Friday 18 May 2007

Living in Metro-land

The appeal of les banlieues endures to the present. The likes of Iain Sinclair are still mounting expeditions into the urban fringes equipped with an elaborate matrix of historical context. For my part, the towpath of the Grand Union Canal between Watford and Rickmansworth opened my eyes to the strange fascination of such places. This watery thread linked school and home via a sequence of bleak and charmless industrial plants marooned in a decaying and neglected rural environment bisected by pylons, railways and roads. Dickinson’s Paper Mill and the London Transport spoil tip were memorable landmarks along the canal bank. Green Belt legislation protected this land from further development but much of the surviving countryside had already lost the qualities which made it worth cherishing.

This, of course, is the hinterland of Metro-land, more celebrated for its verdant suburban ambience than its intellectual vitality. A linear warehouse for the overnight storage of captains of industry, eagle-eyed actuaries, insurance moguls and masters of the balance sheet. So when Julian Barnes published a novel of that name in 1980 we culturally aware, former Metro-landers looked for evidence that our adolescent struggles against the forces of Philistinism had been recognised. Sadly, but no doubt truthfully, Barnes described Metro-land as a breeding ground for cynicism, psychological cruelty and pseudo-intellectual posing. Which put us well and truly in our place.