In defence of the suburbs

By - Tuesday 7th July, 2015

The suburb is inoffensive, but why does it conjure up so much negative sentiment? asks James Naylor

The suburbs.
Photo by Kevan, used under Creative Commons licence.

“But what, exactly, do the suburbs need defending from?” said Rob.

To me, the answer felt obvious. It was the reason that I, and 300 others, gathered on 11th June for the final leg of the part literary roadshow, part reading group, part evangelical revival that was Croydon Till I Die at the Fairfield Halls. It was what, through the event’s mixture of readings and personal reminiscence about suburban life in Croydon, resonated with me in such a strong and familiar way that it felt like old news. It was how this literary seminar about late 20th suburban century identity could end with 300 people chanting, “I know I am, I’m sure I am, I’m Croydon till I die” while they swore allegiance to a newly imbued sacred symbol – the T from Taberner House’s famously dated signage.

And yet, as I stared back at Rob through the webcam of my laptop, I couldn’t give a single coherent answer to his question.

The suburbs are where most of us live. Since the vast growth of railway and the huge population explosion of the 19th century, the vast majority of people’s experiences has not been lived amongst the bustling sounds and tight-packed conditions of the city, or the quiet wide-open spaces of the country, but in the space in-between. A place of nearly silent evenings, gardens rather than fields, and houses which cluster rather than compete for space. That’s the real landscape of Britain – if such a thing exists – and it makes up the bulk of every British town and, indeed, far more square miles of London than large Georgian townhouses, modernist housing estates or  trendy Victorian warehouse conversions.

They are logically convenient: close to shops, restaurants and others entertainment venues but quiet and relatively tranquil – at least compared to a bustling city centre. Their very ideal of town-and-country-in-one was what the ‘garden suburb’ concept of the late 19th century was all about and was the primary selling point of most of the houses built during the vast – an unprecedented – construction boom of the 1920s and ’30s.

Does this convenience and familiarity inspire us to love and cherish them? I know that it didn’t for me, or for many like me. It’s so often the place to escape from. The place that I couldn’t dream of myself actually living in once I’d gone to university and made my escape. To stay in a place like Coulsdon – where I grew up – to even hang around with the same people would be to “go backwards” as one school friend put it. I must admit, I had much to agree with. I wanted excitement and I wanted London (at that time Croydon was not London to me).

“Cause on the surface the city lights shine
They’re calling at me, ‘come and find your kind’”

In a straightforward lyrical boldness that is almost to much on-the-nose, Canadian band Arcade Fire captures it perfectly.* And such a sentiment crosses generational boundaries. The ringleaders of Croydon Till I Die clearly once felt much the same (notably none lives in Croydon now) as did the intellectual figures of the early 20th century that they referenced. Names as varied and illustrious as T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence (despite living in Croydon and taking trips to Purley by tram) and E. M. Forster poured scorn on the suburb through literary reference and, occasionally, direct condemnation: dull, corrupt, even lacking in “life force” in George Bernard Shaw’s parlance. Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies gives an archetypal example: so strong is Nina’s dislike that the mere sight of the “squalor of millions of little detached houses sitting by themselves” is enough to make her physically sick.**

In more recent times, the cold hard numbers bear out this existential desire to escape in the real movement of people and money. We tend to think of the suburbs as – at least – materially prosperous. But while the inner city – especially in London – has grown much richer, outer London and the suburbs of many of the UK’s cities have grown poorer. House prices in outer London were approximately flat in 2000-2010as were total numbers of jobs. Between 2004 and 2010 more than 90% of neighbourhoods that became more deprived were in outer London. It’s visible in places like Purley and Coulsdon. While wealthy in relative terms, they are not as prestigious as they once were. The once leafy suburbs of Thornton Heath and West Croydon are not places that the word ‘leafy’ is normally used to describe any more.

But macro economics is not enough to make a room full of people so charmingly determined to profess their love for Croydon against, something. The rejection of the suburb runs deeper – it runs to not only a rejection of where you’ve come from, but a rejection of who you are.

