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.