forgotten that sulphurous smell that lingers in the cold November air, the aftermath of some phantom fireworks. I forgot about the contrast between the double driveways and the empty playing fields, the motorway overpasses that put you on the shoulders of the city and the shadows in the tiled underpasses that tighten your chest. I'd forgotten about those small pockets of darkness at the edges of town where I tried to kiss girls in baby blue Schott puffer jackets, and where my friend Eddie pissed himself on a railway bridge after a night of stolen Pimm's and somebody's older brother's hash.
Perhaps it's just Springsteen-influenced nostalgia for a feral teenhood that seems so distant, a subconscious desire to hark back to the days in which my only responsibilities were living my own life. But at the same time, my youth couldn't seem further away. When you're young these towns are relatively thriving places; people who now Instagram pictures of themselves hanging out with Drake used to hang out in Twickenham, Kingston and Brentford. But the truth is those days are gone. I don't know any weed dealers any more and all the pubs where they didn't know how to ID properly have been replaced by Grand Unions. My teenage freedom has been replaced by a very adult sense of peace. The dream I knew died a long time ago, and I'm quite sure this appreciation for the 'burbs goes beyond mere nostalgia. If there is a nostalgia at work, it's one for place rather than time.
Despite all the changes, the London suburbs are still dull, beautiful and nightmarish. They're places that vote Lib Dem, but drink themselves into Pinot Grigio-induced early graves. Richmond might have the highest age of healthy living in the UK, but it also had one of its very few serial killers in recent years: Levi Bellfield, the bouncer-cum-wheel-clamper who terrorised the outer boroughs in a murderous campaign that came to be known as the London suburbs' very own "Summer Of Sam". I remember the notices being read out at school every time he or someone pretending to be him claimed a new victim. I had friends whose older sisters knew girls he had killed, and friends who had friends who knew the man himself. "He was very charming," people who'd met him said on the news after.
Perhaps, in some way, the suburbs encapsulate the British identity in a way that the cities don't any more – small dramas playing out beyond the stations without barriers, rather than the heavily policed, heavily funded bourgeois ghettos of the inner cities. In 2004, the Met raided the Railway Pub in Kingston; the likeable American landlord was carted away and never seen at the quiz again. His crime? Being Nofio Pecora Jr, a Louisiana mafioso wanted by the FBI. The suburbs are places where you can hide in plain sight, which in some way makes them infinitely more terrifying than the places we're told to fear.
You see, the suburbs are places that are full of people who are either escaping something or trying to escape where they are. Everybody's got their eye on somewhere else. Nobody moves to West Drayton or Gants Hill in order to "live the dream". Nobody's there for the vintage shops, the cocktails or the local techno scene. They're there for a short time or they're there to die. Of course, that brings with it a uniquely depressing side to the suburbs: the lack of anything exciting happening at all, ever. But it's a relief to see nobody posing by the tube station sign when you get home; somehow it all feels a bit more "real".
Because not as much happens in suburbia, when stuff does, there seems to be more of a weight to it. In "proper" London, there are a thousand house parties every Friday night that you could feasibly blag your way into. But you'll no doubt find yourself having the same banal conversations about the relative merits of living in South or East London as you did the week before, all while an creative campaign manager cuts up lines on a Breaking Bad DVD. But when a house party occurs in the suburbs, they're like mini-Mayan festivals, crammed to the mock Tudor beams with people trying to have the best night of their lives, rather than meet somebody who knows somebody who might be able to get them a better job.
Believe it or not, living in the 'burbs actually allows you to appreciate the majesty of the city much more. It seems like obvious advice along the lines of "take your coat off when you're in a club because you'll feel the benefit", but there's something undeniably thrilling about those world famous landmarks coming into view as you meander along the train tracks. The Shard, a broken prison shank knifing the sky; the Gherkin, with all its fatty millennial glamour, and the stoic old dignity of Canary Wharf coming in and out of view as we move between the city and its outer limits. It's quite a thing. These glass Towers of Babylon are so easily taken for granted when you only see them through steamed up bus windows and the opening sequence of The Apprentice, loaded up on iPlayer in the converted Victorian pantry that you're dropping a grand a month to sleep in.
