Suburban special: what is a suburb?

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    Tobias Hill

    Acclaimed poet, writer and native north Londoner

    It’s ironic that the word ‘suburbia’ contains this reference to stone [from the Latin ‘urbis’ meaning ‘walled town’], as the city is composed of the people. Once that’s accepted, the idea of suburbia as a fixed entity becomes nonsensical. ‘Cities give us collision,’ said Ralph Waldo Emerson, the nineteenth-century poet and priest. These collisions occupy us. We try to avoid them because collisions can be dangerous. For many of us the avoidance of collision can be a lifelong project. This is what the suburbs is for me – not somewhere for those attracted to the city but for those who are repelled by it, or those whom the city has somehow failed. They turn their back on the centre but are not quite capable of leaving it. When people leave the city what they seek to leave behind is collision. Detachment is at the heart of the suburban dream. If the city gives us collision, what the suburbs give us is a dream of pure division. But life without collision is a life without dialogue and therefore without meaning. It’s a nightmare.

    On the whole the suburban dream is unfulfilled. The dystopian emptiness of suburban streets, young people hanging out at bus stops and in train stations, desperate just for a glimpse of strangers, just to collide with anything or anyone. London thrusts collision in our faces whether we want it or not: foul-smelling, doggish, sometimes lovely, but quite often not. The clash of late-night revellers, or architectures, of cultures, and the detonating of bombs… We can see why we might want to avoid them for the rest of our lives, but friction also enlivens us. We might find someone running after us with the brolly or book we left behind, we might sit down at a coffee-table with a stranger who may become our lover. But the suburbs can also inspire.

    They produce a great deal of art that comes out of the absence of collision. Boredom and disaffection. They are examples of suburbia colliding with itself. The counter side of that – the part of the traditional suburb that I loathe – is the conservatism that is anathema to inspiration. The publicity of a new chain of ‘suburban style’ bars in the north of England quotes: ‘The toilets in our bar recently won a five-star award in the Loo of the Year… Everyone at the bar is keeping their fingers crossed that they will walk away with the overall bar prize.’ There’s a DH Lawrence story about a man who buys an island off the Scottish coast. He loves it because he’s away from other people; then the sheep start bothering him, so he moves to a rock, and the story ends with him on this little rock. That’s what the suburbs are for me.

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