On the edge

In his 1934 work, English Journey, the writer JB Priestley spoke of three Englands. The first, the so-called ‘real, enduring England’ was the traditional bucolic vision – ‘the country of the cathedrals and ministers and manor houses and inns’.

Then came the England of the industrial revolution, which ‘found a green and pleasant land and left a wilderness of dirty bricks’.

Finally, there came the modern England ‘of arterial and bypass of filling stations and factories that look like exhibition buildings, of giant cinemas and dance-halls and cafes, bungalows with tiny garages, cocktail bars and Woolworths.’  Its birthplace, he felt, must have been America. But its English location was very much the new and sprawling realm of suburbia.

One of the many remarkable things about Danny Boyle’s Technicolor Olympic Opening Ceremony was just how easily it transposed onto Priestley’s vision. And despite Boyle’s clear adoration for the technology and mobility – social and racial – of contemporary Britain, it was striking how much the imagery of the other Englands dominated coverage.

This is the animating concern of Rupa Huq’s fascinating new book On the Edge: The Contested Cultures of English Suburbia. Despite around 50 per cent of England’s population residing in the suburbs, both the popular and the political consciousness is monopolised by metropolitan thinking. As she correctly points out early on, both New Labour and the Tories before them dedicated much head-scratching to inner city challenges. The suburbs however, were largely neglected. Over some 200 pages of meticulously researched and accessible sociology Huq seeks to rectify this imbalance.

There is much to recommend here, particularly for the academically inclined. However, the casual reader should be warned: this is serious sociology and carries with it many of the stylistic conventions of that academic discipline. Fortunately however, Huq has lost none of the lightness of touch she displayed in 2006’s Beyond Subculture, pebble-dashing her chapters with deft pop-culture references and employing a well-paced, lively tone. The chapters are neatly divided thematically and the analysis ranges across gender, ethnicity, class, religion, lifestyle, consumerism, family life, gentrification, property relations, political representation, city life and globalisation.

The methodology could perhaps have been improved if Huq had managed to escape Manchester or London (the bulk of the research is conducted in Chorlton, Southall, Dagenham, Ealing and Kingston) and considered somewhere like Rotherham – Julian Baggini’s ‘everytown’. Globalisation has a different rhythm outside bigger cities, particularly those (unlike, by and large, London and Manchester) that have been ransacked by the recession. However, Huq is nothing if not aware of the diversity and heterogeneity of the new suburban environment. And her portrayal of how globalisation in particular is beginning to shape it is persuasive.

Yet as well challenging the representation of the suburbs in traditional cultural narratives this book also offers a powerful political argument. Huq seeks not just to resuscitate suburbia, but to rehabilitate it as a political concern of the left.

It is this argument I expect that will most interest Progress readers. The left’s relationship with suburbia has long been complicated. Certainly, Huq is right to detect that for many of our thinkers ‘surburban’ is a pejorative, a shorthand for conformity, consumerism and, worst of all, conservatism. In a technique common throughout her book, she prefaces the introduction of a new argument with an insightful quote, this time from Billy Bragg: ‘the kind of people who live there [suburbia] 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.’

George Orwell was just as dismissive. In Coming Up for Air, the narrator George Bowling describes his suburban street as ‘a prison with the cells all in a row. A line of semi-detached torture chambers where the five-to-ten-pound-a-weekers quake and shiver’. Even Priestley was at best ambivalent, admiring the democracy and energy of the new suburban England but describing it as ‘a bit too cheap’.

But suburban England was shaped by the utopian ideals of those on the left. The spirit of Joseph Chamberlain’s municipalism was eagerly embraced by the socialists on the turn-of-the-century London county council. Indeed, the beautification of London’s suburbs with parks, open spaces, public libraries, museums, art galleries, bath-houses and wonderful town halls was one our movement’s earliest defining achievements. Even Orwell himself noted, albeit sniffily, that Letchworth Garden City appeared to be a magnet for do-gooding socialists. Improving suburbia is in our heritage and Huq is right to suggest it should also be in our blood.

Then there are the politics. Of course, noting that suburbs outside of our northern heartlands is where the 2010 election was lost is not a novel observation. But in order to reconnect with this territory, the aspirations of its people need to be authentically understood. Our last decisive victory here in 1997 was heavily influenced by the thinking of Philip Gould, whose introduction to The Unfinished Revolution, ‘The Land that Labour Forgot’, remains one of the most powerful arguments for connecting our party with the concerns and aspirations of suburbia. Philip instinctively understood those concerns and yet sociological forces have wreaked significant change to these communities. In providing a compelling guide to that change this book is a must-read for anyone interested in our 2015 strategy.

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Tristram Hunt is a historian and MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central

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On the Edge: The Contested Cultures of English Suburbia is published by Lawrence & Wishart | £15.99 | 224pp

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