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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Saturday, May 21, 2005
    Suburbia fights back

    I'm looking forward to the opening of the Urbis exhibition Punk: Sex, Seditionaries and the Sex Pistols, an exploration of "one of the most infamous movements in urban culture - the punk rock scene of the 1970s." It comes at a time when there's a lot of interest in the culture of 'Middle England' and/or 'The Suburbs'.

    Last month, in an item titled Suburbia fights back, the BBC reported on moves by various academics and thinkers including Kingston University's Centre for Suburban Studies, to establish that "the old stereotypical associations are no longer relevant to these vibrant sites of social mobility and ethnic diversity, which offer a model of post-national identity."

    Of course, some time ago with Sounds of the Suburbs, John Peel did so much to counteract the lazy cliche that everything in the suburbs is dull in comparison to the allegedly vibrant inner cities, and the Urbis exhibition may reinforce that. A lot of London punks came in from Surbiton-type places; I'm sure Manchester could say the same. Reflecting, it's clear that many of Liverpool's most celebrated cultural agitators were nurtured in the leafy fringes - Lennon the classic example, and, local to here, our own Ian McCulloch, who has claimed on stage that "Adam & Eve hail from Norris Green".

    There's complexity in the relationships between inner- and outer- cities which is a shame to neglect. In last month's Prospect Paul Barker went on a Search for the Middle, but after an interesting survey of British lifestyles concluded that Middle England is an invention: "Middle England, as a phrase, gets tangled up with middlebrow, middle market and middle class. But as a place, it is something you confect for yourself. No one lives here. " The reality is far more interesting. - Suburban commuter culture has to be about moving between fringe and centre, and the interplay between; the fascination of 'the middle' is in the details:

    But it is at the Welcome Break service station where the M40 joins the A40 that I sense I have found middle England. This must be the chain's flagship, with its high, arched silvery roof. Beneath it, all the options are on offer, as salesmen in cufflinked shirts sit and eat their sandwiches or children wave their spoons from the cafe's high wooden chairs. Kiss your partner in the photo booth and win a romantic trip to Rome: "Most romantic wins." Create your own portrait in the next booth, charcoal or pencil or pen-and-ink style. The Red Hen eatery offers "freshly cooked food - where breakfast meets lunch." On the book display: Dick Francis, Joanna Trollope, Maeve Binchy, JK Rowling. For the worried middleman, there is The One-Minute Manager. If he is staying the night alone, there is Teasing Charlotte and Jennifer Rising, the soft-porn covers only partly screened by a translucent plastic strip.