You grab what you can these days. This morning, I was momentarily mesmerised by colours – rich, pulsating, vivacious colours eternally immune to the latest tawdry vagaries of mankind, colours that keep providing free entertainment whatever happens to be going on around them. Dependable and reliable, they’ll always be there in the autumn, regardless of what we and our elected idiots deem important; to pause and study these transient, organic works of art is a worthwhile exercise, if only as a necessary reminder that there’s more to life than this. Of course, October morphing into November is the time of the year in which Mother Nature’s immortal garden is at its most exquisite, offering a greater range of the rainbow’s wide variety than during any other season. Not intending to ape Monty Don, I was engaged in something that has become an increasing rarity of late – an outdoor venture that didn’t require entering a retail outlet as a central aim of the excursion. This meant I was spared having to cover the lower half of my face and every step left me free to breathe my surroundings.

I strayed farther afield from the usual hunting grounds and ghosted through gated communities like the late, great Martin Peters used to ghost through opposition defences. Incidentally, these are the kind of neighbourhoods that tend to be home to provincial footballers who may never be selected to play for their countries but can nevertheless boast the kind of monthly take-home pay most need a full year to earn. Big houses representing all suburban styles of the past 100 years or so could be sighted behind high hedges and walls – Victorian, Edwardian, Tudorbethan, and the archetypal 21st century castle of the self-made man, lacking any semblance of taste, aesthetic appeal or class when the only architectural way is Essex; there was something for everyone as long as you’ve got the wads to become the freeholder, and that rules out everyone most people know, I guess. I may have once pictured myself as a Howard Hughes-like figure patrolling the battlements, but I remain firmly in my designated scuffed shoes as the urchin with his nose pressed against the alluring window.

There’s a certain timelessness to such places; the suburbs were frozen around half-a-century ago, and though the hidden-from-view residents may change (if at a more gradual pace than anywhere else), the absence of contemporary Reggie Perrin’s has had no discernible impact on the visual stasis which streets like these slipped into back when Sunshine Desserts had yet to go bust. The urban environment and its irredeemably ugly pavement furniture alters on a regular basis – usually going from bad to worse; but the suburbs still look much the same as they did when I was a child. In this purely visual respect, they tend to generate a comforting continuity apparently impervious to the march of time. They are the last survivors of a different age, clandestine portals to the past clinging on in clusters of leafy bubbles dotted around the fringes of densely-populated conurbations. Clocks go backwards and clocks go forwards, tick follows tock and so on – and the suburbs are still standing.

The only indication of the here and now I received on my travels today was a post box that had an official-looking sticker on it that proclaimed not only was it ‘prioritised’ but it also supported the NHS. A post box with a social conscience – you don’t get that on yer average council estate, eh? I felt compelled to clap for it, but resisted the temptation. Bar the odd student going from A to B, most faces I spotted in snatches as brief as that of the odd squirrel darting across branches looked like they were aged between 60 and 70 – the socially-mobile generation reclining in the now-unimaginable fruits of their distant labours. For some reason – the demands of grandchildren, perhaps – goalposts figure highly in the glimpses of sunken gardens on the other side of the divide separating queen’s highway from private kingdom. I remember, many years ago, ‘Blue Peter’ visited Elton John’s house and he had a full-sized football pitch in the grounds of his estate; it seemed like the sort of extravagance only a millionaire could indulge in, but now even those who are paupers next to Elton can emulate such extravagance, albeit on a smaller scale – just as they once peppered their miniature greenbelts with gnomes.

