The Suburban Village

'It might not be the future. It might be our only chance.'

Racially mixed, socially peaceful, alcoholically well-served, and with more cosmetic surgeons than you can shake a stick at, Northern Ireland’s suburban villages have their praises sung by Lynne McMordie.

For people born and raised in towns (Northern Ireland has no cities, only towns) the idea of living outside them seems unbearable. In fact, the smaller the town, the more its inhabitants erect defences against the life outside. You only have to encounter the collective cultural self-regard of Derry people to know this is true. But then maybe it’s a siege thing?

Some people tell you they would die if they had to live outside Belfast. Or at least starve, in that theatreless, nightclubless, art-free famine-zone which is the rest of the country. What they really mean is, they’d be lost outside south Belfast, a few square miles, if that, of ersatz Berlin coffeeshops, ‘our Paris part of Belfast’. Bars where you can’t hear yourself think for geography students playing giant jenga and poets holding court. The urban village, where everyone knows everyone who matters.

In the old days, when there were still bookshops, these people had some excuse. Now, in the age of Amazon, why pay £2.80 for a pint? Or suffer the alternative.

The country. Proper villages. With one pub, paramilitary murals, and traffic jams.

At least, I hear you say, there’s the landscape. Well, wake up and smell the Sudan 1 in your coffee. All that rolling green you see from the motorway is what they call ‘improved grassland’, an impoverished, over-fertilised, pesticided wasteland of imported rye-grass. What you see from the window of your 4x4 is building sites or shopping centres in waiting.

The towns are inhuman, the countryside’s unnatural. What’s left? Only the best-kept secret in the region, and my tongue may well be torn out and thrown into the sea at low tide for telling you this. What’s left is the suburbs.

Or nearly, but not quite. Not all the suburbs. As improved grassland falls before the scythe of the Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan, as Ballymena stretches forth its rustic-brick-and-breezeblock ‘developments’ to meet those of Antrim town, there are still places where a thought might grow, where everybody knows everybody’s business and nobody gives a hoot. Where if you want to go the theatre, you can be there and back in an evening, but don’t have to suffer a mob of Celtic-topped postgrads stealing the For Sale sign out of your two-by-four of patio.

Proper suburbs. With history. And, for the time being at least, public transport links into the nearest ‘metropolis’. You won’t see them on the latest ads from the Chamber of Commerce (‘Belfast? I don’t believe it!’) because they don’t have a Chamber of Commerce and the nearest tier of local government is too busy marketing itself to worry about promoting these places.

Which places? Well, let me give you an example, on the north coast of Belfast Lough, ten minutes tops from the ‘city’ centre. Whiteabbey, perhaps because of its proximity to the University of Ulster’s Jordanstown campus, is racially mixed, socially peaceful, and alcoholically well-served.

The best off-licence in Northern Ireland, Chinese, Indian, Italian and posh-pub eateries, and more hairdressers, beauticians and indeed cosmetic surgeons than you can shake a stick at. It’s on the sea (who needs scenery when you’re on the sea?) and it’s on the railway line, so you can stand on the platform and watch the cool new Spanish trains from Derry go whooshing by. There’s a hospital (in case you fall under one of the cool new Spanish trains, or catch frostbite waiting for one of the old Northern Irish ones) and there’s a park.

If this were London, Whiteabbey’d be an inner-city oasis. Here, beyond the event horizon of Belfast’s black hole (infinitely dense, infinitely small) it’s a no-go area, a forbidden zone. It might as well be Saturn with amenities, or Rathcool.

Of course like all suburbs it’s a middle class magnet. People who threaten the very existence of the place and its butcher and chippy by shopping at Tescos. Being close to Belfast, Whiteabbey has suffered more than somewhere like Whitehead, just further up the railway line, from the pernicious effects of aerodrome-hangar shopping-complexes and cheek-by-jowl mansion estates. Nevertheless, these are places where people in pubs and shops know your name – and not because you’ve been well-reviewed in the latest Irish Pages.

The suburban village. I wish I could say that it’s the future. Actually, there are probably fewer and fewer places that qualify, some on the coast of Belfast and Strangford Loughs, fewer in the north-west, maybe a scattering in the orbits of the new conurbations growing up from the old market towns of Antrim, Down and Armagh.

Most have a healthy disregard for racial, as they have for religious, background, which is more than ‘bohemian’ south Belfast can say. Nor are they really threatened by development: in the long run, the failed shopping centres will be playgrounds for our children.

What threatens them is inverted snobbery, the feeling of the urban villager or the rural survivalist that these small clusters of homes and businesses are morally or artistically or commercially inferior to known ways of life. What threatens them is the undermining of their integrity by jibes that this isn’t proper or authentic life at all, this neither fish-nor-fowl, urban nor rural existence. That this is an idealised, bourgeois utopia, or an obstruction to the proper business of farming or hosting revolutionary salons.

But the real utopians are those who somehow still believe in the rural/urban divide in contemporary Northern Ireland. Who somehow think this tiny place can support both ecosystems. Who believe it is morally better to live in one kind of place rather than other. With one kind of people as their neighbours. Keeping to themselves.

As they ‘redevelop’ (the word means ‘brand’) our so-called city centres, and industrialise the countryside, you can’t help thinking that we need to revisit what we learned in geography class. The suburban village might not be our future. It might be our only chance.