From Paradise To Purgatory

Great Britain


When the Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman described suburban Neasden as ‘the home of the gnome’ he didn’t mean it nicely. London’s Metropolitan Railway accidentally created suburbia. The term ‘Metroland’ was coined in 1915 and used to describe a band of countryside north-west of London, sold as a land of idyllic cottages and gardens. But amid claims of overcrowding and seas of semis, Metroland’s 21st-century reality has been deemed disastrous.

It was a dream of paradise that was always tinged with snobbery and condescension, but at least it was better than being left behind in the ‘inner city’, with its failing high streets and rising crime. Until the situation abruptly reversed, that is.

Urban areas may still be scruffy but they’re no longer decaying. A new study shows that neighbourhoods in Hackney, Dalston and Finsbury now have surprisingly high levels of resident satisfaction, whereas outlying areas are suffering poverty and deprivation.

The first problem is that, as America found, suburbia only functions well in times of plenty because it uses land wastefully and is overdependent on cars. The diffuse road layouts mean more infrastructure per person – more roads, more lighting, drains and pavements, and longer bus routes, so suburbia requires proportionally more public spending.

The second problem is that the layout stops ethnic groups from assimilating. These spread-out areas cause more social division. People don’t talk to one another because the structure of the suburbs isn’t conducive to doing so – houses are further apart, shops tend to be impersonal barn-like supermarkets, the elderly and mobility-challenged get left behind and forgotten, there’s less to physically do and groups stay together so there’s no intermingling. The unpredictable English weather further undermines suburbia. People can’t hang out in the good sense.

For the first time social scientists are addressing the idea that suburbia is actually a wasteland, an experiment whose time came and went. As the young flee it as fast as they can, the gaps are being filled by young families who can’t afford to stay in the city centre – they expect something more than a gnome in the garden and washing the car on a Sunday, but there’s no way of easily interacting with others. It means that if you’re a misanthropic loner who’d like to be left alone, your best bet is moving to the suburbs, which isn’t how it was intended.

A few years ago I wrote a novel about this called ‘Psychoville’ which has now started to look weirdly prescient. Are there good suburbs? I visited one in Belgium – know of others?


19 comments on “From Paradise To Purgatory”

  1. Jackie Hayles says:

    J G Ballard describes the weird world of suburbs very well too:stage sets where the cast often seems absent. I lived in Kingsbury when I was a child and it was idyllic, complete with thatched cottages and a faux castle. It was surrounded by a massive green belt, the Barn Hill zone, with a fishing lake at the top and open fields containing a dairy farm and a riding stables. For a child there was everything – a cinema and a swimming pol being all I really needed, and a quiet close where we lived and were on nodding terms with the neighbours. There was quite a good ethnic mix and it was small enough to be friendly – unlike Harrow, Kenton, Wembley, where the roads were bigger and there was more traffic and less of a village feel to the places. I don’t go back there now, but I hope that whoever lives there still feels some sense of community. House prices and living costs seem to drive people out of areas and cause most social problems and these seem to be worsening all the time.

  2. Vivienne says:

    On my London walks it is easy to see the changes of road layout over time. The Victorians favoured straight roads but terraces meant people were more cheek by jowl and could chat over the fences. The 30s moved to curves and culs-de-sac but, even then, there are often alleys leading off so people, especially children, could run about between houses easily. But very modern layouts seem to be a sort of hand print shape, with lots of little dead ends. This means one way in and one way out, usually by car, too, I’m sure, so there can be no ‘accidental’ encounters.

  3. Brian Evans says:

    I can never think of Neasden without thinking of “Private Eye”-and the Neasden song (“Better Get a Seasden”) sung by Willie Rushton.

    I think the barn supermarkets are a recent cause of isolation. In the past the locals bumped into each other every day at the local parade of varied and functional shops, which are now mobile phone shops, estate agents, and (horror upon horror) tanning shops. There was always the pub-which was a meeting place even for the middle-classes. Not to mention the local cinema where regulars often kept to the same seats and met each other weekly.

    I come from Bebington in the Wirral, and my father and step-mother still live there. This still to me has an old-fashioned pleasant feel about it, and people chat on the street and still seem to know each other, and their neighbours. I enjoy visiting from time to time. It has managed that rarity of suburban dwelling-it still feels villagey and semi rural. It also includes that masterpiece of a workers’ village-Port Sunlight.

    Perhaps it helps as Dad has lived there since 1955 (he’s now 92) and my step-mum since 1962.

