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on 5 September 2015
Paul Barker gets the burbs wrong. (His own address he gives discreetly as 'North London'.) People do not only move into them, they also move away from them. They do not choose to live there; it's what they can afford. (Brooklyn is a special case, once the second largest city in the USA and an industrial powerhouse, voluntarily absorbed by NYC in 1898, now a 'city' composed entirely of suburbs.) Barker bigs up the burbs but much of the time seems uncertain whether to celebrate (gaze in mock-wonderment) or sneer, short on scholarship, style and sense of purpose, lacking the wit this topic calls for above all rather than hollow sympathy and arrant condescension. Devoid of architectural, sociological and even journalistic merit, this book plumbs new depths of dullness. 'Once you are inside a mall, it is a wholly pedestrian experience.' If most front gardens are now paved over, Barker helpfully tells us, this is 'highly functional: for parking on'. 'In Mayfield Avenue, the statement your door made mattered'. And what's a 'suburbanite potted plant' when it's at home? I thought it was those poor city types forced to sun themselves on balconies who had to make do with a garden in a pot. The awkward tone, Richmal Crompton-esque without the saving grace of laughter, is all-pervasive. And however long did Barker take to finish this? With its talk of young, childless 'dinkies' recolonising London, of well-funded libraries, malls flourishing, an 'unnatural' percentage of blondes and the supposed novelty of one-stop shopping, a mere six years down the road it all feels indescribably dated

By definition suburbs encase cities, but another law is that if they're not gentrifying (becoming absorbed) they are stultifying. A life-long commuter* myself (Charing X branch) and, it now occurs to me, grandson of two commuters (Leigh-on-Sea via Cannon Street and Sanderstead via London Bridge or Victoria), I'd hoped for the incisiveness of an Iain Sinclair or an Owen Hatherley. Nix. I found this thin on both architectural savvy, social acumen and, as I may have mentioned, the all-important leaven of wit. When he explains what a starter home is, one feels he is addressing Martians or maybe American High Schoolers: one feels that much of the time. The TLS reviewer called it 'enchanting'. Hmm - wonder where s/he lives. And the pictures! The rather under-credited (in my proof copy) Philippa Lewis, whose picture-editing skills along with colour printing no doubt justified the hefty £25 price-tag, has gone on to greater things at Frances Lincoln (Everything You Can Do in the Garden Without Actually Gardening, Everyman's Castle), but in the bald black-and-white of my uncorrected proof copy a drearier, more depression-inducing, drive-one-to-drink collection - and a heftier indictment of suburbia - I hope never to see. Incidentally, to credit Mark Clapson with the indelible words 'invincible green suburbs' (no, it's not Philip Larkin either) is to do a disservice to that unlikely coiner of phrases John Major (or speechwriter for same) who in prime re-election mode proved as eloquent as whatever speechwriter of Reagan's team rustled up the 'surly bonds of earth' quote at the time of the Challenger disaster. And yes, I could have done with more poetry - Betjeman, obvs, but also a couple I vaguely recall, one of which ends with the serried and probably bowler-hatted commuters' return, the idyll for wife and children over for another day (when the half-gods go the gods arrive sort of thing, but decades before John Cleese) and one that begins and ends, witheringly or is it wistfully, with 'pampas grass'! (The modern equivalent might be 'water feature', suburban equivalent to an honest-to-god pond.)

OK, plus-points. The first glimmer of poetry comes on page 41, when East Enders hanker after 'cul-de-sacs and grass verges'. They got them in Basildon; they call the former 'banjos' for their rounded-at-the-end shape. The shocking fact that 'council rules prevented sons and daughters settling near their parents'. Why? But once Barker strays from his doorstep it's all derivative and half-baked

* Ahimè! These days your proper commuter travels in style from another city - Guildford, Brighton or Royal Tunbridge Wells
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on 20 February 2010
This gentle meandering amongst the semis is quite charming in its positive view of uniquely English domestic arrangement. Paul Barker's assassination of snobby architects is most satisfying. Town planners and architects can only be legitimately called so, when they submit to the will of the people, and in the process shed their own preferences. Paul through his sensitive observations of the obvious re-establishes this fundamental tenet.

COLIN WILKINSON
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