William Cook once mocked suburbia. Now he lives there, he admires Mr Pooter, co-created by Weedon Grossmith – who died 100 years ago, on June 14, 1919.
Why do middle-class lefties use the word ‘suburban’ as a putdown? Dr Jonathan Miller attacked Margaret Thatcher’s ‘odious, suburban gentility’, and David Lammy MP recently called Theresa May ‘a Little England, suburban xenophobe’.
As a bit of a middle-class lefty myself, I usually have a lot of time for Lammy. But when anyone is rude about the suburbs, I see red. What’s so bad about living in a semi-detached house surrounded by other semi-detached houses, at commuting distance from the city centre but not too far from the green belt? I know, it’s hardly paradise – but for most of us, raising families on modest incomes, suburban living is a necessity. Living in the middle of a big city (or the middle of nowhere) is fine if you have no dependents but, once you’ve got school-age children, there’s often no other choice.
What Lammy was criticising (and what the likes of Dr Miller have always criticised) isn’t the practicalities of suburbia, but the so-called suburban mindset: small-minded, insecure, acutely aware of class distinctions and obsessed, above all else, with feathering our own nests.
Having moved back to the suburbs ten years ago, I’d plead guilty to most of the above. It’s true – when you retreat to suburbia, the wider world beyond your suburban semi tends to shrink.
But suburbia has also inspired some of our greatest comic works of art – and the first, and finest, is George and Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody.
It’s the diary of Charles Pooter, a middle-aged clerk in an obscure City firm and the proud inhabitant (with his wife Carrie and their wayward son, Lupin) of The Laurels, Brickfield Terrace, Holloway, London N19.
Ironically, Pooter’s six-room residence would now be worth a cool £2 million, and today Holloway is the sort of area where those New Labour luvvies who deride suburbia choose to live. But back in 1888 (when the diary was first published, as a serial in Punch) Holloway was about as unfashionable a postcode as Ruislip, the boring outer London suburb where I reside.
Initially the diary was only a modest success. But, when it was reprinted in book form in 1892, it took off. Since then it’s never been out of print and its stature has grown and grown. Its fans have ranged from Evelyn Waugh to George Orwell, from J B Priestley to A N Wilson. It’s still a rattling good read, and its influence has been immense, establishing a comic archetype that’s become intrinsic to the British psyche: the suburban everyman – petty, snobbish and self-important, yet essentially decent and occasionally even heroic.
Weedon Grossmith died a hundred years ago on 14th June 1919, aged 65, seven years after his brother George died at 64, but the comic enclave they created is still with us. Its modern inhabitants are sitcom stars: Basil Fawlty; David Brent; Alan Partridge – mediocre men with grandiose dreams that are doomed to fail. Although they’re pompous and pathetic, they’re ultimately more sympathetic than the shrewder characters who triumph over them. Our most Pooterish Prime Minister was John Major, and it’s telling that, although he was mercilessly mocked when he was PM, since he left office his reputation has soared.
Rereading The Diary of a Nobody, the effect is strangely similar. You start off sneering at Mr Pooter (as we did at Mr Major) but you end up cheering him on. His most significant encounter is with Mr Hardfur Huttle, a self-important man of letters, who looks down on ‘respectable’ folk in ‘suburban villas’ such as Pooter. Pooter’s riposte is sublime. ‘Mr Huttle has original and sometimes wonderful ideas,’ he writes in his diary (naturally, he’s far too timid to say any of this to Huttle’s face), ‘but it is those ideas that are so dangerous. They make men extremely rich or extremely poor. They make or break men. I always feel people are happier who live a simple, unsophisticated life.’
So let’s have no more jeering at suburbia. Let’s stop using the term suburban as a condescending euphemism for people we regard as less sophisticated than ourselves.
When I lived in central London, I used to use the term myself, but since growing children (and a shrinking income) forced me to move out to dull old Ruislip, I’ve learnt to eat my words.
Like the Pooters, I rather like living in suburbia. I don’t miss the bustle of the big city. I’ve grown rather fond of my suburban villa, with its privet hedge and gravel drive.
I first read The Diary of a Nobody when I was the same age as Pooter’s son Lupin. I’m now the same age as Lupin’s tedious, well-meaning dad. And that, in the end, is the central truth of this timeless classic: we all start off despising suburbia, but eventually we grow to love it – just as, eventually, we all grow to resemble Charles Pooter Esquire.