Looking down on suburbia

Rupa Huq’s latest book does a fine job of distilling the snobbery of the elites towards the masses.

David Bowden

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In one of the best exchanges of the lauded Danish political drama, Borgen, heroic liberal prime minister Birgitte Nyborg is taken to task by the engagingly monstrous right-wing populist Svend Age Saltum. ‘I represent a part of Denmark that you wish didn’t exist’, snarls the farmer in explanation for his popularity. ‘TV dinners, plastic lawn furniture…’ For a show that often acted as West Wing-like comfort viewing for despairing liberals, it was a stinging rebuke that was testament to the sharpness of the show’s writing.

In the UK, the chasm between the supposed metropolitan political class and the masses was famously summarised in Gordon Brown’s ‘bigotgate’ gaffe in the run-up to the 2010 General Election. Yet, as sociologist Rupa Huq argues in an enthralling study, Making Sense of Suburbia Through Popular Culture, such sentiments about the backwardness of those humble folk on the edge of town are hardly new to popular culture, even if the contemporary focus has shifted noticeably in recent years.

As Huq notes, suburbia in the UK and US is a difficult concept to define since it is ever-changing: in George and Weedon Grossmith’s iconic Edwardian satire, The Diary Of A Nobody, Charles Pooter can be found sniffing Pooterishly around rural Holloway, now distinctly inner-city London. Today, London’s sprawling suburbia can claim a good portion of Essex, Kent and Berkshire, while the term itself can apply as much to the gritty urban landscape of Chatsworth Estate at the centre of Channel 4’s Shameless as much as it can to perennially leafy Surrey.

Moreover, she contends, no longer can one readily speak of the ‘unspoken constituent part of suburban allure that part of what was being escaped was ethnic populations’. Now, aspirant and affluent immigrants ensure there is as much ‘brown flight’ and ‘yellow flight’ as there is a more notorious ‘white flight’ from overcrowded London. The suburb is less a physical entity than it is a state of mind, ‘a place where modernity has been on display since its foundation, symbolising progress in conceptualisation and everyday lived social practice’.

The story of suburbia, then, is broadly speaking a happy one: one of unheralded and often uneven, but still very real, constant material development. It is a tale of ‘open fields waiting for the bulldozers of the twentieth century to move in and redevelop, aided and abetted with expanded road networks and improved public transport’. As one set of hip urbanites moves from the chaotic city in search of a better quality of life, bringing with them all the cultural and social capital they’ve accrued, so other migrant groups move in to take their place and begin the process afresh.

Yet Huq’s survey of suburbia’s depiction in popular culture during the same period offers a radically different vision. As she observes, ‘suburban dysfunction’ is now so ubiquitous a theme in film and television that it qualifies as its own genre on online streaming service Netflix, and its fundamental uncoolness is the engine room of a strand of social comedy ranging from Grossmith up to The Inbetweeners, taking in Mike Leigh and Goodness Gracious Me en route. Meanwhile the dehumanising effects of suburbanisation unites writers as diverse as George Orwell, Betty Friedan, John Betjeman, JG Ballard and Hanif Kureishi.

Surburban upbringings played a crucial formative role in some of the most significant Anglophone pop of the past half century. From the Kent-raised hellraisers the Rolling Stones and the barbed whimsy of Ray Davies to the snotty Croydon art-school education of Sex Pistols guru Malcolm McLaren and the fractious society of Paul Weller and Siouxsie Sioux, suburbia has become enshrined in popular imagination as a place to escape from, rather than run to. Even Liverpool’s favourite sons, Lennon and McCartney, spent their childhoods on the outside looking in.

As the book argues, the gritty and thrilling city of the popular imagination of the late twentieth century appears as much an invention of the suburban dreamer as it does the product of actual lived experience. It is a tradition which naturally continues to this day with harsh-sounding, tough-talking urban hip-hop and grime music being blared out across Britain’s genteel shires as much as around inner-city housing estates.

So why is it that the suburb – such a symbol of humble, if uninspiring, development – has come be to a modern byword for moral depravity and social dysfunction? Why is it, when two thirds of the British population reside in a suburb, that people are frequently so keen to insist that they don’t? Huq paints it as a continuation of a long tradition of cultural elites’ enduring disdain for mass consumerist society, adding Ballard’s wretched final novel Kingdom Come and classic British sitcom The Good Life to the ignoble list drawn up in John Carey’s iconic study The Intellectuals and the Masses (mentioned in passing here). Huq notes that satirising the homogenisation of the ‘burbs had become so mainstream by 1967 that manufactured popsters the Monkees could take potshots at “Status Symbol Land” on their song “Pleasant Valley Sunday”.’

