I grew up in suburbia and I still don’t understand certain elements of it. There’s a certain vagueness, a blankness, and I get this very strongly from my family. The pictures my family had on their walls, I never got the sense they liked them, that they bought them, that somebody had given them to them. It was almost as though they had always been there, and yet no one had ever looked at them. I remember sitting there looking at some of these things going, 'What the hell is that? What are those resin grapes? Where did they get them? What does it mean?'
Growing up in suburbia was like growing up in a place where there's no sense of history, no sense of culture, no sense of passion for anything. You never felt people liked music. There was no showing of emotion. It was very strange. 'Why is that there? What am I sitting on?' You never felt there was any attachment to things. So you were either forced to conform and cut out a large portion of your personality, or to develop a very strong interior life that made you feel separate.
I didn’t grow up in suburbia but I have shared Burton’s unease with it. My own childhood was a bohemian yuppy blend as my enterprising parents swung between eighties-tastic dinner parties where my mum wore huge shoulder pads and my dad served Del Boy cocktails and a rural idyll where we grew raised chickens as a hobby and we kids ran wild as our parents parented by letting us just get on with growing up. And for a few years as a teenager as I struggled between the ages of a desire for independence and passing my driving test, I told them I hated them for raising me in a house in the middle of nowhere within the Vale of York, I hankered after the friends who lived in what I termed civilisation.
Of course there’s both everything and nothing civilised about suburbia. In as much as civilisation subdues our nature in order to allow everyone to rub along together, suburbia is very civilised but equally it strikes one as devoid of the things that make society flourish and be more than base level civil. I don’t think Burton takes it too far when he characterises suburbia as creepy.
And yet I have decided to take a leap and throw myself back into this world. At the weekend my mother came to stay with us and at my request took me into the suburban paradise that brings fear to my heart, the garden centre. So entrenched is my view that garden centres represent all that is “nice and civilised”, I’ve largely set my novel about necrophilia around a garden centre. We bought plants (surprisingly enough) and then set about making the front garden look like all the others on our road. The back garden is a touch more personal but that’s largely because of its geography that attracted me to the house and some lanterns brought back from Malaysia that hang out there. Tonight I washed my car on the drive, watered the pot plants and smiled at my new neighbours. While slightly tempted to break into a cover of The Wetspots, I mostly seemed like them and even perused the Avon catalogue that came through the door this week (I’m going to buy the giant snakes and ladders for the kids).
Am I scared? Hell yes! My previous three homes were a tower block in Kuala Lumpur which was mostly populated by Iranians and was situated on the corner of Chinatown while claiming a Bukit Bintang postcode (very Far East Notting Hill of the 90s I like to think), a house share with insane Lithuanians and a bedsit in Gloucester’s “ghetto” and in turn, I loved them all. I’m comfortable with corner shops that don’t serve alcohol but have six kinds of flatbread and I like quirky architecture. The house I now live in has something so horrible I shudder to type it... it has... an integrated garage.
Am I being unfair? Perhaps, but I dallied with suburbia once before and it sucked the soul from me. I loved the dingy ground floor flat with the massive overgrown garden I lived in as a student and the larger, more “pleasant” (yuck) homes that followed got worse and worse. Arguably the descent from creativity linked heavily to the same soul-sucking relationship and it is with that view that I’ve chosen to venture forth into this new life.
One might ask why I chose to. After all, I could have stayed in the city centre and found a better flat. The choice came from a realisation that I wanted aspects of the life; I wanted a kitchen to bake in, a garden for the kids to play in and enough living space to entertain in. I was annoyed at not having anywhere to store a vacuum cleaner and thus having to borrow the boyfriends’ and I wanted space to wash my car. I wanted some outside space and to hear birds other that the bastard seagulls that swarm Gloucester. I wanted a three-bedroomed house in a nice area, a decent bit of garden and yet close enough to town for Pizza Hut delivery and reasonable taxis after a night out.
Suburbia it would have to be and I admit I like the garden and the big rooms. I like the short walk to a nice Indian takeaway and having an Avon lady. I like how quiet it is and that our next door neighbours lent me some garden sacks when I cut the hedge. I don’t like the caravans in driveways or that I feel assessed by the old people walking their dogs past our house but it seems a small price to pay.
I’m not convinced I’d like to be stuck here forever but therein lies the cure; suburbia can be an excuse to get struck and I’ve done that before. This time I’m going in with my eyes wide open and my defences up. As long as my geraniums flower, everything will be ok.
For more on suburban bliss, I now have a blog about my personal life: Living with Jimmy Choo