Perhaps goalposts in the garden are the only real addition to the suburbs’ exterior decor in recent years; otherwise, it’s as you were. In fact, it is maybe the uniquely unchanging and unmistakable uniformity of Suburbia that is its secret weapon; it has a canny camouflage that enables the visitor to pass through without even noticing what he’s passing through, familiar to the point of invisibility. I’ve no doubt been guilty myself on endless occasions, though now I notice – and appreciate – such surroundings more and more, probably because each successive day seems to detach me further from ‘the modern world’ and its rapidly diminishing checklist of attractions. In the same way my indoor life of the last six months has lived off a menu of comfort food for eyes and ears – whether watching ‘The Sweeney’ or listening to Julie London and Peggy Lee – my outdoor life, for what it is, has been rationed as bite-sized portions of automated and ultimately joyless shopping on one hand and rare meanderings like today on the other.

In the great scheme of things, my morning amounted to absolutely nothing; but at least I had a moment in which I ground to a halt and simply looked at all the shades of green and brown and orange and red around me and felt briefly connected to something – what, precisely, I don’t really know. I guess it was a momentary plugging-in to that sense of basic wonderment we have with nature as a child, one we lose the longer we live and the more blasé we become with what’s around us so that it sheds its initial magic. One receives a routine reminder whenever seeing a toddler out with its mother as it points dramatically at a snail on the ground, announcing its presence as though the modest mollusc is the most amazing sight those infant eyes have ever set upon; the unimpressed parent has seen a hundred snails and hurries the child along, incapable of being transfixed in the same way. I played the parent to my own child once my moment had gone by resuming the walk home; the moment swiftly drifted from my consciousness as I edged away from the tranquil vortex of the suburbs and returned to the petrol-scented cacophony of a congested thoroughfare

So, back to a world in which those who govern certain corners of the kingdom decide what and what aren’t ‘essential items’ whilst others advocate applying Hate Crime laws to private conversations, where tampon manufacturers refer to their customers as ‘people who bleed’, and where a crumbling superpower forces its people to choose between a crass bully and a geriatric sex-pest to lead it towards tomorrow. If those are the options, who can really blame me – or anyone – for finding something of value in the extraordinary ordinary?

© The Editor


Many of us – me included – would equate the word ‘normal’ with the word ‘boring’, but there is an accolade for which normality is rewarded in terms of a town or city. Following one of those endless statistical surveys that often seem to be undertaken by men without girlfriends, Didcot in Oxfordshire has been named ‘the most normal town in England’. Didcot has few claims to fame, which one suspects aids its qualification for this dubious title. Radiohead didn’t form in Didcot, but formed in nearby Abingdon (former Parliamentary constituency of Colditz survivor and terrorist victim, Airey Neave). It says everything about a town’s cultural landscape that one of the world’s biggest bands didn’t emanate from it, but formed ‘nearby’.

So, what put Didcot on the map? Well, not its glamorous old power station, which closed after 43 years of service in 2013. Okay, so what, then? Well, perhaps it makes sense to name the rest of the contenders for this award. To the strains of the ‘Pick of the Pops’ theme, here’s the top five: At No.5, it’s East Leake in Nottinghamshire; No.4 is Southwick, West Sussex; up to No.3, Worcester’s very own Bath Road area; a non-mover at No.2 for Droitwich Spa in Worcestershire; and straight in at No.1 goes Didcot – not ‘arf!

Chances are, unless you were either born in or reside in these locations, you’ve never heard of them; and I guess that’s the point. Didcot fits the bill more than any other town in England because it apparently embodies all the contemporary statistics of the nation’s averages – age, income, house prices, property ownership, marital status, ethnicity, employment, and (of course) Euro-scepticism. I suppose if an Ealing comedy about a dull suburban settlement was made today, Didcot would be the ideal location.

David Bowie once reflected on his time growing up in Bromley, the archetypal cultural wasteland of a Greater London suburb, by holding it responsible for his desperate desire to make his mark; despite Bowie’s discernible despair over the absence of excitement in his formative playground, his comments suggest it was the perfect place for him to be, in that it gave him a reason to escape. His parents obviously regarded it as a step-up from his birthplace of Brixton, and for them it was.

