Essays: Semi-detached |
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by Francis Wheen

THE LONDON BOROUGH OF BROMLEY has emerged from suburban obscurity to play a strategic role in Brutish foreign policy.  This startling news was hidden away on an inside page of the Guardian the other day. After seven years of trilateral negotiations between the Foreign Office, the Treasury and the civil service trade unions, the government has decided that overseas allowances for British diplomats are to be based on the cost of living in the south London suburb. Once a year, a team of ‘special investigators' will descend on the town, armed with clipboards and calculators, to check on the price of haircuts, dry-cleaning and baked beans.

So it’s official: the borough where I was born, and where I spent much of my childhood, is the most typical, the most representative, the most utterly average place in the land. Now that the secret is out, there may be visitors from further afield than Whitehall, curious to see for themselves the quintessence of modern Britain. Is Bromley ready for the coach parties and the camera crews? Last week 1 set soon my own fact finding expedition.

I asked a woman at the reception desk in the Civic Centre lf she could direct me to the tourist office. ‘Er, we don't have one’ she confessed. Well could she point out a few of Bromley's more noteworthy landmarks and attractions? ‘We don't actually have very many. We're not really a tourist area.' Any interesting buildings, perhaps?  'No, not really.’ But then as a native son, I knew that. What Bromley does have is shops; and shops; and more shops. ‘People here shop like maniacs,’ a woman in the High Street told me. There's a new Habitat store built on the scale of the QE2; there are two huge malls, one of them implausibly named The Glades. Thanks to the Foreign Office, the din of Bromley's cash registers can now be heard from Toronto to Tirana.

The only sanctuary from this consumerist frenzy is the Churchill Theatre halfway up the street, currently staging a revival of Noel Coward's This Happy Breed. The title and indeed the plot of the play might well have been chosen by the nonexistent Bromley Tourist Board to market the town. To quote from the synopsis provided by the drama critic of the Bromley and Beckenham Times: 'Frank and Ethel Gibbons are the worthy parents at the head of a hardworking, God fearing, working-class suburban London family…’ Alarmingly, however, even the local paper can hardly stifle a yawn: ‘In 1994 a contemporary audience is more likely to sympathise with the rebellious daughter Queenie, who runs away from the suffocating atmosphere of the home to find more excitement on the Continent.’ The contemporary audience will find itself in good company. H.G. Wells, who was born at 47 High Street (now the site of an Alders department store), left town at the age of thirteen.  Hanif Kureshi, also grew up in Bromley during the 1960’s, also scarpered as soon as he could - later taking his revenge in The Buddha of Suburbia, where he describes Bromley as 'a dreary suburb of London of which it was said that when people drowned they saw not their lives but their double-glazing flashing before them.’

Suburbia has been enduring similar insults for as long as it has existed. 'A suburb,’ the Builder magazine remarked in 1848, 'is the most melancholy thing in existence.’ ‘I must confess honestly,’ Dorothy Peel wrote in The New Home, a book of domestic advice published in 1898, 'that the suburbs of any large town appear to me detestable.' Nastier still was Le Corbusier, who in 1933 persuaded the International Congress on Modern Architecture to approve the following declaration. ‘The a kind of scum churning against the walls of the city… lt constitutes one of the greatest evils of the century.’ (This at a time when Hitler had already come to power, and when the more obvious evils of the First World War were stall fresh in the memory.)

Urban tower blocks were the preferred alternative of Le Corbusier and his modernist disciples. After the war, many of them were duly built - and equally duly demolished. But even though Mon Repos and Dunroamin had proved rather more successful as ‘machines for living' than any of Le Corbusier 's schemes, the sneering at suburbia continued regardless. Remember Manfred Mann's ‘Semi-Detached Suburban Mr James', which reached number two in the hit parade in 1966? Or, come to that, the Pet Shop Boys' ‘Suburbia’ ('Lost in the high street, where the dogs run/Roaming suburban boys/Stood by the bus stop with a felt pen in this suburban hell’)? Only last month, on Channel 4, the architectural writer Jonathan Glancey unleashed a torrent of abuse against Bromley's neighbouring suburb, Chislehurst. 'Here, in not-quite-London, not-quite-Kent' he complained, 'it is as if the neutron bomb has dropped: the people have been vaporized, but the houses and their coordinated fabrics and furniture remain standing.’ A couple of days later, one Elizabeth Brooke (described as a 'white witch') told a newspaper: '1 grew up in the suburbs and had a long-standing fantasy of detonating Bromley High Street '

It is easy to mock suburbia, and even easier to be bored there. But why should it provoke such violent rage? The answer, I suspect, is political. To quote one of the few sympathetic studies of this subject,  Dunroamin: The Suburban Semi and its Enemies (1981): 'At the root of the attack on suburban living there is the strong pre-supposition that a collective expression of housing (for example a Georgian terrace, or apartments by Le Corbusier) is somehow preferable to the individualistic expression of a single house.' For although critics often accuse suburbia of being monotonous, what they really object to is that it is just the opposite - a cacophony of discordant individuality. Suburbanites are forever embellishing their houses with little differentiating touches: carriage lamps, new porches, wrought-iron gates, leaded lights - something, anything, to prove that their home is indeed their castle, and that within the privet-hedged boundaries they can do with it whatever they jolly well like.  It is a Thatcherite dream, the living proof of Lady T's claim that ‘there is no such thing as society; there are individual men and women and there are families'. No wonder it irritates metropolitan leftists, who are convinced that anyone moving to the suburbs will immediately fall into a trance of atomized, self-contained, Pooterish contentment. And, of course, they aren't entirely wrong.  Here is 'Our Suburb', a turn-of-the-century poem by Ernest Radford:

He leaned upon the narrow wall
That set the limit to his ground,
And marvelled, thinking of it all,
That he such happiness had found.
He had no word for it but bliss,
He smoked his pipe, he thanked his stars...

But there is more to suburbia than that. Look again at those garden gnomes or those ridiculous suburban house names, or those hedges topiarized into the shape of battleships. Are they merely expressions of terminal tastelessness - or might they be gestures of subversive nonconformity? After all, the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin lived at 6 Crescent Road, Bromley, for some years, and suburban submersion certainly didn't turn him into a complacent Tory, he returned to Moscow in 1917 bursting with revolutionary ardour.  True, he later became disillusioned; but that was the fault of Bolshevism, not Bromley.

Suburbia has outlived Soviet communism, just as it outlived the modern movement. Jeer and scoff as we may, the garden gnomes will always have the last laugh.

(Observer, 21 May 1994)