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29 July 2023

For the first time I see the point of suburbs

Forced back to my childhood home by circumstance, I find it has changed – albeit slowly – and now I can enjoy the space and old pubs.

By Jonn Elledge

A few weeks ago now, before my life imploded, I had had a plan of sorts for this summer. I had just finished writing my new book, again (one of the things no one ever tells you about writing books is that you think you’ve finished a whole lot more frequently than you actually have); and having written three of the things in a little over three years, and being a generally lucky and privileged sort, I decided I could probably allow myself to take some time off. So I’d planned to dedicate the next few months largely to just walking and listening to audiobooks, refilling the tanks and hopefully losing a few pounds, too. By the autumn, I’d assumed, I’d have been bored out of my mind, and ready to tear into something new again. I was looking forward to it.

The walking part has gone to plan – my lovely, ridiculous dog Henry Scampi and I are clocking up the miles every day – but very little else has. Instead of the golden summer I was hoping for, it’s grey and clammy, the air like soup. Bereaved, the thing I am using the walks to think through is not what work I might care to do next, but how to go on without her at all. And having relocated to my mother’s while I get my head together, I’m not walking along stretches of coast, or crossing the length and breadth of London, as I’d imagined, but pottering around a few dozen streets within a mile or two of the homes I grew up in. In multiple senses, I am not where I thought I would be.

For as long as I can remember, I always hated the suburbs. They were dull and grey and stultifying: a place to escape, rather than one to come home to. To some extent this was a reaction to the specific suburbs I grew up in: Havering, the capital’s easternmost and whitest borough, which is temperamentally more Essex than London, and didn’t just vote Leave but 70 per cent Leave. With my politics and my pretensions, it just never felt very me. Mostly, though, it was the same impulse to escape that every teenager knows all too well. Big cities drain the life and colour from the towns that surround them: to grow up in the suburbs is to always feel that real life is happening just over there. As soon as I could, I left.

[See also: Everything is Clapham now]

Now I find myself forced back by circumstance, though, there’s something oddly comforting about it. The streets are largely neat, broad and clean; the people are friendly and helpful, chatty but not too chatty. Romford, a medieval market town in origin, has a couple of genuinely lovely old pubs (the best one’s the Ship), and a few nice parks which, in a rare upside of austerity, have been improved by the “rewilding” intended to reduce the maintenance costs. The Gidea Park exhibition estate – a garden suburb constructed in 1910-11 in a range of architectural styles, to highlight quite how wonderful town planning could be – is a thing I entirely ignored as a kid, because what kind of kid cares about town planning? But it’s proved a lovely place to walk an over-enthusiastic dog.

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Maybe I’ve reached a time of life in which I can see the point of the middlebrow things that once put me off; maybe I’m just reaching back to a time before any of this happened. Then again, maybe things have changed. The area is visibly more diverse than it was, and – thanks to the wonders of the Elizabeth Line, which means it’s now one train away from essentially all of central London – likely to become more so. That, plus relatively affordable housing, means it’ll probably start trending leftwards, too: that might come as a shock to an area where not so long ago Labour was the sixth biggest faction on the council behind the Tories, Ukip and a plethora of different residents’ associations.

Things here do seem to happen on a time delay from proper London – it took until about 15 years ago for it to get Turkish restaurants; now craft beer, sushi places and Instagram-friendly independent cafes are the order of the day – but it nonetheless feels quite a different place to the one where I grew up. One Monday a few weeks back I popped into the pub closest to my mum’s, once famed, perhaps unfairly, as the local villains’ place. It was full of earnest nerds playing board games.

There have been moments these last few weeks (that was not one of them) when I’ve even caught myself half-wondering whether there may come a time to move back. The city, and everything I want from it, is in easy reach; but for the price of my one-bed zone 2 flat I could get an actual house, with stairs and a garden and space. All of this, of course, was the original selling point of suburbia in the first place.

But no – or at least, not yet. Even before any of this, I knew it was time to take a breath before making any big decisions: that counts all the more so, now I’m broken by grief. A bigger home, far from our friends, for just my dog and myself feels ridiculous, an overreaction to loss of the family home my partner and I had planned to buy together and now never will.

So, no. I will not be moving back to the suburbs any time soon. For the first time, though, I can kind of see the point.

[See also: Can you ever escape from London? I doubt it]

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