The suburbs meant something different for those who had fought the war, of course; for them, they represented progress and social-climbing, symbolic of how far they’d come – the ‘Shangri-La’ Ray Davies wrote of. A yearning for the quiet life was understandable after 1945 and all the elements that constituted such an existence for many with an eye on simple pleasures could be found in suburban living. I guess cleaning one’s car on a Sunday morning, followed by the ritual mowing of the lawn, was preferable to the beaches of Dunkirk or Normandy, though the children who didn’t have that experience to measure their own lives by could find their parents’ pebble-dashed Nirvana a stifling and repressive environment lacking the exotic allure of Hollywood or rock ‘n’ roll.

If the appeal of the suburbs for the wartime generation can therefore be explained, one wonders what their appeal remains for the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of that generation. Perhaps the ‘Broken Britain’ narrative of the Conservative Party in recent years, coupled with the horror stories of urban living as pedalled by the party’s Fleet Street representatives, has played its part in the rebirth of the suburbs as the preferred destination for those who can actually afford to purchase property there. The suburbs are seen as a safe place to raise children, and raising children is of course the patriotic duty of every Englishman and woman, lest the economy crashes for lack of future consumers.

A town such as Didcot appears to represent this ideal, and being awarded the title of ‘the most normal town in England’ has been greeted with euphoria by people whose job it is to promote the place. Steve Connel, the Mayor of Didcot, has referred to the conclusions of the survey as ‘tremendous’. In response to the findings, he said: ‘We have a very diverse group in Didcot…people who work hard, get on with their lives, and do everything they can to advance the community, and if the spirit represented in Didcot is considered normal across Britain, then I think we’re in tremendous shape.’ It sounds as if Nick Clegg’s ‘Alarm Clock Britain’ has its synchronised heartbeat in Didcot.

The suburbs tend to spawn some of our greatest creative mavericks and artistic innovators because the unique dullness of the suburbs provides rebels with something to kick against and get away from ASAP. It’s no great coincidence that another generation from the same location Bowie broke out of underwent the same sensations a decade-and-a bit later, including Siouxsie Sioux, Billy Idol and Poly Styrene. Much earlier, HG Wells had such contempt for his own suburban upbringing that he inflicted the ultimate revenge upon Woking by making it the site where the Martian invaders land in ‘The War of the Worlds’ and do their first damage to the planet.

Nevertheless, if it’s a quiet and uneventful life you crave and if you have the cash to fund it, why not head for Didcot? As long as friendly bombs are still falling on Slough alone, you should be alright.

© The Editor


1The annual survey by the Sunday Times to name the most perfect place to live in Britain has revealed the winner. Hold on a minute, Grimsby, Workington and Hartlepool – and step forward Winchester. According to the compilers of the survey, Hampshire’s county town offers ‘a tasty slice of authentic history, with great transport links and fine schools. It also has an irresistible mix of food, festivals and feel-good factor.’ I’ve no reason to doubt this brief summary of Winchester’s plus points; though I’ve never visited this most perfect of places, I know enough about the Home Counties to recognise a uniquely English ideal of picturesque beauty when I hear it described.

So, let’s all go live there, yeah? If you’ve got around £715,000, you can pick up a nice detached property for yourself; roughly £444,000 will get you a terraced property; and if you can only stretch to a flat, just over £300,000 will do. I’m already there. Not as much as the pricier corners of the capital, true; but considerably costlier than Burnley, where the average house price is around £40,000. Hands up who’d rather relocate to urban Lancashire.

As in the old Miss United Kingdom contest, each geographical region of the country has its nominees for this prestigious contest. Ballycastle in County Antrim received the Northern Irish vote; Wales had Penarth in the Vale of Glamorgan; Scotland got Stockbridge in Edinburgh; for London, it was Fitzrovia; the South East pick was Midhurst in West Sussex; the South West was Falmouth in Cornwall; Orford in Suffolk was the choice for the East; the Midlands got Ledbury in Hertfordshire; Oop North saw Harrogate named for the North East (even though it’s in Yorkshire), and Whalley in Lancashire was the North West’s representative.

