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