Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Suburban Imagination

One of the most damning criticisms that literary critics sometimes use is to describe something as "provincial." Yet, though there might have been a time when writers and artists were gathered in cultural centres like London or Paris, it seems to be a rarer occurrence than the opposite. Successful writers find themselves going wherever they can make their writing unencumbered. In the first half of the twentieth century this even meant finding places where writing would be away from censorship - hence English and American writers based in Paris and elsewhere. I guess we see with Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, that even our Western democracies are sometimes highly deficient when it comes to providing sanctuary for those with something to say.

I'm not so sure our world cities are quite so amenable (or cheap) as they used to be: so whether a contemporary Lawrence, Vidal or Burgess would find their various remote hideaways so plausible is hard to know. The "international" writer can apparently survive anywhere not far from an airport after all.

Yet I'm less interested in this internationalism than in what is sometimes lost of the imagination when it moves into the hub of contemporary life, rather than being external. Surely it is the suburban imagination, and the running away from the suburbs into some counter-life which inhabits much of the great pop music; from Bowie and Roxy Music, to New Order and Joy Division - though I'm not sure we cultivate that same sense of distance nowadays: who even knows where bands originate from?

I was listening to a digitisation of a cassette I recorded in early 1985 - so nearly thirty years ago, which I was just turned 18 - and what's surprising is the breadth and depth of my deeply suburban imagination at that time. I had yet to travel abroad or work or live away from home or have a girlfriend or earn money or go to university, yet my imaginative tapestry was already quite rich; what it wasn't was in any way provincial, though there's definitely some naivety as well.  I was creating characters in my songs; writing about God and the devil; namechecking worldwide terrorist atrocities from napalm to Northern Ireland;  and still occasionally writing breathlessly teenage love songs. 

There's a trend of late for YA or Young Adult fiction, and I've even heard of it as referring to fiction that was aimed at "up to 25 year olds". Its a strange infantilisation of the imagination. Certainly our creative opportunities were more impoverished than anyone writing or recording today; yet somehow we found a way - whether it was Science fiction or horror novels, VHS films, or vinyl records. Actually when you look at what my cultural diet was - Stephen King, Douglas Adams, "Dracula", Troma movies, Channel 4, "Blade Runner", the Cure, Simple Minds, Velvet Underground, Love - its hardly surprising that there's hardly a provincial bone in my intellectual body. There's something about the suburbs that makes you crave for an "otherness" wherever you might find it. In a big city like London or New York, or even Manchester, you can well believe that the whole world is at your fingertips or at least not further than a dark alley or a closed door away; but in the sticks you have to create your own openings between the neatly-coiffured lawns and quiet cul-de-sacs.

When I went to Lancaster University in 1985 it was life changing, life affirming in many ways, but in one way it always disappointed me: for much to my surprise I found myself more cultural (or at least counter cultural) knowledgeable than many of my peers (and quite a few of my lecturers); rather than interesting me in new worlds, more often they were playing "American Pie" on their acoustic guitar, listening to Pink Floyd and the Beatles, reading middle class fiction and watching "Top Gun."  I was the one with the Psychic TV t-shirt, the Test Department records, and "Last Exit to Brooklyn" and "Blood and Guts in High School."

In a sense university "mainstreamed" me in a way that probably wouldn't have happened if I'd stayed outside in the culturally bereft Midlands - there I'd have had to continue to mark out my particular, peculiar space, probably whilst holding down a dreary job at the tax office or Woolworths or whatever. My first novel, still hidden in my bottom drawer, and begun a couple of years later, was set in my Midlands landscape but, like Iain Banks, whose work I very much admired at the time, one scarred by secrets.  I obviously don't regret leaving the somewhat stultifying world that I grew up in - and I'm aware that most people I've met since who share some of my cultural markers also grew up in similar places, with that similar suburban imagination. We had to leave, but in leaving to the bright lights of the big city I think sometimes we can lose a little bit of our imagined sense of cultural place, by virtue of being in an actual one.

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