Crude Stereotyping Of The British Suburbs

Hmm, so I was a little bit opaque in last week’s ramble, at least when I hit the parts about suburban life in the developed world. A few people picked up on what I was getting at, while others saw me as yet another writer going for the easy caricature of the suburbs as bland and homogenised.

Perhaps I was – it’s fun to poke at the soft belly of the middling classes. But I don’t think it’s a crude stereotype, and it’s certainly not one that I want to deploy carelessly. Because I’m a permanent resident of these residential districts and I’ve never really lived in a big city. I’m not a metropolitan head scoffing at the ring-development masses: I am one of those plump suburbanites, and I enjoy writing and talking about the culture and predicament of the people who share my world. It’s clear that there is an enormous economy of weirdness and variety in suburbia, and we see that in the best reporting, as well as the best fiction. A cursory examination of contemporary culture unearths all kinds of strangeness in the ‘burbs. You don’t have to look far to see it. There are plenty of writers and commentators who do understand the richness of what suburbia provides for the modern imagination.* In fact the best book of 2002, and possibly the century so far, was about the M25 and all the de-centralised life that spills around it. London Orbital is a churning, ugly mosaic of a book. Sentence by sentence genius and a blisteringly magical examination of the commercial estates and cul-de-sacs. The fact that I’ve taken more from that piece of writing than thousands of pages of more outlandish writing says something, I’m just not sure what.

Anyway, I have the distinct delight of living just outside the orbit of London, in the disorganised and plan-free suburbia of a British market town. It’s an area of obvious, over-stated history, quite unlike the near-timeless residentially revised landscapes of many American suburbs.

The psychological effect of living in these different places is part of what interests writers like Sinclair. But there’s another side to it: this is what interests me about the diversity of suburbia – that there are always strong themes that bridge the differences between suburbs, no matter how diverse. Each might have its own idiosyncrasies, ethnicities and esoteric topographies, but there is also a shared need to live life free of major disturbance. Suburbanites quietly conspire to create existences that are padded and protected from what goes out outside their area of concern. Most of us want to remain safe and comfortable. And we want our loves ones to be safe and comfortable. And we can afford for them to be: this is why were are here, grounded in suburbia, away from a certain level of noise and influence that is inevitable in cities. (Raising a family, swelling up like clumps of moss.)

These kinds of concerns are what create the enormous gravity of suburban existence. And it is gravity – gravity that levels and brings things to rest. As if, as Aristotle explained, it were the force that simply puts things where they were meant to be.

There’s a lot of that with suburbia. You get people complaining about large buildings, industrial structures, even energy-saving windmills. But quiet suburban houses generally remain free of criticism, as if we accept them as a given. They seem like they were meant to be there: people need somewhere to live, after all. Why not here? That string of bungalows has far less impact on the scope of our thought and vision than that block of flats, even though their power, their reach, their gravity, may be far greater.

Yeah, the gravity of the suburbs is what causes the desperation I mentioned elsewhere. There is an element of homogenization and blandness, because there has to be control for us to get on with whiling away our years in moderate comfort. There has to be some sit-down-and-shut-the-fuck-up in order for families to feel safe and unpredated by a larger world. And so, as a University lecturer said to an eighteen-year old me in an off-the-cuff manner, “it’s taken for granted that the middling classes will accept a bit of oppression if it means they get their peace and quiet”. It shocked me to hear someone say that. I’d never thought about it before. But it was self-evident, and appalling. And it is accepted. Hell, for all my snide journalistic remarks, my political postings, my membership of activist groups and contributions to charities, I’m still glad of the control and the quiet. Glad of the gravity that keeps events in my backwater in check.

Perhaps that’s my real point about the Ballardian future of boredom. No matter how outlandish or leftfield you or I, or anyone else wants to be, the majority are still pulled in by the larger project of making as many people as possible comfortable for the short time they are alive. That’s pretty much been the task of the West since the Enlightenment. A utilitarian project, what sensible and boring writers took from Mill and Bentham. We find ourselves annulled and distracted.

So we are set to be bored on a grand scale. It’s why ephemeral things have become so important: constant superficial change keeps the mind busy, keeps the dust from settling. (Dust?)

Here’s an apt extract from Georges Barnano’s Diary Of A Country Priest:

“So I said to myself that people are consumed by boredom. Naturally, one has to ponder for a while to realise this – one does not see it immediately. It is like some sort of dust. One comes and goes without seeing it, one breathes it in, one eats it, one drinks it and it is so fine that it does not even scrunch between one’s teeth. But if one stops up for a moment, it settles like a blanket over the face and hands. One has to constantly shake this ash-rain off. That is why people are so restless.”

That’s where the desperation comes in, because in the conspiracy to keep life okay for the suburbanites there are people getting lost. People are searching desperately for something to them interested, distracted, engaged.

What does that even mean? Part of the problem with this is the formlessness of the predicament suburbia faces. This kind of boundless boredom is not romantic or dangerous, and it’s not even properly defined. Lars Svendsen’s A Philosophy of Boredom sums up the vagueness of the subject quite astutely: “Boredom lacks the charm of melancholy – a charm that is connected to melancholy’s traditional link to wisdom, sensitivity and beauty. For that reason, boredom is less attractive to aesthetes. It also lacks the obvious serious of depression, so it is less interesting to psychiatrists and psychologists. Compared to depression or melancholy boredom seems too trivial or vulgar to warrant a thorough investigation.”

Boredom, though, is the important problem for suburban communities. That’s part of the reason why many of the fashionable subjects that are bounced around by the technophiles and futurologists are simply irrelevant: because so much of what is about to happen in the next century will be based around the suburban bored – people who don’t travel beyond packages to Barcelona, and only understand these new technologies to the extent to which it alleviates their boredom. They are the filter feeders, and their stories could end up being the important ones in the next hundred years.

*JG Ballard’s short story The Enormous Space is probably my favourite ‘lost at home in suburbia’ fable. It was recently turned into a short film on the BBC, ‘Home’.

5 Responses to “Crude Stereotyping Of The British Suburbs”

  • Steve Says:

    I see problems but I don’t hear solutions.

  • Rossignol Says:

    Videogames! They’ll fix it all, probably.

  • Rossignol Says:

    Also: boredom is a huge subject, and one I’ll write more about. If you see problems, then that’s because diagnosing them is the first step in dealing with them… (or something equally reminiscent of management-training-course soundbites.)

  • Pete Says:

    Good post Jim. Makes me think of the constant centre vs periphery tensions you get popping up throughout history powering culture shifts and revolutions. I guess the problem is while escaping the centre may help us dream independent dreams it can also lead to a dangerous disengagement.

  • bob_arctor Says:

    Ah Home. That was messed up!
    I’ll look into that guy’s short stories.
    Does all that apply equally to small villages with only a post office?