Sunday, 1 February 2009

In Praise of Suburbia.

The film of the moment; or one of them at least, is Revolutionary Road, an adaptation of Richard Yates’s novel about the disintegration of youthful optimism set in 1950’s suburbia.

Hollywood often, too often perhaps, trades in simplistic messages and the message of this film is, it seems that suburban life is a vice that crushed the human spirit between rigid social conformity and rampant consumerism. It is not a particularly original critique, but it is one that has prompted several reviewers, including Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph, to question just why it is that the suburbs receive such a raw deal from the arts.

It is a pertinent question and one I would like to try and answer from a British perspective at least, adding along the way a few comments on the attitudes of what I suppose we should call the establishment to all things suburban.

For decades suburbia in the UK suburbia was the preferred setting for situation comedies written by metropolitan sophisticates who looked down their elegant noses at the small minds, middle brow opinions and social conservatism of its residents. Sometime on the mid nineties a well publicized edict went out from the BBC saying that suburbia was no longer considered to be a suitable setting for its sitcoms. It was, so the thinking went, too staid and middle class for the tastes of the audience the corporation was trying to attract; from now on edginess would be the beginning and end of what was required for small screen comedy.

It is ironic to not that since turning its back on suburbia the BBC has seldom had a hit comedy programme, and the few it has had have been copied from American originals set in, you guessed it, the suburbs.

It is worth speculating just what it is about the suburbs that makes them such a fertile breeding ground for people on the arts, be they musicians, actors and above all that most suburban of all artistic professions, writers. My guess would be that it has everything to do with the very restrictions they claim to have found so irksome, creative types have always needed something to kick against in order to produce their best work.

The very fact that the British pretend to have such a profound dislike of all things suburban is in itself rather odd since as a nation we are suburban to the very core. The values we hold most dear, even if we feel a very British awkwardness about articulating them in public, stoicism, a marked lack of pretension and a quiet but deeply held patriotism and the very backbone of the attitudes of what George Orwell admiringly called the ‘invincible suburbs.’

They are the sort of values politicians find themselves inevitably attempting to evoke regardless of their personal political persuasion at some stage of their career, they are also values that what a growing number of people refer to as the ‘political class’, an awkward and alarming term to hear used in a democracy, fear the most.

It isn’t the rich who take to the streets when a local council threatens to close a school of a public swimming pool, with wealth comes endless choice; it isn’t the poor who protest when ancient liberties are eroded in the name of security, years of being bullied by bureaucrats have robbed then of the will to do anything other than just get by, it is the people in the middle, the suburbanites, the residents of what is sometimes sneeringly referred to as ‘middle England’ who rise to the occasion.

It isn’t that they are particularly ‘political’, as the anthropologist Kate Fox points out in her study of our national character politics in the UK has always had more to do with fair play than competing ideologies, but rather than being drones deadened by the monotony of their daily lives the inhabitants of Britain’s equivalent of Revolutionary Road are the real custodians of the most revolutionary idea of them all; democracy.