Waking Up in Toytown, by John Burnside
The Freedoms of Suburbia, by Paul Barker
Finding himself in a lunatic asylum, and then at a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, John Burnside has an idea. He wants a normal life. His idea is to move to the suburbs, because it is there, he feels, that he might become ‘a regular, everyday sort of guy. The next-door neighbour whose name you can never remember, the one who keeps himself to himself, but is basically OK.’
Does he really want a normal life? I’m not so sure. In any case, he arrives in Surrey, seeking ‘a Surbiton of the mind’, and ends up on the edge of Guildford, in a shared flat, with an addiction counsellor and a determination to give up drinking. Pretty soon, though, he is beginning to waver. As soon as he begins to feel settled, he tells us that, ‘I wasn’t altogether convinced that I was ready to be normal.’
He needn’t have worried. What follows is one of the best told memoirs I’ve read for ages. The events Burnside describes are certainly suburban, in that they took place in Worplesdon, and the Epsom Road, and various other parts of the hinterland of greater London, but they are hardly normal. And the people he encounters in suburbia are hardly normal either. They have just chosen to live in a place where they must pretend to be.
Burnside begins to drink again. He does not, as he puts it, want to live ‘like a monk.’ How many suburbanites, down the years, have echoed that sentiment? In any case, he goes to a bar, and soon meets Greg, who lives in a semi with a wife he refers to as ‘the Millstone’. Greg invites him home. Greg wonders if Burnside has seen the film Strangers on a Train. He also wonders whether Burnside might oblige him by killing his wife.
And Greg, who reveres the Allman Brothers and drinks vodka out of half-pint glasses, might not be joking. He invites Burnside to his semi again. Burnside accompanies him. Inside, the Millstone lies slumbering on the sofa. Is she drugged? It is afternoon. The place is a dump. Burnside invokes the scene superbly — the enclosed desperation of it all. Greg runs out of the house, to establish an alibi while Burnside does the deed.
Oh, there’s so much more. Burnside keeps getting drawn into situations that are quietly horrifying. He has an affair with Gina, a divorced mum who drugs her children so she can go out on the town, and who later organises seedy orgies, although ‘organises’ is not quite the right word — she lets them happen. And he has another affair with a married woman, Adele, who gets pregnant. He goes to Blackpool and sleeps with a girl who likes to get wrecked in her flat, and then he falls in love with a schoolgirl.
And what do all these people, and lots of others Burnside describes, have in common? The stalker who attacks Gina’s friend, Maggie, and puts her in hospital. The horrible violent twit who Burnside assumes must be called Kevin or Keith, but is actually called Graham. Or Chris, the unattractive pub joker ‘with a blot of a face’? Well, they are all suburbanites. But, more importantly, they all dwell in Burnside’s suburbia. None of them is normal. ‘Unlike madness,’ Burnside tells us, ‘normal was a lie.’
Or is it? Everybody’s suburbia is different, and just as Burnside’s is a reflection of his troubled soul, Paul Barker’s is a much more benign place. ‘Suburbia,’ Barker tells us in this rather thoughtful coffee-table book, ‘is derided by everyone — except the millions who live there, and shop happily at the nearest mall’. It must be doing something right. So Barker tours the suburban areas of the country — Croydon, Bromley, Basildon, Dagenham, even Milton Keynes. There are lots of glossy pictures of bungalows and semis.
And what happens inside these semis? Some, of course — or some just like them — may contain the Gregs and Ginas and Grahams of this world. But Barker, a gentle and unassuming guide, likes to look on the bright side. Soon, he tells us, suburbia, like the terraces of the inner city, will be ‘cherished.’
It’s not that he is not aware of the malls, such as Lakeside, which, he says, ‘included an unnatural percentage of blondes’, as well as a lot of short people. Or the ‘unheavenly twins’ of Dagenham and Basildon — where, he tells us, ‘The first boy’s name I heard called out across Town Square was “Darren” ’. It’s that the suburbs mean different things to different people. And for Barker, normal is most definitely not a lie.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 16, 2010