John Betjeman first published the poem Middlesex in the collection “A Few Late Chrysanthemums” (1954). It begins with a description of young Elaine, leaving Ruislip Gardens underground station [actually the station itself is at ground level] and walking to the neat, suburban home she shares with her parents. In the second part of the poem, Betjeman remembers the lost world of rural Middlesex, full of hayfields, market gardens and winding footpaths that was lost when the west London suburbs were built in the late 1920’s and 1930’s.
I was born soon after Middlesex was written and grew up in suburban Northolt, mentioned in the poem. A second-generation suburbanite, my grandparents moved to the nearby suburb of Greenford in 1934. I would live there until I was nineteen and went off to University.
My parents generation was different from my Grandparent’s who were drawn to Greenford by a desire for more living space and a wish to leave the smoke and grime of central London. To an extent, they were seduced by the promise of half-timbered homes, set amongst woodland trees on large plots of land. They knew Greenford from an earlier time and with those images in their heads went ahead to buy their sliver of the rural idyll.
My parents still found the suburbs attractive although for different reasons. They had no illusions that they were buying a “rural idyll” but Northolt and the surrounding area [where my parents bought a house in 1953] was first and foremost in my mother’s eyes “respectable”. That meant that people washed their net curtains on a regular basis, kept their gardens and hedges tidy and painted the outside of their homes “nicely”. In addition, it was “convenient”, in that the shops and local school were only a five-minute walk away.
My father drove to work, a ten minute commute even at “rush hour”, which in the early to mid 1960’s meant waiting for the traffic lights to change before crossing the main road junctions.
with his staff outside the Ruislip Manor shop in about 1960″]My parents didn’t really have a social life. My father was a hairdresser, leasing his first shop in 1957 and then buying the second in 1962 and a third in 1965. He seemed to work all of the time and the only day the family saw him for any length of time was on Sundays.
My mother dedicated herself to keeping her husband and two sons well fed and in dressed clean and well ironed shirts. When she wasn’t cooking, she was washing or shopping for food at the local shops.
When Northolt was developed, no thought was put into the social needs of the community. There were a few shops a the end of our road, a clinic in Wadham Gardens, a small public library and a primary school. There were however no department stores, cinemas, bowling alleys, sports clubs, youth clubs or [until I was ten years old] a swimming pool. For those exotic pastimes, we would have to go by bus to South Harrow, Wembly or Ealing.
Northolt was a sea of houses, all built within a few years of each other and all looking pretty much the same. Life was dull. I went to school, I came home, I did my homework, I watched television. On Sunday, my mother made a roast dinner [lunch] and in the afternoon, we went for “a nice drive in the countryside”. That entailed sitting bored in the back of the car for an hour or so as father drove to Chorley Woods or Windsor Great Park. We would then find a tea shop and haven eaten our fill of scones, we would drive home again. Sometimes we would call in to see my Uncle Steve and Aunty Lyn, who continued to live in my Grandparents home after they died. And so it went on. Respectable but dull…