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Review - Thinking Allowed: Imagination and suburbia and more...

Shumi Bose lets her imagination loose on the subject of suburbia

Broadcast 13, 20 and 27 August. ‘Imagination and the City’ is available on the BBC iPlayer until 8 September.

BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed programme has been tackling typologies of space. Three special editions entitled ‘Imagination and...’ looked at the Countryside, Suburbia and the City, and brought together an array of academics and writers for some unstructured but stimulating discussions.

Hosted by Laurie Taylor and the Open University, the series began gently with the rural edition, ‘Imagination and the Countryside’. Howard Newby of Liverpool University made a case for the formative impact of Picturesque painting on the English psyche, and novelist Trollope riffed with Taylor on the unreachable Garden of Eden as the primordial root of our bucolic fantasies.

The second programme, ‘Imagination and Suburbia’, was the most intriguing and pithy of the three. From John Betjeman’s celebrated 1970s documentary Metro-land to the monstrous picket-fenced ‘burbs seen in Sam Mendes’ 1999 film American Beauty, the modern phenomenon of suburbia has proved fertile subject matter. Paul Barker of the Young Foundation and Iain Sinclair, author of London Orbital, tried to nail the difference between ‘edge lands’ and suburbs, while Nick Hubble, formerly of the Centre for Suburban Studies at Kingston University, considered suburbia’s strange double life – town promising country and country promising town.

For the third chapter, ‘Imagination and the City’, high-profile guests included Richard Sennett, chair of the London School of Economics’ Cities Programme, and ‘psychogeographer’ and novelist Will Self. Much of the terrain covered in this instalment seemed rather hackneyed, especially in the wake of the recent scrutiny of cities in books and exhibitions such as Tate Modern’s Global Cities. Alienation and intensity are already overanalysed and are obvious urban phenomena. Tangential interruptions from the audience leavened the discussion further – a disappointment given the panel.

Perhaps the triumph of the suburbia episode is not so surprising, for, despite our disdain for huge patternbook developments, most of us – 84 per cent according to the Independent Transport Commission – actually live in them. The Oxford English Dictionary lists ‘suburban’ as a pejorative term used to describe the ‘contemptibly dull and ordinary’, but this illuminating programme proves the suburbs to be rich ground for imagination and examination alike.

Resume: The suburban identity is no intellectual cul-de-sac, says Thinking Allowed

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