For a period of my life it felt like I lived there, neither home, nor a life, but a separate world sustained by its own self-sufficiency, a pre-fabricated Macondo. I remember one day in particular; I was fourteen. It was Christmas and here – as, I suspect, in Bluewater, Meadowhall, Morfa and Gyle – there was a grotto; the music of festive habit; and the fragmented sparkle of lights that are less about the material effect of brightness but more the shimmer of keeping an atmosphere we could all accept, buoyant. I realised, for the first time, that I was a part – and had been for some time – of something I had never cared to understand, I was suburban.
We were at The Mall, Cribbs Causeway – December 22, 2005. I can say now, with the sage and inevitability that comes with any remembered collection of experiences, that The Mall, near Bristol, is a curious place. Its DNA is undeniably retail, its birthplace indisputably out-of-town. Its features display a striking similarity across and between their specialisms, each a Willy Wonka conception of reconfigured time and desire designed, pre-emptively, for those who will go on to enjoy coffees on the fifth floor of a John Lewis metropolis and click-and-collect Christmas dinners from M&S. The British aren’t too sure of when the gift of the out-of-town shopping centre was afforded them. It seemed to emerge concurrently with a then unattended need for everything, all the time: information; plans; and, later, afternoon shopping lists of Dysons, Renault Méganes, and eight-packs of Müller Lite. Historically, changes in the post-war consumer landscape and the migration of a particular idea of the good life (the lovechild of capitalism and the American dream) led to the growth, in the 1950s, of a new way of shopping and, with it, a new way of life.
Retail parks are the thumbprint of an attempt at world making. Like the laboratory of suburban creations of which they are part, these are new proto-cities where once there was nothing. Amid these spaces, these floating warehouses of lights, order numbers and ‘good value’, there’s beauty and habit: extending the boundaries of toddler-dom to justify parking in the mother and baby bays by ASDA; the sense of loss that accompanies your emergence from the shops to a car park structured like the annals of history A12 to BZ34; and the adventure of a Disneyworld or TGI Friday’s so geographically displaced from that feeling of where they ought to be as to attract wonder and our own local tourism. These are the beauties of life when it is safe. They embody, as Lauren Berlant would say, the ‘fantasy of the good life’ (simultaneously both Blochian hope, and the 1970s fictional figure, Tom Good). It is intoxicating. It is a sustaining fantasy, even as its reality, and means, may fade.
It is also isolated. Even now, the detached ‘what-if’ potential of Nairobi’s tragedy has not yet burrowed itself into our Victoria Sponges. Somehow, I doubt it ever will. There’s an impenetrability here. It is neither intentionally defensive nor mythological, but rather habitual, coated in marble, kept balanced by air-conditioning and – ultimately – absorbed by stuff: the clutter of a shopping list and a temporarily ‘missing’ child in Next. The world can’t seem to get in. Utopia can never exist, but an accidental consequence of its intention is an odd haven; an in-between moment – a social ball-pit – where you can’t hurt yourself, where pleasures are stripped of their darker surprises, where you wish upon a penny and throw it into a 40ft indoor water fountain. The Mall is a dream space, particular to suburbia, that helps us navigate what is otherwise overwhelming; the fantasy of life well lived, the energy demanded to keep on becoming.
Material or immaterial, dream spaces are a way of imagining otherwise in the present, a psychic project of hope. They are key to understanding what suburbia is, does and can be. Distance from the (generically cacophonous) city, changes in structures of employment, as well as ownerships of all kinds – from fridges to cars – connected with an optimism for wealth that demanded, like a 16th Century sovereign, physical territory. We were told to buy as much house as we can, for homes are the safest (life, hope and monetary) investments we can ever accomplish. To own, is to be safe; to own is to have secured a life.
Suburbia arrives between these havens; think of the quintessential dream space, the cul de sac, the birthplace of Brookside and Neighbours! Oh, the security of the
the offering of the oft desired – never satisfied – safety of knowing what has been and knowing what is to come. Go! Stand in, sit on, roly-poly into one, ‘find your cul de sac!’ they cry (‘they’ being the transcendent invocation used to summon up an always understood, never interrogated, figure of authority). Find that place where your back can lean against a limit – it could, for all you know, be the square edge of the world – and look ahead, and to your sides, this is everything; the world buckles to your boundaries, and your fears are reduced into the pink of no.6’s hanging baskets. Play, dance, water your garden, wash your car, head to The Mall, this is a cul de sac; you’re safe here.
In suburbia the demons summoned by the spectres of things we feel we encounter as neoliberalism or capitalism, or the haunting precarity of difference (sexual, racial, gendered), are either diluted or somehow lost among the sensual activity of surviving: appreciating beige walls and giving yourself over to the viscosity of morning ring-roads. So what? To be, and become, here is to engage a Freudian longing for intimacy and belonging amid a daily buzz that detaches as it connects. It allows us to go on. In the second half of the 20th Century, a new world was made. It enabled habits and boundaries and ways of life. It was suburbia, and I have forever been grateful.