It’s early December and in my corner of southeast London the Christmas illuminations are going up. Garden gnomes may have fallen out of fashion, but their seasonal equivalent, inflatable Santas, are very much in evidence. There are some pockets of tasteful conformity, where entire streets observe a “house style”, but mostly it’s a delightful free-for-all. If levels of outdoor decoration reflect a state of mind in the way that rising hemlines are said to mirror economic prosperity, then the mood here among us suburbanites is one of grim defiance.
Apart from three years at university and a gap year in New Zealand, I have always lived in the suburbs, within a small triangle of southeast London – Croydon in the west, Bromley in the east and Norwood in the north. (I know that for postal purposes Croydon is Surrey, but administratively and spiritually it’s south London.) When you are a child, your own life seems normal, so it was quite some time before I realised that Croydon – fictionalised by PG Wodehouse as Mitching, “a foul hole” – had a reputation for architectural mediocrity, that the suburbs in general with their crazy-paving and curtain twitching were despised by both city and country and that having been born there was something which would need repeated apology over the years.
My older siblings could not wait to get away and bolted to Switzerland and Australia as soon as the opportunity arose, never to return. Maybe they experienced the suburbs as a place of stifling bourgeois complacency, “the burying ground of all ambition”, in the words of writer and broadcaster Godfrey Winn. If so, they were not alone, as this is more or less the default position of poets, musicians and especially novelists. Hanif Kureishi and Julian Barnes portrayed them as somewhere enlightened creative souls need to escape from to the more thrilling city. Staying put, like the bride of Manfred Mann’s “Semi-detached Suburban Mr James”, means settling for a life of stultifying routine, “hanging things upon the line… as your life slips away”. Clearly, “Suburban” does not just relate to a postcode, or a lack of architectural distinction, but a state of mind.
I never suffered from that sense of alienation myself, but enjoyed the available pursuits of the 1970s middle-class, cash-strapped Croydon childhood: clattering up and down the pavements on those lethal strap-on rollerskates, colliding with lamp-posts and parked cars; hanging around the shopping precinct on a Saturday with my friends in our identical outfits; trying on the makeup in Miss Selfridge; sampling the joss-sticks in the covered market; stalking any good-looking boys. My walk to school involved the quintessentially suburban pastime of judging other people’s front gardens and my mother and I took it seriously, awarding points out of 10, with towering condescension. (Ours only came in at a shameful four, so we knew our place.) I can still picture the one with all the dahlias and the perfect lawn stripes. (Nine out of 10, because there is always room for improvement.) My idea of an aspirational target at that time was to live in a road with grass verges.
When I moved in with my boyfriend after university he lived in a small terrace house in Norwood, overlooking Crystal Palace FC’s ground at Selhurst Park. On a Saturday afternoon we could hear the roar that greeted every home goal and see the floodlights, and if we made the mistake of driving to the supermarket, we would instantly lose our parking space and have to walk miles back carrying the shopping. I worked in Bloomsbury then, and there were occasions on my long bus commute home that I may have wished we lived a little closer to the West End, or that the Walworth Road wasn’t quite so long, but when the time came to move, we went even further out – to Bromley, where we have lived in semi-detached, mock-Tudor comfort since 1993.
Over the years I have repeatedly used southeast London as the setting for my fiction. The very thing that unbelievers hold against it – that it is neither one thing nor the other – is precisely what makes it such rich terrain for the novelist. It isn’t glamorous or edgy or sleazy, like the city, or picturesque or bleak or majestic, like the country. But it is in the middle, in that nowhere land of dimple glass and magnolias and pebbledash, that the ordinary truly shines and it is in the small, telling details of a person’s environment that they reveal their nature. What could be more revelatory of character than a privet hedge between two properties that has been conscientiously pruned up to the neighbour’s boundary and no further? Is there a better symbol of the collision between the haves and the have-nots, the well-behaved and the misbehavers, than a fly-tipped mattress at the end of a street of perfect front gardens? The concept of the semi-detached house itself – an arrangement peculiar to this country as far as I am aware – offers such a polite compromise between privacy and eavesdropping.
Somehow the suburbs affords the writer a perfect backdrop for light comedy. You have only to think of the novels of Barbara Pym, to see how status anxiety, class pretension and petty rivalries are funnier in the context of parish jumble sales than that of superyachts. And it is no accident that so many classic British sitcoms, The Good Life, One Foot in the Grave, Keeping up Appearances, The Rise and Fall of Reginal Perrin, adopt this setting to expose the collision between our aspirations to fit in and our need to break out; our attempts to better ourselves and the daily micro-humiliations dealt out by reality. The suburban landscape lends itself equally well to the depiction of loneliness and melancholy: the trickle of commuters trudging up the road from the station in the fog; the damp autumn leaves blowing into front gardens; a lost glove impaled on park railings.
When I came to write Small Pleasures in 2016, I knew that in my own back yard I had the ideal location. Although the seed of fact from which it grew – a 1950s newspaper investigation into a woman’s claim to be a virgin mother – was a Fleet Street sensation, I didn’t want my story to be about high-flying journalists or glamorous city-dwellers. This was going to be about people who were unfashionable, plain, over-the-hill, enduring lives of frustrated potential, and it needed a much smaller canvas. Of course, it had to be a local paper, concerned with parochial matters: a meeting of the Crofton North Liberals; the theft of petrol coupons from the British Legion; household hints about the joy of vests. When in the course of my research I came across a reference to the Lewisham rail crash of 1957 – an event which had passed me by, even though I commuted regularly on the Hayes to Charing Cross line – the pieces started to come together. Researching the recent history of my own area was pure enjoyment; the built environment had not changed much since the 1930s, and there were plenty of people around who remembered the 1950s in great detail and had stories to tell.
The book was written, finished and edited long before the pandemic was even a rumour, and yet somehow the national experience of lockdown seemed to give it unforeseen resonance. The shops were mostly closed, the streets quiet, the traffic stilled and everyone back in their hutches after dusk. People were being resourceful and less wasteful in the face of shortages, baking bread and sewing their own face masks, talking over the fence to their neighbours, staying local. The spirit of 1950s suburbia was all around.
Readers also seemed to embrace the concept of small pleasures, taking comfort from simple things and finding dignity in modest expectations. This came as something of a surprise to me. I’m suspicious of nostalgia and thought that the world I had conjured was bathed more in fog and soot than a rosy glow. The list of things that console the main character, Jean, in the face of a somewhat arid existence was hardly a manifesto for living. Compared to the fulfilment offered by a passionate and enduring relationship, “a glass of sherry before Sunday lunch, a bar of chocolate parcelled out to last a week, a newly published library book, the first hyacinths of spring” are thin fare indeed.
And yet the idea that we can be fortified against disappointment or worse by little treats or a more thoughtful appreciation of some overlooked aspect of the natural world on our doorsteps, appeared to chime with readers. In a year when the bigger pleasures – parties, weddings, foreign travel – were unavailable and when disappointments or personal tragedies came thick and fast, it was only natural that our appetites and horizons shrank accordingly. Perhaps, as we move forward to the next crisis facing our weary planet, there is a place for the more admirable 1950s suburban values – thrift, resourcefulness, a horror of waste. Sherry anyone?
Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers is published by W&N at £8.99. Buy it for £8.36 at guardianbookshop.com