The factors taken into account when compiling such a survey are such things as crime rates, house prices and the performance of schools, all of which suggests a specific demographic are the target audience for the tourist boards of the respective locations. Couples in well-paid professions with (or intending to have) children clearly figure highly in the list of desirables. Spinsters with a brood of cats or bachelors with a library of 90s porn videos are probably not as welcome; okay, so I know I’m generalising terribly, but it makes for convenient (if admittedly lazy) shorthand. It’s something of a given that everyone would – or should – want to live somewhere that isn’t going to be populated by feral hoodies or street-corner crack-dealers and isn’t constructed entirely of concrete. Though it may surprise the electorate in David Cameron’s constituency, not many of the people who reside in such neighbourhoods actually want to live there either. But most of them have no choice.

Personally, I like the ground to be coloured green and I also like stepping outdoors and not inhaling enough petrol fumes to power a fleet of juggernauts. Born into a densely-packed urban area with factory chimneys pumping toxic discharge into the atmosphere and coating the surrounding houses in a grimy patina of dirt, it’s no wonder my mother says I was always sniffy as an infant; it’s a miracle children weren’t still issued with gas-masks in the early 70s. Of course, the majority of the industries that rendered the North such a Dark Satanic landscape for over a century have now all disappeared. Those factories that weren’t demolished stood derelict for decades before being converted into luxury apartments, sturdy Victorian constructions competing for the attention of the Young Professional with twenty-first century towers. Service industries superseded the manufacturing ones to attract investment; and thus the Northern Powerhouse was born!

Forgive me if I don’t get too celebratory over this fact, unlike the council running one of the North’s most neglected cities, Hull, as they prepare to turn a metropolis boasting an impressive collection of boarded-up businesses and shops into a City of Culture. Winchester must be crapping its pants at the prospect. Of course, I’m sure Hull has its scenic areas just as well as its shit-holes, as most big cities do; indeed, some might argue the ‘edge of the world’ feel that the bleak grey vista of the North Sea generates possesses a beauty of its own, albeit one that has more in common with Scandinavia, a part of Europe much closer to Hull than Hampshire. No wonder it appealed to Philip Larkin.

Beyond the undoubted allure of the Green and Pleasant Land evident in the South East, not to mention all the social elements that contributed towards Winchester’s poll-topping position, what is it that makes a location truly great? New York was bordering on the brink of bankruptcy in the mid-70s, degenerating into the sewer so eloquently described by Travis Bickle in ‘Taxi Driver’, and yet that turbulent period in the history of the Big Apple produced Blondie, Patti Smith, The Ramones, Talking Heads and Television. When the Mersey Beat sound conquered the Hit Parade (as they used to say) in 1963, it sprang from a city containing thousands of homes officially labelled as not fit for human habitation. Sheffield was undergoing the painful decline of its traditional industry when it spawned The Human League, Heaven 17, ABC, Pulp and…erm…Def Leppard, and Coventry wasn’t exactly a boomtown when 2 Tone exploded into life.

Naturally, for those who weren’t forming future chart-topping bands in New York, Liverpool, Sheffield or Coventry, life was hard and the appeal of somewhere like Winchester would have been understandable if what one sought from life was a good job, a home of one’s own in a crime-free neighbourhood, and children that could receive an education that wasn’t a prep school for prison. Let’s face it, that’s what most people seem to want from life, so it’s not fair that so many of them will never taste that ‘tasty slice of authentic history, with great transport links and fine schools’. At one time, maybe – just maybe – social mobility might have made the dream a possibility, however faint. But that kind of mobility has been slowing down to a stationary position in the last few years, and the likelihood of it gathering speed again, let alone hitting the M3, seems sadly remote.

© The Editor