    Incidentally, Dad has only lived in 2 houses in his entire life, and that includes the 2nd World War when as an electrician he was in a reserved occupation working on the cargo ships in the Liverpool docks and living at home with his mother.

  4. Brooke says:

    Re–are there good suburbs? From your descriptions of ‘good,’ I know a few on the US east coast. But you would have to preface with “affluent.” They were villages that are now surrounded by the city or cities that have oozed outward. The affluent burbs have maintained the small shops, open spaces, good eating places (I love visiting these suburbs!) even small movie houses and theatres. These locations require a lot of public and private spending. (you need population density for good hospitals, etc.). They are obviously not ethnically mixed.

    In her last book, Jane Jacobs described livable suburbs that included light industry around the Toronto area, which seems to get a number of things right.

    Recently I heard about a small village in Arizona (no infrastructure, wild fires, ever lower water tables) that is building
    a quarter of a million new homes to attract people who want to live in the suburbs (of what you may ask). The madness continues. And of course there are the Disney build villages.

  5. Roger says:

    Wasn’t Metroland a direct reference to the Metropolitan Line – in fact invented by it? – which expanded north and built stations in open country or near small villages and built and developed housing near them? Most London suburbs weren’t overdependent on cars when they were first built but grew around railway lines. In fact it was the development of “barn-like supermarkets” and the use of cars to get to and from them that finished off suburbs as semi-independent autonomous towns.
    In London whether somewhere is – or sees itself as – a suburb depends on psychology as much as geography or economics. Barnes is an example of a place very close to central London where many of the inhabitants think of themselves as non-Londoners in a way that people from Hammersmith – just across the river – don’t.

  6. snowy says:

    Metroland was a title created to market speculatively built properties NE of Lomdon, it is possible to question if all the places on the route are all true suburbs because most of them were not created entirely from scratch.

    Some might be seen as suburban in character simply by their proximity to green spaces. But most of the older areas were towns in their own right and had established railway links sometimes at their own expense to connect local industry into the wider Railway network decades before. They have only come under the umbrella of ‘Metroland’ since a certain poet ‘stuck his oar in’.

    Some of the later in-fill construction diid create some strange islands of housing almost totally dependent on the Railway, private motor-cars being above the reach of most for many years.

    The majority of the housing stock you can see today isn’t really that old. The popularity of the semi-detached comes largely from the Tudor Walters Report in 1918. Which established the ideas we now think as comprising a typical modern house. [It’s why most have 3 beds.] and established the requirements for light and air.

    Even most of what we think of as being old Victorian post-dates 1875, The Public Health Act 1875, not a very exciting title, did away with a lot of old practices that made previous houses dark, damp and unhealthy, it required foundations, a ground floor suspended above the earth rather than laid direct, damp-proof courses and other stuff.

    [Until some of these improvements, enjoyed for nearly a century were reversed by the Barrat Starter-Hutch].

    The majority of the housing built before this period would be pulled down in the succeeding years.

    Hmm…. possibly too much information there. Just be thankful I didn’t get on to Garden Suburbs, you’d have worn out the scroll wheel trying to find the blessed end of that comment. [Other page navigation methods are avail…. etc.]

  7. Jan says:

    It’s north West London Snowy up into Bucks.
    There,was,some weird plan that the line,would go up to the,Midlands and the North at the outset and even madder in some way connect with France…..
    Instead it petered out toward,a,place called Brill towards the Bucks /Oxon border I think.Brill is,a very odd place.

    Interesting how the naming of a tube station made,a difference to how neighbourhoods defined themselves North Harrow where I used to live was originally known locally as Hooking Green. Hooking Green is a large village green open space still existing around the back of a,New housing development (where Safeways supermarket used to be) the Metropolitan railway
    rejected that name saying no one would recognise the areas name or realise where it was.
    North Harrow not posh as Pinner was born.
    Jackie your piece about Kingsbury brought back some memories I used to know Kingbury really well. The open air swimming pool is long gone but was there when I worked locally. Where was the pictures? Was it near the roundabout where the big pub and the road down toward Barn Hill
    Open space ran?

  8. snowy says:

    Oh fiddlesticks…

    *Hangs head in shame*, *sacks Editor*

    ?How to row back from such a basic faux pas?


    !Launch Operation Subject Change!

    “Located in the northwest London district of Kingsbury. Built for and operated by Oscar Deutsch’s Odeon Theatres Ltd. chain, the Odeon Kingsbury opened on 30th May 1934 with a public inspection and guests appearing on stage. The next day it screened its first film “Love, Life and Laughter” starring Gracie Fields.

