You have to leave suburbia to really, truly love it
When I was a teenager, there was nothing I wanted more than to move out of suburbia. I grew up in a place so nondescript that, after performing there, John Cleese remarked that if you wanted to kill yourself but lacked the courage, a visit to my home city “would do the trick”. (Locals had the last laugh by naming the municipal dump after him.)
The city itself wasn’t the problem – solid agricultural attitudes and a bit of civic symmetry rather please me – it was the stultifying ordinariness of life in suburbia. The predictable pleasantness of everything from progressive dinners to neighbourly sugar sharing. My best friend and I even coined the term ‘subby dip’ for the onion-soup-mix and sour-cream confection routinely served with Jatz crackers. Our derision was to be expected. We were 19.
We wanted to be, as our favourite band sang, “making love on the edge of a knife”, not on the floral bedspreads or in the lavender-scented gardens of our boyfriends’ parents.
So we left – she to London and me to a big-city newspaper where I refused to staff one of its provincial offices. I’d just escaped suburbia, I told the editor. I wasn’t going back. I wanted to cover metropolitan life – politics, crime, courts. He gave me the zoo round.
A year later, fully conversant on the mating habits of meerkats, I hotfooted it to London, where I all but licked life off the pavement.
Big on naïvety, small on street smarts, I gave pennies to every homeless person I saw and narrowly missed death by double-decker.
But I loved it: Camden Town, the comedy clubs, the accents, the novelty of popping up at tube stations with such thrilling names as Elephant & Castle and Tooting Bec. (Neither of them lives up to its acoustic promise, but such things are intoxicating when you’ve grown up in a place where the town square is called The Square.)
I stayed for nearly a decade, sacrificing space for a shoebox flat on the same street as Bob Geldof. I met Oasis, jogged along the River Thames at night and failed to notice my innocence evaporating as quickly as my White Linen perfume, only to be replaced by the sharp scent of cynicism.
In the laundromat, I’d listen to The Monkees’ ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’ (“Creature comfort goals, they only numb my soul”) not grasping that my sneering superiority actually masked a deep yearning for home. For lemon trees and lawns and Mum’s roast.
It took a baby in my belly to bring me home. Not to my childhood suburb, but to another just as ordinary. For nine years I’ve lived halfway down this tree-lined street with its bungalows and frangipanis and just the right sort of slope for skateboarding.
I walk the kids to school, chat with Andrew the butcher and the family in the Korean convenience store, and return home to find a recipe slipped under my door. I borrow eggs, sugar and children and I lend them back. I worry if I haven’t seen Jean, the elderly lady with one leg who lives four doors down.
Suburbia isn’t, as Ernest Hemingway once described, a place of “wide lawns and narrow minds”. It’s not characterless and complacent. There’s more life, humour and kindness in these quiet streets than I could ever have hoped for.
Perhaps you have to leave suburbia to fully love it. Maybe you have to live in a street like mine. Last night we had a progressive dinner, grazing from house to house on Spanish tapas before finishing at No 9 with a humdinger of a dessert.
Just between you and I, pistachio-flavoured fairy floss is the new Black Forest gateau.
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