In a more tangible sense, London is undoubtedly a city that is becoming very choosy about who it wants to live there; the 10 percent a year house-price-hikes, the minted foreign nationals buying everything up, the champagne and cheese bars opening in Brixton. You don't have to be a David Icke acolyte or a member of Yuppies Out to wonder if these phenomena have been designed to force people out as well as bring them in. London is a city that's being cleansed – culturally, economically and – by sad extension – ethnically. London voted for a comedian, and it got a dictator.
It seems our distances from Charing Cross have come to define us as people. Two miles away and you're a fully-fledged Londoner; ten miles and you're somebody who'd like to be; 20 miles and you're a cultureless suburbanite; 30 miles and you're an inbred hick. It's surely a mentality influenced more by Paris, where the people on the outskirts are forgotten and derided by the "true" Parisians, rather than New York, where the natives of Brooklyn, Queens and The Bronx seem to hold the city's spirit in the face of regeneration and homogenisation.
The Zone 1 London that suburb-dwellers also hold in their hearts (albeit in an abusive kind of relationship) is still a fantastic, phantasmagorical, vital place, but it's not getting any easier to live there. It's an island within an island within an island. A fortress city that uses high prices as its walls and the increasingly desperate people within – working 12-hour days, abusing themselves into stupors every weekend before a recovery Sunday on the sofa in front of Downton or Country File – as its fanatical private army, mercilessly keeping up with the Bridget Joneses to keep the no-hopers out.
Still, everybody who moves to the smoke from the provinces still only seems to want to live in two or three places (somewhere near Stoke Newington Church Street, somewhere near Borough Market, somewhere not too nasty off Rye Lane). And to do this they are willing to pay inhuman amounts of money for the privilege, fearing that they'll somehow miss out on the next Britpop or punk because they live in the Green Lanes end of Stokey rather than the Clapton borders. Everyone is in search of this urban El Dorado, but El Dorado was a myth, and everyone who tried to find it lost their mind.
Thus, London continues to creep further towards the point of critical mass – Whole Foods carrier bag in hand – and something's got to give.
Because of this, I think that suburban living could go against all its cliches of conformity and uniformity, and actually become somewhat of a rebel existence. A globule of spit in the eye of an urban world so determined to stifle its inhabitants. Because the suburbs are completely without glamour, it's still affordable to live there. Affordable in the way that Dalston was once, and Notting Hill before that, and even Soho before that. The city is expanding and it only makes sense that its louche and lazy will flee further from its centre, as foreign investors park their riches in property and the excess cash pandemic spiders outwards from Islington and Southwark. The coming of the new high-speed rail lines – Crossrail and HS2 – will no doubt aid the outflux.
I'm not saying that Coulsdon will become the cradle of Britain's next great cultural movement (mind you, never forget that it was the resolutely suburban Croydon that birthed dubstep), nor am I saying that we should all start buying up warehouse property in Isleworth; I myself will probably be tempted back into the city by a sweet deal on a place and a good local cocktail bar.
What I'm saying is that the London suburbs are far from the anti-creative dead-zones that we're told they are. They're the places that gave us David Bowie, Mo Farah, Sam Taylor-Wood, Mike Skinner, Mick Jagger, Freddy Mercury, Kate Moss, Alexander Pope, EM Forster, Luke Haines, Noel Coward, Oxide (but not Neutrino), Jamie T, Amy Winehouse and Burial (apparently).
They're dark, magnificent places full of subtle romance and honest grandeur, and in a country so desperate to package itself they remain an unknown, mysterious quantity that might just appeal to anyone whose local has replaced its meat raffle with a ukulele jam.
Follow Clive on Twitter: @thugclive
More of Nicholas Pomeroy's photography can be found here.
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