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Park and Ride

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by Miranda Sawyer. Little, Brown, 1999. 310pp. £14.99

Sit back and enjoy the ride as Miranda Sawyer takes us on a Grand Tour of suburban Britain, writes Corinna Dean. A long-time London resident whose childhood was in Wilmslow, she sets out to discover what really goes on behind the twitching curtains - and what deviant behaviour she finds. For there are swingers' circles and key parties in Middle England, not just semis, chintz and DIY.

As Sawyer visits theme parks, heritage trails, the Glastonbury Festival and a tribute to Lady Di, she uncovers such obscure information as the British Tourist Board's Visitor Centre Top Ten, a rating system monitoring standards of cultural accessibility, souvenir outlets and the provision of tea shops.

She criss-crosses a country whose history is indicated by brown 'heritage signs'. Originally, to merit one of these brown signs, tourist attractions had to have more than 20,000 visitors; now, after deregulation by the last Tory government, anything goes. We are familiar with the argument that the leisure industry is dumbing down culture for the sake of mass appeal, and that theme parks and out-of-town shopping centres are littering our green belts. Sawyer's point is to go out and locate suburbia through her own experience.

This might mean sipping tea with the Stirling Women's Golf Club or discovering suburbia's very own teenage dissidence; in the city, it's gangs of skateboarders, but in the suburbs, it's car-cruising meetings (fuelled by magazines such as Max Power featuring readers and their customised car).

Park and Ride is much like visiting a heritage centre or theme park; after the first 15 minutes your attention begins to wane. Anticipating this, Sawyer soon speeds off to the next suburban delight. Her style is anecdotal and racy, as if spoken between swallows of a Flaming Lamborghini - a drink she samples on a night out in the 'Cheshire flesh pots'. This is Park and Ride's strength; it's fast and witty. But don't expect a radical revaluation of the suburbs; it's journalism.

Summing up, Sawyer muses that the picture postcard image of ordinary suburban life no longer carries a herbaceous border or bowling green but 'a supermarket, a conference hall or a cinema complex - a freestanding building, modern, indoorsy, compartmentalised, that you drive to, enjoy and then leave.' Occupants of the suburbs are slowly shifting their parochial image and overcoming their urban paranoia - if only in 'bite-size form'.

And before city dwellers get too smug in their cosmopolitan jungle, they are reminded of suburban encroachment into the urban realm in the increasing gentrification of city centres. 'Pedestrianise, cobble over, clean up, sanitise' - this is the legacy of Britain's changing suburbs.

Corinna Dean is an architect in London

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