Early critiques of suburbanisation expressed a concern over the embourgeoisement of the masses. For the left, the increasing privatisation of daily life served to weaken ties of working-class communities for the sake of only modest material advancement (a theme of HG Wells and Orwell, though neither are exactly consistent on this issue). For the right, the horrid spectre of social progress threatened the natural order – expressed, of course, in a concern over environmental destruction and the insatiable greed of the masses.

Similarly – as Huq usefully illustrates here – for US liberals such as Friedan and John Updike, and disillusioned lefties like Richard Yates, the suburb became the perfect expression of the social and political structures of postwar US society. Suburbia served to restrict power, with the archetypal white picket fence serving to keep women trapped inside the homestead and minorities safely out, with homogenising mass consumer culture providing a suitable exterior manifestation for stultifying social convention.

To a certain extent, of course, pop culture’s fascination with suburbia and its discontents can be partly explained by the ‘long tail’ of this tradition, a trend accelerated by its often uncritical recycling of its own brief history. The sheer prevalence of millennial work which seeks to pick apart the seedy underbelly of suburban life – like Todd Solondz’s misanthropic ‘satire’ Happiness, Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven and Mildred Pierce, successful novel adaptations such as The Virgin Suicides, Little Children and Revolutionary Road, alongside TV hits like Desperate Housewives – seems to point as much to the cultural conservatism of much mainstream media.

Nonetheless, there are aspects of the anti-suburban discourse that are particular to today, which Huq touches upon briefly (although these are elaborated further in her companion book, On The Edge: The Contested Cultures of English Suburbia). The contemporary discussion of suburbia seems to represent a political and ideological crisis as much as it does an ingrained cultural prejudice: with the collapse of traditional structures of political engagement, the suburban mindset – the archetypal ‘Basildon man’ – has moved to become a figure of obsessive scrutiny for an increasingly metropolitan and detached political class desperate to take the pulse of a fragmented nation. It is no coincidence that the Tory spin-doctor currently raising the hackles of the left – Lynton Crosby – is famed for his ‘doughnut strategy’ in appealing to the interests and concerns of the outer suburbs.

As such, as architectural commentator Karl Sharro noted in his 2008 essay, ‘Density versus Sprawl’, suburbia – the free-wheeling ‘orphan’ of town planning, created more by the circumstances of mass affluence than any real conscious design – is now more a target for government regulation and intervention than being just an unloved child. Rather than the suburbanites being a source of idle mockery or a byword for quiet, humdrum banality, they are ultimately the subject of too much analysis – over the depravity of what they get up to behind closed doors, their supposed racism (in stark contrast to the sophisticated cosmopolitanism of the urbanite), the ticking timebomb of their sedentary lifestyles, and their endless tacky consumerism. Nor is it the fascination with British suburban squalor simply confined to British society: Huq records that she was recently treated to a Finnish professor at a conference in Istanbul giving a presentation on the notorious YouTube clip in which a woman on a tram in suburban Croydon unleashes a torrent of racist abuse.

Making Sense of Suburbia Through Popular Culture, then, is a timely and enjoyable defence of life in the badlands of the cultural mainstream, even if Huq sometimes allows herself to get side-tracked by distracting musings on cultural identity and media fragmentation. As a former deputy mayoress of Ealing and an aspiring Labour MP, she is perhaps also too dismissive of the critique of suburbia as a pale shadow of the promise of material development and affluence. Nonetheless, this is a refreshing celebration of the human vibrancy that goes on behind the closed doors, lawn furniture and mock-Tudor stylings of the ‘burbs rather than its supposedly dark heart.

Yet rather than hope, as Huq does, that the suburbs become a more serious subject for sociological and political study, it would surely better if the army of experts, town planners and behaviourists just left them alone. Ray Davies may have been bitterly ironical in his portrait of suburbia as a ‘Shangri-La’ but, as even he concedes, the alternative for most was a return to a rundown, inner-city house with a lavatory in the backyard. Suburbia may not be the hipster’s idea of heaven, but for most of us, it seems, it’s far from being hell.

David Bowden is a columnist for spiked.

Making Sense of Suburbia through Popular Culture, by Rupa Huq, is published by Bloomsbury Academic. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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