The 'burbs

The suburbs. Victims of abuse and scorn and the net curtain twitching middle classes. A new exhibition at the London Transport Museum explores the suburbs and Joe Moran, that  ethnographer of the mundae par excellence, has written a short piece for the FT outlining some of the cultural contributions of the suburbs:

His list of the top five is as follows:

  1. The semi-detached house
  2. The great British sitcom
  3. Pop music
  4. J.G. Ballard

But in second place he lists poet John Betjeman with the following justification:

"Brought up in Highgate, Betjeman is the poet laureate of suburbia – especially of “Metroland”, the area of northwest London served by the Metropolitan line, and the subject of his celebrated 1973 television documentary. Perhaps his loveliest poem about suburbia is “A Subaltern’s Love Song”, a paean to a young Surrey woman called Joan Hunter Dunn and her world of “the six-o'clock news and a lime-juice and gin” and golf club dances in leafy Camberley with its “mushroomy, pine-woody, evergreen smells”".

All of which put me in mind of some much earlier poetical 'abuse' of the suburbs by William Cowper from as early 1781

Suburban villas, highway-side retreats, 

That dread the encroachment of our growing streets, 

Tight boxes neatly sash’d, and in a blaze

With all a July sun’s collected rays

Delight the citizen, who, gasping there

Breath clouds of dust, and calls it country air.  

I came across this when exploring the idea of suburbs in the context of an Indian city in the 1990s in Marc Girourd's Cities and People, an inspiring and wide ranging book on the relationship between people, culture and the built environment spanning centuries and continents. That work, if nothing else, points to the cultural and historical shifts that have shaped the definitions of suburbs. To quote from my thesis: 

The early uses of the term suburb in English refer to the areas outside the centre of the city: suburb was used in a pejorative sense to refer to these areas as sites of licentiousness, impropriety and ill-discipline.  By the eighteenth century, a reversal of this original meaning had occurred (Archer 1997: 29) and so, in South Asia, the suburb became the spacious, orderly area, where the task of government was discharged and where those responsible for it could reside.  The confluence of ideas about architecture with those of race and disease (King 1980:12), and the representational imperatives of authority and government, resulted in the Cantonment areas of cities in which there was a British presence.  The geographical discreteness reflected the paradoxical nature of the Raj; attempting control of, but remaining aloof from, its subjects.

With this reversal of the meaning of the suburbs in cities like London, linked to demographic and economic changes, came a rethinking of the nature of leisure; places of work and leisure became distinct.  The suburbs became the inverse of the hub – sites of inactivity, lack of productivity.  Archer concludes that this was not just a matter of taste, or of geographical dispersions based on economics and organised transport, but predicated on a change of consciousness which anchored identity in the “autonomous self rather than in a social…collective” (Archer 1997: 41, original emphasis).  With the inversion of the meaning of suburb such areas grew both as a product of, and an escape from, the expanding cities.  In the process, suburbs became areas with claims to physical distance, social distinction and cultural control (Silverstone 1997: 5) It was the city centres that now stood for what the suburbs had previously represented: areas of licentiousness and ill-discipline.