Memoir/social history Outskirts
John Grindrod (Sceptre, £16.99)
In this very topical book, John Grindrod’s loyalty to a particular patch of Greater London ‘edgeland’ leads him to wonder about the green belt’s history and significance. Although he declares early on that he can only ‘just about recognise a dock leaf and a field mouse’, there is no lack of sophistication in his writing about the natural world. however, this selfdeprecatory note is one of the pleasures in his understated account of ‘the dotted line’ between town and country.
Another is the humour, the Londoner’s gift for irony, for the witty summation (‘It was like Mad Max rebooted in Brookside Close’).
In 10 chapters (each prefaced by a suggestive little sketch such as a planner might commission), Mr Grindrod juxtaposes his own memories of new Addington, near Croydon, with broader social history. A pageant of significant figures—the national trust’s Octavia hill, the Garden Cities’ Ebenezer howard and Raymond Unwin, crusaders such as Cyril Joad, Patrick Abercrombie of the CPRE —parade against a backdrop of family life in and beyond a suburban council house.
the author’s parents, Marj and John, feature prominently: there are quirky memories (a section about the family’s private language) and vivid incidents, such as a lightning strike while waiting for the 130 bus.
But although the passages of memoir are interesting and moving, it is the historical sections that compel, sometimes because of arresting details—those 627 golf courses within a 50-mile radius, for example, or the chap in a car who decided where London ended by noting where the houses stop.
Above all, Mr Grindrod has the knack of putting an issue into precisely the right perspective, frequently an obvious one we hadn’t thought of—as when he remarks casually: ‘the M25 was part of a late eighties obsession with everything being out of town.’ John Greening