As I write in my suburban study, or sometimes from my parents’ suburban guest room, or a suburban room of a friend, or a suburban serviced office, or listen to In Suburbia by the Pet Shop Boys, there are times when I wish I hadn’t left London. I write this today, listening to Paul Auster talking about New York Trilogy. He explains that the New York he wrote about in the early 1980s felt like it was becoming a third world country. He happily reports it is on the mend. But can suburbia be saved?
Surburbia has been very popular in the UK since the end of World War Two. Many, many city houses had been so badly damaged that they had to be demolished, and the government invented some ‘new towns’ just outside London, mainly, but also a few in the north. Some of them, like Milton Keynes, were modelled on the American grid system, with straight streets arranged in parallel or at right angles, and numbered. For a while, they seemed amazing. They seemed like the future had arrived. What poison these streets contained only became noticed slowly. The poison that fed these straight, dull streets was the petrol inside the cars.
What surburbia requires apart from the motor car is lots and lots of space. There remains lots of space in America, but such was the success of surburbia here that the space has long since run out. Now we need to build on land that we need for food, or land that is prone to annual floods. Land that previously would have been considered too hilly is being levelled. As our shoreline washes away, bringing the beaches further in, the houses push back into the countryside. Thousands of years from now, the land area of the UK will be a fraction of what it is today, unless something incredible changes in our behaviour.
That something, which finally, after fifty or more years, might be happening. France and the UK have announced the end of the petrol-only or diesel-only internal combustion engine. From 2040 you will only be able to buy hybrids or all-electric vehicles. How long before even hybrids fade out? Maybe another two decades. This is not the end of the car, of course, but it is a reckoning. It is the first sign that we are rethinking our attachment to our cars. So many of us now have two, three or four of the things choking up the streets and, when parked, spilling out across the pavements. Without the car, there could not have been suburbia.
As Del Amitri knew long ago, suburbia is where nothing ever happens. Suburbia is like an endless Groundhog Day. Suburbia is inherently anti-human and pro-car, pro-machine.
What happens when you give everyone a detached house with a large garden and a garage for two cars? They become selfish. They stop popping round for a chat. They have their own land to tend and for their children to play in. Now, they get everything delivered, even their weekly shopping, in the way they used to get milk delivered many decades ago. They order it online by barking into an electronic microphone. Many of them, the unlucky ones, though they think they are the lucky ones, work from home. Yes, those global corporations that once provided us with a place to carry out their nefarious tasks no longer see an office as part of their responsibility. They expect you to provide a spare room from which to work, and the internet to keep you connected, and perhaps even pay for your own smartphone so that they can keep tabs on you 24/7. So many of the things work used to guarantee you, like healthcare and pensions, are being eroded. Let me tell you: the lucky ones are the non-office workers, followed a distant second by those who work in an office with other humans. The unlucky souls are the ones who work from home and see only the grocery driver once a week.
I had hoped that working from home would lead to a renaissance for communities. If enough people worked at home, without meeting anyone else from one week to the next, perhaps they would arrange lunch with their neighbours. It hasn’t happened in my neighbourhood, where the average age is way past retirement. Those lucky folks have pensions, and have so far managed to cling on to their 8-bedroomed detached family houses where they live alone, desperately fighting against dust and encroaching lawns that threaten to maroon them on an island of their own making.
The car is not going away, but there are signs that suburbia is receding. Once you’ve lived for ten years or so in these silent roads where the only noise is someone else’s barking dog or screaming child, the fun goes out of it. I do think that they are fabulous places to raise children, until they hit their teens, but after that the silence and the lack of stimulus becomes as negative for children as it is for the grown-ups.
As someone who spends a lot of time writing, I find myself travelling into London for inspiration, before returning to solitude to write it all up. Nothing ever happens in suburbia, and there is evidence that the epidemic in mental illness is linked to long hours working from home in soul-destroying monotony. It can’t be a coincidence, can it? It can’t be a coincidence that the decline in neighbourliness has happened as our suburbs have risen up to choke us all to an early grave, sozzled in alcohol and Fentanyl.
If you really want to live, sell up and move back into town. Suburbia is dying and cannot be saved.