    Designed by local Harrow based architect Arthur Percival Starkey, it was very similar both externally and internally as his Odeon South Harrow which had opened a year earlier. Again there was a long low facade which was covered in cream coloured faiance tiles. There was a shop unit on each side of the wide entrance.

    Inside the auditorium seating was provided for 724 in the stalls and 279 in the balcony. Illumination was via a central laylight fitting in the centre of the ceiling which extended almost the entire length of the auditorium.

    It was re-named Gaumont from 19th March 1950 and remained as such until 31st May 1964 when it reverted back to the name Odeon. It closed on 9th September 1972 with Steve McQueen in “Junior Bonner” and Stanley Baker in “The Last Grenade”.”

    [Turn West err… Left out of the station, head toward the roundabout and it was halfway down. Been torn down and replaced by a supermarket.]

  9. Brian Evans says:

    Re semi-detached-
    I’ve always been amazed that a country such as the UK, whose inhabitants are obsessed with privacy (high border fences, net curtains etc) and yet at the same time are extremely fond of semi-detached houses with their party walls. How often do you find them abroad?

  10. Jan says:

    Jackie hope I won’t bore u I’ve put together a few things I remembered about Kingsbury. I walked around there a lot from around 1979 to 1988. I liked the place was always a mix of people I’ve been around there since now it’s mainly a good quality Indian suburb. There’s a fair few eastern Europeans in the mix along with black and white British.

    I loved Roe Green village built using Labour from German prisoners,
    captured during the first world war. Roe Green village is amoungst the nicest conservation areas within LB Brent. Roe Green is like a little bit of Hampstead displaced. Just a little bit up the road there are a couple of houses that I visited on open door architecture weekend can’t honestly remember the architects name but these two houses are wonderful. The owner occupier who showed us round shook his head and told us his home though worth a fair few Bob would have been worth ten times as much in the,same style in Hampstead. Suppose that would be equally true of one bed starter home but you could see his point.

    Fryent Way is an extraordinary bit of green belt to think when I,was about there was still a working farm hay cutting, cows grazing. Salmon street felt a bit like a road out in the home counties backing onto the open space. At Slough lane on the nearside near the junction with Salmon street is a large Sarsen stone buried deep with only the top portion visible. Never found mention of it in local history books but it’s,definitely there. On then nearside (left) of Fryent Way heading from Wembley out toward Kingsbury about ten yards in from the carriageway is an ancient pathway running by and sometimes replaced totally by a very ancient hedge. Again just extraordinary. I used to walk through there before the research was done unawares such a ancient track was there. I remember lots of beautiful pink dogrose bushes being there and they were probably in the old hedging.
    I remember the pond at the top of Fryent Way pretty much on Barn Hill I used to know the fishermen who were often there. There was a line of well established poplars and the whole place felt like the garden of a country house. As I remember what it was in fact was landscaping for a golf course that in the end didn’t go ahead. This would have been planned at the time of the Great Exhibition at Wembley. A lot of filming for film and tv took place up there there was always good food when film crew was about.

    Barn Hill was a good suburb there were lots of Japanese people living there and commuting into the city on the Met. Apparently at that time it was the most popular and economical venue for Asian city workers in London.

  11. Jan says:

    Jackie what you remembered as faux castles were, as you probably know maisonettes and flats built by a bloke who though born in Belfast lived and worked in NW9 for much of his life. I was always told he was a bit touched ( well crazy as a loon) but and I’ve,had to to do a bit of internet delving dig out the street names and found no mention of his been mentally ill.

    You know,if you walked along Kingsbury road toward that big junction of Roe Green
    and Slough Lane with the Green Man pub,set back on your right if you were approaching from the direction of the old open air. Swimming pool well he lived in that thatched house right on that junction. There are a few thatched homes there big houses not cottages,well they were his designs. Thinking on it those two houses I mentioned in the above bit near Roe Green village were probably his work .
    But his crowning achievements and they were startlers no doubt about it were his Castles up in Buck Lane Shirley court is about the most outlandish.Mr. T certainly went for it chimneys,disguised as castle turrets, other chimneys built in the style of medieval or Elizabethan manor houses. He must h a ‘ve got the,big book of European castle architecture out of the library leafed through it and started drawing. The thing is they are pretty good once you get used to them. Eccentric no doubt but bloody interesting. I’ve been in a fair few of them and as I remember it the eccentricities don’t stop at the,front door. Little bits of stairs going nowhere, cupboards like small rooms. Odd but fun.Again if this was in central London in one of the spots,Chris mentioned in his opening essay people would go WILD for them. Be worth millions. Mr
    T would be a man of international renown.

