• Collected
  • Article

Suburban Bliss

The pleasures of suburbia

There is no image assigned to this post.

Give it long enough and the most thrilling act of creation will go flat on you. It’s just one of those things. What to do? Conventional responses to the deadening ennui which hangs menacingly over nearly every kind of creative endeavour used to involve smoking a pipe or cigar (Camus); visiting your mistress (Victor Hugo, Bertrand Russell); downing an entire bottle of claret (Evelyn Waugh) or umpteen Screwdrivers (Truman Capote); going to a bullfight (Hemingway); or shooting someone (William Burroughs). Great, if you can get away with it.

More realistically: given that you’re a twenty-first century person and you don’t cheat on your partner, drink to excess or commit murder more than you absolutely have to, what then? You go for a walk. But where? If this is your one outlet, your one chance to get some perspective between yourself and the work, then much depends on getting it right.

If I have any choice in the matter — well, there is no choice. The countryside gives me the horrors if I’m there for more than half an hour (so dark at night; that excruciating mud). Worse still is countryside with a sense of its own drama: remote shorelines where only the sandpiper shares your thoughts; or deserts which insist on the brooding immanence of death. To say nothing of fenland, hilly regions, deep forest, mountain slopes, open pasturage, coppiced woodland, tidal estuaries or swamp. The more burdened with a numinous sense of self it is, the worse it is. And if anyone uses the word inspirational with respect to any of these environments – anything even faintly Lawrentian, in fact – then that’s it: I’m off, I’ve had it.

Towns and cities, though, are good. They have pavements and they have public transport. They also have buildings, a generous supply of other people (so you don’t get lonely) and occasional green spaces for those rus in urbe moments. They have tremendous variations in mood, in texture. They have a genuine capacity to startle.

If there is a problem with cities, it’s that they can be too engaging, too overpoweringly interesting. Dickens could only survive his prodigious walks through London because his imagination was already overwhelmed with original material; there was no danger of its being compromised by yet more stuff coming in through his five senses. I do not have this insurance. When I walk around central London I find myself dazzled by the crowds, the buildings, the commotion, the opportunities for consumption. By the end, I’m wrung out. It can be terrific, but it’s no good if I’m planning to do any work on the same day. Jane Austen may well have felt the same whenever she went into Alton.

Suburbs, on the other hand, are perfect.

A confession: I am a creature of the London suburbs; maybe even a prisoner of the suburbs. My whole life – allowing for spells away at university or the odd bit of travelling – has been spent moving across seven squares of the small format London A–Z. This has taken me from the land of my childhood, suburban north London, to that of adulthood, and indeed my children’s childhoods, in suburban south-west London. That’s my place. I can’t help it. Excitement? No, there is no excitement in the suburbs except, occasionally, the wrong kind of excitement. But from a purely creative point of view, from the point of view of the writer in search of an escape from writing, they’re impossible to fault.

How so? Well, when I fall through the front door with a view to spending an hour away from my tyrannical desk, I have a hundred choices before me: these streets or those? Which direction should I travel? (Because it never looks the same going west as east.) Should I follow a well-known path or introduce some tiny modification which I know will yield big results? After all, the built environment has so many more perspectives than the natural one. You can take in a big beach with one imperious sweep of your gaze; but look on a townscape and you’re looking at layers of information nested inside other layers of information, a hundred things hidden, an intelligible confusion of possibilities, rewards and disappointments.

And yes, I know my nearby streets backwards and forwards, but they’re never the same for very long. Just when I think I understand this house and have even supplied a little narrative for its occupants (whom, of course, I have never met), it tricks me by changing the paint scheme, or altering the disintegrating boundary wall left behind from an earlier estate, or putting a new car in front (an Audi? what point exactly are you trying to make?) or even undergoing a loft conversion, that most emotionally-charged piece of home improvement. And if that happens with number 82, then the whole road is thrown into a different rhythm, because the comforting dullness of number 82 – on which I have relied for some years – has gone, and the building is now in competition with number 68 (because I’m travelling west-east) and number 68 has always been the natural visual endpoint, not number 82.

So now I’m invited to reinterpret the whole scene, reimagine it from scratch. But that’s fine; what’s more, I can go as far as I like in my fresh speculations. If that row of buildings on a rise suddenly looks a bit like something out of San Francisco heading south towards Daly City (the light has to be just right, I’ll be honest with you) then that’s what it looks like. If that block of flats strikes me as a bit Nowa Huta, 1976, so be it. If I want to see something which isn’t really there, the suburbs can’t afford to be precious, they can’t stop me. They’re not a Nash Terrace I’m engaging with, or Owen Williams’ Daily Express building. It’s not as if the suburbs command respect; they’re there to be interfered with.

Put this all together and what have you got? A lowish level of stimulation combined with an almost Mozartian capacity for formal variation. Between them they create the best kind of place to wander around when you’re bored, stuck, short of oxygen or just browned off. The suburbs aren’t uninspiring: they’re pre-inspiring; they arouse at the same time as they soothe; they pose questions to which there is no correct answer; they lift you very slightly up at the same time as they slow your heart rate. They are blank without being empty. They console.

Any wonder, then, that the likes of R. D. Blackmore, Kurt Schwitters and J. G. Ballard all chose to live within a few miles of my front door? Kurt Schwitters, for Heaven’s sake: exiled in suburbia, deconstructing everything it stood for. And Ballard — a man who saw worlds within worlds, worlds of terror and beauty; and who lived in Shepperton. Although, to be honest, Shepperton is pretty weird. I think even I draw the line at Shepperton.

Shepperton aside, the suburbs uniquely have the power to be both our dream factories and our calmatives. And there’s something else: the sheer boringness of the suburbs is a reminder to the writer, however strung-out he or she might be, that there is no substitute for the interior landscape — the subjective, imaginative one, the one which causes all the trouble. It’s not a moral imperative exactly, but it does help to establish an order of precedence. Show me something shouty – a Hebridean paradise or the Russian steppes – and I shrug. Show me Sainsbury’s car park on a wet winter afternoon, however, and there’s more lyricism and pathos than any one writer could do justice to. And there’s a bus stop, which is really handy.

Charles Jennings is a London-based writer and journalist. He is probably best known for his wise-guy travelogue Up North and the Edwardian social history Them And Us. His latest book Sediment, about really bad wines, recently won the John Avery Award and is out now in paperback.

You might also like:

Dominica Passport by Mehranvary, Wikicommons
Collected Article

The Musings of a Dominican, Yorkshire Lass

My work as a children’s book writer and playwright has definitely been influenced by my Caribbean roots and Yorkshire background.…

Author Wioletta Greg and the cover of her 2017 Man Booker longlisted novel, Swallowing Mercur
RLF News Article

Wioletta Greg reflects on her life and RLF grant experience

A Polish author previously longlisted for the International Booker Prize, Wioletta now lives in Lewes, East Sussex.

RLF News Article

The Life and Times of Reverend David Williams

As we get ready to celebrate our 234th anniversary on 18 May, a recent RLF grant beneficiary takes a deep…

Royal Literary Fund Substack

View our Substack. All our articles are free to read and are written by either the RLF team or our contributing writers.

Subscribe on Substack