Fringe Benefits

Cities are often surrounded with parkland. In London’s case this was Middlesex — not a bad name for somewhere neither one thing nor the other: not real town nor real country. Like Venice’s  terra firma, dotted with Palladian villas, or the outskirts of Naples sweeping around its bay, London’s countryside became a playground and a refuge. It’s somewhere where you could imagine Marx and Engel’s demand in the 1848 Communist Manifesto for the ‘abolition of the distinction between town and country’ starting to take shape. Middlesex was always tied in to London’s economy, but it became the semi-independent powerhouse of Britain’s revival from the Depression of the 1930s both with the building boom that created Metroland and as the home of a new wave of industry: light engineering, consumer goods and aviation.  Even so, much open space was preserved by its own county council , which bought up swathes of fields and forests together with the London County Council before both were abolished on 1 April 1965. The Green Belt was created at a time (post war) when it was believed that the population would fall. Now the Institute of Directors, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Spiked Online crowd are calling for it to be built on to help the national economy, fight house price inflation and ease homelessness. But what would be built? Outer London is already littered with places put up too quickly with too little thought because the abundance of available land encouraged careless planning and design. And when Middlesex lost its name it ran the risk of becoming a lost cause.  But fashions have been changing, from as long ago as 1973 when Richard Mabey’s book ‘The Unofficial Countryside’ looked through fresh eyes at the wild life of what’s now being called the  ‘edge lands’.  Academics have created a new ‘burgeoning’ interdisciplinary field called Suburban Studies. Long before Los Angeles, Middlesex was where a new kind of sprawling city was invented. Most of the world’s population now lives like this. The former county is still  overshadowed by central London; but the suburban dream, of being linked both to the metropolis and to the natural world, is alive and well , Middlesex is hanging onto its cosmopolitan and tolerant character, it has a huge wealth of history and culture, and it deserves to be known by its proper name.


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