David Matless explores our love-hate relationship with suburbs
Review by Jules Stewart
Brexit, which arguably has had the biggest peacetime impact on English life in modern history, has likewise given rise to a heated debate on England and the nature of being English.
David Matless sets out to examine the England that’s present in the living memory of millions of people by delving into commentary of what has been said about it over the past 60 or so years and bringing to life places deemed to reveal something about the nature and character of the country. He seeks to open up the English question and explain the complex nature of English identity, from the early 1960s to the opening years of our current decade.
From a political perspective, an understanding of England and its intrinsic nature could foreseeably become a crucial issue if, in the event of Scottish disunion, the country is left as the largest entity in a lingering UK of England, Wales and Northern Ireland (for now), with the UK parliament even more of an English entity.
One of the key 20th century trends that passes under the author’s microscope is English suburbia. Matless points out that this has become the dominant settlement type, dismissed by its detractors as monotonous and boring, and even exotic by its enthusiasts. Suburbia is today the reflection of a ‘middle England’, its social demographics stretching from upper working class to upper middle class. Like other parts of the country, the geographical particular has become a focus of claims to cultural distinction and authenticity, with certain areas, such as the hate-love suburbs, held to say something unique about England.
The section on England’s heritage sets out the complex geographies, histories and memories that characterise the many versions of the country’s past traditions and customs. It’s a phenomenon shaped by local ownership, global exchanges through empire and its aftermath, proceeding through the country house, the historic town and the legacy of industry.
The geography of England, Matless says, thereby makes sense through internal heterogeneity and external connection. What’s deemed natural is configured by history and memory, as well as by the presumed connections or disconnections of past, present and future.