Suburbs and suburbia have come up before in these columns, with Hatfield (
It was always a bit of a con. In the1920’s and 1930’s Metro-land looked back to an Edwardian age that never really existed – and sometimes a good deal further back. A publicity blurb for Chorleywood station in 1919 claimed you would walk straight into the 15th century. ( On the up side you would just miss the Black Death. On the down side you would not be able to get a cup of coffee or plate of chips anywhere). In the 50’s it looked back to a 30’s that never really existed. In the 1990’s it looked back to a 50’s that never really existed. The notion was made up of a number of things: mock Tudor houses, nuclear families, neat lawns and lawn tennis ,teashops and afternoon tea, little railway halts with wooden platforms, a sense that places like Pinner or Chorleywood were really rather different from mere suburbia. John Betjeman wrote a number of poems about Metro-land, including Middlesex: "Daily into Ruislip Gardens runs the red electric train. With a thousand Ta's and Pardons daintily alights Elaine".
It was never an obvious place to inspire pop songs, though some artists did spend their formative years somewhere there. Elton John, for example, grew up in Pinner in Harrow, an archetypal part of Metro-land with its mock-Tudor ,annual Pinner Fair dating back to the 1300’s and Morris Dancers in ye olde High Street. I got a sense of what it must be like to grow up in such an environment when as a young child we had a couple of family holidays in a house-swapping exercise that was presumably a cost-saving measure, exchanging abodes with relatives who lived in Harrow. Even at that age I realised that we had got the poor side of the bargain: they got a week by the Dorset seaside in August, we got a week in the urban heat in Metro-land, too far out from the excitements of London's tourist sites to make them easily accessible. Actually the highlight of one holiday was discovering an old treadle sewing machine in a bedroom and seeing how fast you could make the foot pedal go. It is no surprise that Elton John tended to the more flamboyant when he escaped such a setting. What characterised the notion of Metro-land as much as anything was respectability, the old fear of the lower middle class falling in to a social abyss.
However, it also meant a relative scarcity of songs about it. Even the Metropolitan Line, in fact, is less musically celebrated than others. The Northern Line is perhaps the best served here. There was Love on the Northern Line by boy band Northern Line: “How was I to know what fate would bring to me, oh seeing you sitting there all alone silently….. Tell me who would have thought I'd find love on the Northern Line “ (lyrics which raise doubts about whether Northern Line ever travelled on the Northern Line .Whenever was anyone able to sit down, never mind all alone?). There was also Robyn Hitchcock’s 52 Stations: “There's fifty-two stations on the Northern line, none of them is yours, one of them is mine”
For the Piccadilly Line there was a 1958 track by Jim Dale, Piccadilly Line, a parody of Lonnie Donegan’s Rock Island Line. (Despite a long and varied career taking in pop singer, songwriter (Georgie Girl),stage actor (Barnum) and narrating the Harry Potter audio-books in the USA, Jim Dale is still best remembered in the UK for his roles as an accident-prone romantic lead in the Carry On films, forever innocently giving the likes of Barbara Windsor one as she invited a double-entendre.) The Bakerloo Line had the Eddy Grant-penned All Change On The Bakerloo Line, recorded by ska group The Pyramids (aka Symarip) in 1968, making the Bakerloo Line sound as if a permanent party was going on down there. (The Pyramids, whose most successful single was Skinhead Moonstomp, recall an odd moment in UK pop history, when white working-class skinheads - some of whom voiced support for Enoch Powell and later the National Front- championed Jamaican ska and rock- steady music : the commercial success of artists such as Desmond Dekker and the Pioneers was partly due to popularity amongst skinheads. Shared links of class and an anti-police/authority culture perhaps explained part of this.It would be wrong in any case to assume an automatic link between skinhead culture and right wing politics. In the mid and late 70’s, the Anti-Nazi League movement in London and Manchester and elsewhere had support from Skins Against the Nazis groups.) Even the Hammersmith and City Line got a mention in Carter USM’s Lean On Me, I Won’t Fall over: “I'll read your letter as I pass away the time, stuck in a tunnel on the Hammersmith and City line”. The Metropolitan Line though? Nothing really.
However, the song here from 1988, Love and Death in Metroland by Always, from the album Thames Valley Leather Club And Other Stories, seems a fitting one. Always was basically Kevin Wright, a singer/songwriter with echoes of Lloyd Cole , perhaps Ray Davies :very English, a melancholic undertone, veering towards the whimsy at times, and songs with literary allusions that dissect English culture. A style that suits Metro-land. ”There’s no escaping from this place, you’ll disappear without a trace”. Well, of course you will. It was an advertising concept - it doesn’t really exist.