Ken Bolton’s Suburbia, an Introduction

By | 1 February 2018

As it returned, in the ’80s and subsequently, via Cultural Studies, it also seemed to icky for being too easy, an endless automatic upending or revaluing of the binary: the suburban being now ‘good’. Like fanzine writing in its shallow enthusiasm. As the poet Justin Clemens had it, ‘All Cultural Studies aspires to the condition of bad rock journalism.’ This captures skewers both the pontificating manner of high-style Rolling Stone journalism and the delighted complacency of much Cultural Studies.

The distinction is unrealistic – we can’t all live in the centre of town. Was the ever-returning theme simply a matter, for many people, of skiting – the suburbs may be necessary but I don’t have to live in them? Too often the critique or pillorying of the suburban sounded as though it were written wearing a cravat. A mental cravat.

It occurred to me that if ‘everybody’ more or less is born in the suburbs then they must end up there: the resistance to it is a phase of youth. Some of the cravat-wearers (maybe the cravat is a part of their resistance) opining against it must be doing so from a suburb.


Cultural Studies’ arrival was a corrective; its brief moment of dominance (in the ’80s and ’90s?) was the signal for its demise, e.g., shouldn’t history, politics, sociology, anthropology, philosophy … be ‘cultural studies’? Answer: Logically so, yes. But the world moves by formations and dissolutions, by lurching. Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, Dick Hebdige were right, and Meaghan Morris and Justin Clemens and Art and Text magazine.


I remember that the suburbs in which I grew up had a fair degree of social cohesiveness and care and interaction. People assisted each other, in building, in clearing blocks etc. and were aware of each other’s children, who all played together, often went to school together.

These circumstances have changed, were perhaps always changing. Suburbs now seem much more chill and empty: no kids in the street (there are fewer kids); no people in the streets (all use cars); no people in yards (houses now fill their blocks and are home entertainment centres, no need to be out of doors to play). Inner city suburbs might fare better – people at least meet at bus stops, or meet in the street.

We all knew the names of of everybody in the street, 20 or more houses’ worth. We were in a War Service home, as were most in the street. So, not the rich or well-off. But an area that fielded no Labor candidate – it was deemed pointless: too Liberal. And, despite the neighbourly fellow-feeling that I’ve remarked, my father was to some degree ostracised as being (too) working class. In summer he wore shorts and singlet, often bare feet. One extremely unpleasant neighbour sold and moved out because the tone of the street was so lowered. (I don’t think my father was the sole cause but he was apparently the example cited.)


On the disappearing suburban world of the forties and early fifties see Sybille Smith’s fabulous first essay in Mothertongue (a book published by Vagabond). Helen Garner writes well on the suburbs in our time.


Today, in the empty suburban streets we might see, touchingly, a discarded hubcap from time to time, propped up and made visible. The owner it is thought might drive by and recognise it. Their lost hubcap! So we do still feel for each other – but only because we know our own human souls and thus, by extension, those of others, though we don’t know them personally, just their own presumed dependence on their car.


One of the head men of our street – however that was determined (intelligence, education, officer experience in the war, a socially responsible kind of religious bearing) – took it upon himself to come visiting one night to tell my father that he thought that We should probably all, this time, Bob, vote Labor. He went from house to house to have this conversation. A nice enough old guy, if in a little way a patriarch and paterfamilias type, respected, principled. It was the time of Whitlam’s campaign. My father listened to him politely and said nothing. Sharman visited every house in the street, a responsible citizen. My father and I said nothing to each other but both of us took it as patronising. My father would never have voted Liberal in a fit. He was so plainly of the working class – and seen that way in the street – how could Sharman have felt otherwise? Did he in fact feel slightly ridiculous as he made this pitch?

Of cause, this insult had to be borne. My father was not in position to call him out on it. Privately he’d have thought him an old fool – though we liked Mr Sharman.

Such a conversation – such a procedure – might not happen now, I think? And that might be a sad thing. Politics might be spoken most now to anonymous phone polsters more than to the community. Do you agree – very strongly, strongly, mildly, or do you disagree mildly, more strongly, or do you very strongly disagree?


Just this week I read in a TLS article on one Lynda Schuster: ‘she knew precisely what she was fleeing but had little idea what she sought. Her list of aversions included a dreary Midwestern upbringing, her parents’ messy divorce, ‘the fear that I’m never going to win a Nobel Prize’, and, worst of all, a dread of mirroring her mother’s suburban life as she matured. It was the last of those that drove her to extremes.’ Which I offer – unnecessarily, I hope – as an instance of the theme still doing the rounds.

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