Twitching curtains

Park and Ride: Adventures in Suburbia

Miranda Sawyer <em>Little, Brown, 310pp, £14.99</em>


What an original wheeze to poke fun at those who live behind the net curtains of Britain's disorderly suburbia; to have a good laugh at the ridiculous Bufton Tuftons at the local golf club, the Joans and Jeffs who wife-swap, the people who want to keep their neighbourhoods clean and free from crime, the Sharons and Mandys who have no hope of living for anything but Friday-night dancing around their handbags at the local nightspot.

How has this hinterland of C1s and C2s been allowed to fall so far behind the cosmopolitan irony and exhaustive search for self-fulfilment that the rest of us are so involved with? In order to find out, the, ahem, "hip" journalist Miranda Sawyer takes the low road in her travels around suburban Britain (principally the north-west of England, where she grew up), adopting the tone of a trendoid who never fitted in there but who can now go back and cast a wry eye over the territory of her childhood. But for all her supposed spikiness there is nothing here but a litany of smart-alec tales told in the clotted tone of an uninspired Victoria Wood sketch: the homegirl who knows that little bit more, who assumes a jocular familiarity with her subject matter only to show she's in on the great cosmic joke of their lives.

Sawyer, unlike Wood, overpacks her overnight bag, forgets to leave her preconceptions behind and comes up with some fairly undevastating conclusions. It's easy, for instance, to go into a ladies' changing-room and find volunteers squabbling over whose turn it is to be on the door, or over to a men's pub table to hear them poking buffoonish fun at one another. A local Wilmslow interiors mag, Style, gets it in the neck; there's a plodding visit to the Trafford Park mall; an attempt at celebrating the life of her grandmother that verges on mawkish pastiche; and, most disastrously, a rabbit punch in the direction of Heritage Britain.

Sawyer seldom pauses long enough to ask the people she meets about their lives, loves and fears, and she constantly separates herself from her predictable subject matter. So, for instance, on wife-swapping we get the disclaimer: "I was hugely self-absorbed when I was younger: there could have been an orgy involving the whole of our street, including all our pets, all going at it hammer-and-fondue set in our kitchen, and as long as I could get to the chocolate spread, I don't think I'd have noticed."

Given the level of insipid in-jokery, it's perhaps not surprising that Sawyer failed to interrogate the very real decline of British suburbia, to ask why and how millions can go into the rejuvenation of our cities while suburbia is allowed to rot away; how once suburbia did represent a kind of Utopian developmental ideal, which became derailed through lack of investment and seismic changes in the service economy (most extremely represented by out-of-town shopping centres). But there is no evidence of any historical research here at all. Sawyer's conclusion is as sniping and ill-informed as the rest of the book - basically, suburbanites want everything compartmentalised and nothing nasty or different on the side. That may be true, but it may be equally true of many people living elsewhere. Anyhow, such a conclusion hardly moves the story of suburbia - and the alienation it now embraces - any further forward. Like the suburbs themselves, Sawyer's book represents a missed opportunity.

Tim Teeman is a former editor of the "Pink Paper"

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