Suburban special: what is a suburb?



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    Billy Bragg


    and author of ‘The Progressive Patriot’

    I come from Barking, which was a fishing village 150 years ago. It was only in 1965 that Barking was formally made part of London, and one of London’s suburbs. There are ancient boundaries in Barking – the river and the marshes to the south. There are social boundaries – boundaries of class – the obvious one between Barking and Ilford. My mother referred to Ilford as all kittens and curtains, and that has changed. Growing up in suburbia, home was where the exotic resided. All the immigrants down our street were Irish – I often couldn’t understand the language they spoke to their parents. I had a great aunt who lived two streets from us in a house lit by gas. To visit her was literally to go back to Victorian times. For me, suburbia is a kind of nether place. It’s not urban and it’s not rural. It’s between the two, and the kind of people who live there are the people from middle England. People with middling aspirations. But that conservatism is positively inspirational: it’s like being in Stalag 17 – you’ve got to make an escape plan. We want to get to the city, where anything goes and all bets are off, where you’re not judged on where you come from. We don’t want to play in the Bridge House in Canning Town, we want to play in the Marquee. How to get over that cultural divide and get into the city was one of the big defining questions of my punk years. Punk came from Woking, Bromley and Southend. It didn’t come from the West End, although it was manifest there.

    Suburbs are where the people are engaged in life. If you’re in the middle of it all, maybe it takes the edge off what you’re trying to do. The meaning of the suburbs changes with each generation. The city retains its power and its strength – even if it’s only symbolic. Because that is the centre of the wheel around which the rest of us are circling – where change takes place. Suburbs have no centre, cities have a centre, but it’s out in the suburbs where dreams of escape are nurtured. Commerce changes the city, but it is the people who come – the people who congregate. I do believe that the suburbs are the lifeblood of the city. The problem is that they eradicate the history of the places they cover. In the Iron Ages there was a camp on the banks of the River Roding, but there’s no hint in anything around it, apart from the fact the Victorian planners built the streets on the other side of the road. They weren’t sure who’d built it, so they called successive roads Roman Road, Saxon Road, Dane Road and Norman Road, and they were wrong on every single count.

    There’s a struggle there now. There was a village separate from Barking called Creekmouth that had a separate identity; the Thames Gateway development is going to come right through there and tear everything out. The main complaint of local people is that there should be some continuity in place names and space names. A load of Tudorbethan houses sprang up on that Iron Age camp in the 1980s for chemical workers, on streets called ‘Fuchsia’ and so on, as if to erase the smells. But people from elsewhere are now living there. The melting pot is the suburbs, but the great moments are forged in the city.

    This debate was organised by The Art Fund. For information on upcoming talks, visit

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