    And that Mr. F. brings me to my sad conclusion. These,architectural gems in the rough are inhabited by forgotten suburbanites and most likely they are falling apart at the,seams. Nobody really wants to live in this part of NW9. That’s the real tragedy of the suburbs. Suburbs in the main are unfashionable and forgotten. Who knows about the Heath Robinson museum in Pinner Park unless they are local? Great museum – great cafe be a great day out.
    . Who knows about Canon’s Park Lake or Headstone manor or hundreds of fantastic sites in local suburbs ….only the locals…The suburbs aren’t a wasteland at all. They are just the places that most of us can afford to live in you great numpty

  12. Jan says:

    Chris I ‘m right up there with you in the numpty stakes the architect’s name E c Trobridge LBB Brent have got details of walks that take in his work and trust me the flats are well worth a visit.
    So is Roe Green village. If you wander up Mollisson way you will find reminders of the massive,aircraft factories that used to be in this part of London. A few,years back there was a school that had part of one of t be aircraft works as a gymnasium.or something. Might well have gone by now.
    Remember the Met Police,training school and lodgings were based at Hendon because of Colindale/Hendon’s,proximity to the RAF airfields. One of the early 20th century commissioner’s of the Metropolis had visions of sticking serials of his men on planes and,sending them to assist the constabulabularies all around the UK.

  13. snowy says:

    Are you suggesting some sort of ‘Flying Squad’? Never work, how would you ever stack cardboard boxes high enough for them to smash though, for a start. And… and.. sliding across the bonnet, that spinny-choppy thing would definately have somebodies arm off.

    [Alright *serious-head on*, Flying columns were not unusual, since the Met were one of the few Police Forces that had sufficient numbers to supply them. Several times they were summoned from London into the Home Counties which were still on the old Parish Constable system even after the middle of the Century. The alternative would be to use the local Militia and that could cause things to really kick off.]

  14. Jan says:

    Just one last little thing concerning the,Met line – not even Metroland but the railway itself.

    Preston road station the station immediately after Wembley Park on the,stopping section of the Met -the section speeded through by the fast city trains -has a weird history. Before the very first London Olympics the White City Olympics which I think we’re in 1912(not completely sure about that) Preston Road station was a Halt on the opposite,site of Preston Road to where it is now sited and I think accessed via Elmstead Avenue. When I worked around,the area the original access point and yard to the old station was being used as a dairy. Very early each morning all the milk floats filled with crates left the depot in a sort of flotilla heading down the main road and then off in all directions. My mate Bernie insisted on calling this the display team and he reckoned with training the drivers,could be fashioned into the Red Arrows of the milk float world. Strange thoughts pass through your head at 0500 when you have been awake all night. Anyway I digress. The station /halt was shifted to the NW side of Preston Road because the whole station + pre dairy site in Elmstead avenue was used for an Olympic event shooting or archery in think it was. Again am a bit hazy on the actual sport that took place there. But about the only thing I’m really clear on is that the original station is still clearly visible as a massive lump of concrete covered for most of the summer by a mass of rosebay willow herb. It’s still there in the midst if the tracks just on the SE side of Preston road as you travel toward Wembley Park. The sports ground that still exists in the area around Silverhome close HA3 was used as a practice area for the Olympic athletes. See not a lot of people know that or want to know it I suppose…

  15. Jan says:

    You know I know,this is drivel but it’s very early I think I might have got that well mixed up the park that still exists might have been the Olympic venue and the dairy the practice site u’mmm

  16. Julie says:

    Still trying to get my head around the concept of a Disney village. Nope. Can’t be done!

  17. Julie says:

    As for semi-detached I don’t think I have ever seen them anywhere else, Brian – went on the site Jan mentioned then got onto British heritage and it seems the arts and crafts movement are mainly to blame. Also feel the net was created for and by insomniacs 🙂

  18. Jan says:

    White City Olympics,1908

  19. Anne Fernie says:

    I guess Joel Garreau identified this phenomenon of the soulless conurbation surrounding cities as ‘Edge City’ back in the 1990s but you don’t mention the initial utopic imperative of the Garden City movement & pioneers like Ebeneezer Howard in 1902 who saw planned suburbs (with mandatory ‘belts’ of countryside between them and the city) such as Letchworth and Welwyn as holistic areas containing work and leisure i.e. the perfect fusion of urban and countryside living. Interesting that the ‘cranky’ Letchworth residents were roundly mocked at the time. Compare this to the post Olympic plans for the ‘village’ and one does despair somewhat……

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