“They’re screaming at us, ‘We don’t need your kind’”

Amongst the intellectuals of the early 20th century the suburb was perhaps most specifically awful because it was filled with the detestable clerks – the burgeoning mass of people doing white collar jobs (administrators, agents of all kinds, office workers) enabled by the introduction of free education in the second half of the 19th century. A “low, inferior species” of people, according to T. W. Crosland, whose very attempt to become educated and rise above their station was offensive to him. The imagined contrast to city people couldn’t be more clear than in the words of the poet Brian Howard: “I live in Mayfair. No doubt you come from some dreary suburb”. Not being vibrant city folk – artists, intellectuals, aristocratic playboys – or honest, simple rural people, their only real crime was to be unexceptional. It makes sense if you feel personally a little offended. The clerks are the forerunners to what we think of today as the middle class. In reality, many of us are clerks.

Of course, such direct sentiments are much less likely to be expressed quite so nakedly today (although the adjective ‘suburban’ still has a negative ring). But I wonder if, deep down, we’re still often left with the same dissatisfaction. We romanticise city life and city people even today and we romanticise country life: but espousing a dream of a middle kind of life in the suburbs is something that few would admit to.

It’s an idle thought, but the timing of this might be no accident. The early 20th century wasn’t so different to today: it was a time of comparative inequality, at least to a second half that saw, in Europe and America, the rise of the biggest-ever middle class. Today, the middle class is shrinking as more of the clerks jobs are swallowed up by machines. In a world where it feels like we must fight to be at the top of the social pile to avoid falling further, being unexceptional like this is a problem. It probably begins early. Today, people bemoan how children’s occupational dreams today are unattainable for most. They dream of being pop stars or sports stars in favour of the more traditional ambitions to be a train driver or a fireman. Even once we’re older, and our dreams have become less grand and more nuanced by their inevitable clash with reality, we have a deep-seated and unconscious fear that if we stay in the suburbs – by force or choice – we are doomed to be unexceptional. The affirmation at the end of Croydon Till I Die is perhaps, on this view, a form of therapy: affirmation that being ordinary is ok. “I know I am, I’m sure I am, I’m Croydon till I die”.

‘Unexceptional’ is the last thing that I would ever describe Croydon as being today. It is full of life, intrigue and sometimes danger. But it is never dull. It has a vast amount to recommend it, and this paper – and many other issues of it – prove that.

But then, is it still a suburb? Since the ’60s, the centre of Croydon hasn’t resembled one and its latest round of high-rise development will only increase its urban character. It has its own suburbs. Perhaps more importantly its ethnic and cultural mix is not one typically associated with suburbs (perhaps itself an outdated notion). And as it goes through the change that it’s going through right now, it is more stereotypically urban by the day. Perhaps, for all my claims to love it, I do so because I’ve left the suburbs behind.

* ‘Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)’ from The Suburbs by Arcade Fire, Mercury 2010

** Many of these examples come from John Carey’s excellent book, The Intellectuals and the Masses (London: Faber, 1992). It covers this extensively and was briefly read from during the Croydon Till I Die event itself.

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James Naylor

James Naylor

James grew up in Coulsdon. After a brief spell in Somerset he returned to central Croydon as a useful London base. Since then however, his enthusiasm for Croydon has slowly grown into obsession – leading him to set up Croydon Tours and eventually the Croydon Citizen. James is particularly interested in the power of local media to foster new ways of thinking about communities and how to empower them. He is most interested in putting Croydon in a wider context within London, the economy and across time. During the week, he works for an advertising technology company hailing from Silicon Valley. When he’s not working on Croydon-related projects, he enjoys desperately nerdy but hugely enjoyable boardgames. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • trypewriter

    Nice piece James.

    Subdivisions by Rush is worth a listen in respect of ‘the burbs’ – Canadian/American burbs but still of interest.

    Gratuitous lyric quote:
    ‘Sprawling on the fringes of the city
    In geometric order
    An insulated border
    In between the bright lights
    And the far unlit unknown
    ‘Any escape might help to smooth the unattractive truth. But the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth.’

    • James Naylor


      “But the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth” – Fantastic line. …I should have just written that instead! ;)

  • drews

    Great read James, I suppose having missed that legendary “Croydon till I die” show, I’m keen to know as much about it as I can from those like yourself who went. The authors call it it a tour, but with only a fourth date up a welsh mountain to go, and no extra date promised for London let alone Croydon, that’s no tour! And i want to hear more! You mention a webcam, so did you record the show, or anyone else record it? I would pay to see this show, regards Ewout

    • James Naylor

      Thank you very much! I know – hopefully they’ll do more. Andy Miller and John Grindrod are the ringleaders. I think they’d like to do more dates – you should let them know on twitter. Sadly, I was referring to the webcam I use to run our weekly editorial meetings, not a filming of the event.