Suburbia: Taking a Different View

It’s so easy to let one’s mind fossilize. Over the years one accumulates opinions and these tend to become more fixed and rigid with time. And I don’t know how others feel, but I find that in these days when the politics surrounding the Brexit debate and Trump’s often nauseating Tweets seem to dominate all aspects of the news, that my opinions have gradually shifted leftwards. I don’t think this shift owes much to rationality, but is more a natural reaction to lies, overweening ambition, arrogance and spin. There is something so deeply repellent about the tone of modern political debate. So it was nice to open a book and find my fixed views on a subject that has long been a part of my life were being challenged and changed, not by physical and emotional revulsion, but by fine writing, observation and above all else, by humanity. It has been so refreshing.

Persistent followers of this blog may recall that four and a half years ago I wrote a post about a book that Maisie lent me. It was by the playwright and novelist R.C. Sherriff who is still principally remembered for his play Journey’s End (1929), which was based around his letters home from the trenches of WW1. The book I discussed back in 2013 was The Fortnight in September, which was published in 1931. I loved that modest account of a family’s seaside holiday in the inter-war years and I also liked the look and shape of the book itself, which was republished with great care and obvious affection by Persephone Books. Maisie often orders books from Persephone; indeed, we have been known to call in at their offices and bookshop near Covent Garden, when I have to visit my own publisher, Allen Lane/Penguin, nearby in the Strand. The book Maisie has just lent me was Persephone’s republication of another R.C. Sherriff novel, this time a little longer than A Fortnight in September, which appeared five years later, in 1936. The book in question is simply titled Greengates. And if your Christmas plans are still lacking a good read (because the TV listings look dire – endless repeats – and the News is barely tolerable), then I strongly suggest you order a copy immediately. I can promise that you won’t be disappointed. I’m even thinking about dipping into it again, but first I must go through the page-proofs of my new book for Penguin, which will be published in the New Year.

My interest in landscape history remains with me and I can never take a train journey without trying to work out the history of a town’s recent development, just by looking at the streets and houses around the station. That’s one of the reasons I like taking slow trains: you get to see places – and people. Some expresses go so fast these days that you might as well be on a plane. I remember being fascinated by the history of Metroland when I was researching The Making of the British Landscape. Metroland was the blanket name given to the inner London suburbs, principally in Buckinghamshire, that were built as a direct result of London underground’s Metropolitan Railway being extended out of town. Most of this happened in the 1930s, and I published a map of the new urban – or rather suburban sprawl – that was a direct result of London’s rapid pre-war growth. And of course I will always remember the late John Betjeman’s great TV documentary film (1973) and poem Metroland – both of which influenced me considerably. Here’s the map I published in The Making of the British Landscape:


The unchecked development of London’s suburbs in the 1930s was ultimately to lead to the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, which introduced the much needed (and today more than ever before!) idea of the Green Belt and which brought an end to the one house- or bungalow-wide ribbon development, which did so much to hide and then to destroy the rural landscape around London and other large cities. Urban sprawl, however, tends to grow relentlessly and as a lifelong countryman I have to say I have watched in horror as the fields and meadows I played in as a child have vanished under new housing estates. In the 1950s most of the houses seemed to be council houses and I can remember my uncle, who was the big landowner in the Hertfordshire village where I grew up, even gave land for a council estate. There was a wide appreciation that people who had sacrificed so much during the War deserved something better. It was a variant of the ‘Homes for Heroes’ theme that prevailed in the 1920s, after WW1.Then in the 1970s, things began to change: in 1980 Maggie Thatcher introduced the tenants’ right to buy council homes; in the following two decades, affordable council-style homes became less common and instead we saw the arrival of larger, more luxurious buildings – culminating in some of the massive six- and seven-bedroomed “Executive Homes” that are now such a feature of the scene in both rural and urban fringe settings. Incidentally, these horrid houses have multiple garages for spotless Range Rovers, but never deign to have vegetable gardens – how weird!

So over the years I have developed a rather simplistic view of housing development: green fields = good: houses = bad – which of course is ludicrous, but that’s what happened. More recently we’ve seen the appearance of affordable housing in several of the villages near where we live in rural south Lincolnshire and I have to say it’s fine. In fact, we need more of it. Much more, if our rural communities are to continue to thrive and not to become expensive dormitories for second-homers and rich retirees. So what about the great mass of younger people who are now desperate for somewhere to live: how does my rather unbalanced view of the current housing situation regard them? And this is where R.C. Sheriff’s Greengates comes in. Sheriff was writing about a time when developers invariably built their own houses and yes, they earned good money, but not vast fortunes. There was little incentive to buy up land and hoard it for future – even more profitable – development. All in all, things were a bit saner. There were fewer people with financial interests, no third parties were doubling ground-rents on leaseholds. And purchasers were more naïve: they viewed their new homes as somewhere to live and not as a potentially very risky investment – which must take 80% of the pleasure out of house purchase nowadays. I found it a tiny bit scary even when I started house-buying in 1980, but that was nothing to what it must be like today.

Greengates is about a recently retired couple who buy and move into a new house on a new development – part of a Metroland-like scheme, in once wooded countryside. It’s precisely the sort of development I came to dislike so strongly when I was researching into the later chapters of The Making of the British Landscape. But Sheriff describes the couple and their excitement at the prospect of their new home so sympathetically that I actually found myself on the side of the developer. He may have been a bit of a greedy capitalist (and he certainly hadn’t become a builder for philanthropic reasons alone), but he must have been aware that he was giving people pleasure and providing them with hope for the future.

So were there any lessons here for the future? Only one that I could spot: that profit should not be the only objective of people in business. To listen to some right-wing Tory politicians today, you might think it was the be-all and end-all of life. But it’s a view that is so patronising and so demeaning. Most decent people (and that includes all of the many business-men and -women I have met over the years) would want to be remembered for more than just the profits they earned: for the employment they provided and yes, for their many satisfied customers, too. Somehow we need to inject more of that spirit, that ethos, into the cut-throat world of house-building and property development. It might lead to better, more enlightened, Planning, too. And who knows, maybe we’ll even see the re-appearance of vegetable gardens!

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