Ken Bolton’s Suburbia, an Introduction

1 February 2018

The Great Australian Dream is a Menzies invention?: the suburban block, the orderly suburban block and docile living, is Liberal? Just as ‘ideas’ and ‘ideology’ are Labor. Howard proffered the ‘more comfortable’ Australia of the past as achievable again if we would just vote Liberal. Howard was and is ‘a master’ at undermining clarities in discourse (see David Marr on this). (Is having it both ways – ambivalence, undecidedness, confused thinking – Liberal?) (I meant to say, is it ‘suburban’?)

One of (Dame) (Margaret) Thatcher’s infamous pronouncements was to the effect that ‘there’s no such thing as community’.

Architect and town planning theorist Robert Venturi – regarding the European passeggiata: Americans shouldn’t be out at night, they should be at home watching television.

Suburbia – when it’s designed or planned (like the original Hampstead and its heath) – is an idyll of the middle way, between city and country, or even City and Nature; when it’s unplanned but simply an effect (of urban growth) then it’s a non-place, a nowhere. Ross Gibson treats these aspects of the suburban.

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The sub-urban is feminised? (Well in a patriarchy if it is a bad thing, it would be cast that way, wouldn’t it?)

Where the City equals Life, the Suburbs equals Marriage.

Over some period (the ’50s centrally, but maybe also the ’40s and the ’60s) to live in a flat and not have a lawn to mow (two – one in the front, one out back) was considered ‘not quite manly’.

The obsession with mowing lawns on weekends (and as well washing the car) was something that drove me mad as a teenager: the epitome of small-mindedness, futility and boredom. Get me out of Turramurra!

The suburbs – the abject, the shamed?

Elizabeth Harrower’s novels are tales of adventures in big city living, tragedies mostly. They assume – and portray – the the allure of inner-city living, high-rise living.

George Johnson’s My Brother Jack has a seething anti-hero identifying his wife and domesticity (themselves a kind of unity) with the suburban and with his failure subsequently to produce the great novel, to lead the intellectual’s life.

Poetry: Adamson’s universalist absolute: truth appearing in the gutting of a fish on the Hawkesbury.

Tranter’s Pop Art ironies about the suburban, the petty lives lived there.

Alan Wearne’s more realistic take on that drama.

Cath Kenneally’s poem ‘Around Here’ is one of the best accounts of a suburb. It’s the title poem of one of her books.

Pam Brown’s lower case inner city urban: think globally act locally experienced and sifted through the local conditions ‘on-the-ground’. Though Brown is wired, connected, plugged in. Has the new technology made all a suburb? Has it rendered the description, the criticism, ‘suburban’ obsolete?

Laurie Duggan’s unusual focus: on the grey area between rural big town and the country: a kind of atomised suburbia: suburban banality with no suburbs?

Recently deceased John Ashbery was drawn to the suburban – partly for its difficulty, its resistance to incorporation? Partly because he lived there?

In Ashbery, the early ‘we’ are identified as feminised suburban: needing the help of happy hooligan and his truck to come and save them / us (a ute, surely?) ‘Soonest Mended’ is that it? His wonderful cataloguing of the quotidian and suburban in The Vermont Notebook.

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The whole ‘Landscape tradition’ in Australian art, as too its equivalent in Australian poetry, might be the suburbs’ dream of an escape to a real ideal of peace and tranquillity, to the ‘Nature’ that the suburbs only figure.

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The urban, the City: is more social; presents a mix of people, who must interact, revealing / displaying, thereby, codes and class and demographic.

The suburbs are more homogenous and involve less mixing, are less abrasive, show less contrast.

Except, of course, for those suburbs that don’t, that are a fault-line, experiencing change or whatever.

(The country, famous for its isolation, might also regularly demand and produce community unity and mutual assistance – for those big occasions, of drought, fire, harvesting etc.)

The use of the binary, urban / suburban, the use of them as a binary, is Cultural Studies ‘writ small’? ‘writ boring’? writ ‘low-minded game’? Is it too available? I feel it was a subject with which Cultural Studies had (too much of) a field day.

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Most of my life since leaving home I’ve lived in inner city suburbs – Sydney’s Ultimo, Glebe and Redfern and, in Adelaide, most of a decade in Hackney. In Adelaide I’ve worked in the city. For many years now, though, I’ve lived in a genuine suburb. But I push-biked into work – twenty to twenty-five minutes? – and that is an ‘urban’ experience: you stay totally in your head (like Gerhard Richter or Braque or Frank O’Hara), not forced to recognise yourself as a suburban commuter needing to sit in traffic, park the car etc. as you make the change from suburb to urb.

A twenty-five minute bike ride from mid Sydney would hardly get you out of town – but in Adelaide it does get you far enough. You won’t see a cow, but far enough.

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The urban / suburban discussion seemed too awful as I first experienced it: a kind of snobby vaunting of the self, an assertion of superiority.

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One Response to Ken Bolton’s Suburbia, an Introduction

  1. Mike Ladd says:

    Suburbia – so many of us live here, more or less. Some inner, some outer. Hope and Harwood sneered at it a bit, but from Dawe onwards it’s gained a more positive place in Australian poetry. Not just a site of boredom and intellectual stagnation, but a realm of the imagination. What’s a city poem, and what’s a suburban one? We can’t just talk about the quarter acre block anymore – look at all the apartments and infill. The line was always blurry anyway. Many good examples referred to in this issue and there are so many more that could have been: early Jill Jones on Marrickville, ∏O on Fitzroy, Aiden Coleman on outer Adelaide, Lachlan Brown of Macquarie Fields, Sam Wagan Watson on Brisvegas…
    For an audio exploration of the topic try Poetica Suburbia:

    http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/poetica/suburbia/3046826

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