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    several brick houses

    Somewhere in Chessington

    My hometown debunks the idea that family-friendly neighborhoods are a thing of the past.

    By Rhys Laverty

    November 24, 2000
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    Early last summer, Mum called to say she’d be having a minor operation that would take her out of action for six weeks. Swiftly, that ugly modern crisis was upon me: childcare. Mum looks after our kids twice a week – what would we do?

    “Don’t worry,” said Mum, “it’s sorted.”

    And it was. When I started explaining things to my wife, she blurted out “What about childcare?” I leaned over and repeated a mantra of ours: “Trust the herd.” For six weeks, the kids bounced between two of their great-aunts, with my cousins on standby, and even my dad valiantly chipping in. I hadn’t even needed to make a telephone call.

    When I’ve told the story since, the response is always the same: “You’re so lucky – so few people have that nowadays.” And that seems true. Of my close university friends, only I returned home to live in the same town as my family. For those friends, intergenerational relationships happen maybe at Christmas. For me, it’s day-to-day. Yet in the grand sweep of history and geography, I’m not particularly unusual. In most places, and at most times, successive generations stay put. It’s not that nobody moved around before the twentieth century – wind the clock back to, say, the fourteenth century, and you’d find a lot of Flemish artisans and tradesmen knocking around England looking for work. But, by and large, human beings have tended to stay put with their elders and offspring.

    town houses

    Chessington from the South, 2012. Photograph by Colin Smith.

    But that’s changed in the United Kingdom. An Ancestry survey in 2017 showed that Britons now live on average 100 miles away from where they were born. A generation ago, the average was five miles. Just one-third of people live in their childhood home, and only half still live nearby. Newspaper reports at the time strangely claimed that this showed the desire to move away was “not overwhelming,” which seems a bit “glass half full” to me. My hometown, Chessington, seems to be (just about) bucking this trend – something for which I’m very grateful. But I’m worried about how long it will stay that way.

    By rights, Chessington should have long since dissolved indistinctly into the suburban sprawl of London’s Zone 6. But quirks of roadbuilding give it some surprisingly definite borders: the M25 hems the south; the A3 divides us north and west from leafy Surbiton (made famous by The Good Life); eastward, everyone knows that once you’re past the Jet garage on Ruxley Lane, you’re into Epsom and Ewell. And so it remains, despite its affluent neighbors, a working-class redoubt of just under twenty thousand souls, largely the families of what an outsider might call “white-van men” – builders, plumbers, and electricians. Whether or not they drive vans, they tend to work with their hands, love their wives and kids, and enjoy a drink after work down the pub (of which we have many – nearly double the national average ratio of pubs to people, in fact).

    Chessington is moderately famous for its zoo and World of Adventures theme park. Others say its best feature is having two train stations – twice as many chances to leave! But, for whatever reason, people tend to stay put. It’s the kind of place where you know your friends’ parents and your parents’ friends. I am not the only person here with more aunts than Bertie Wooster.

    In 2017, David Goodhart published The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics. Goodhart was pegged as one of the “Brexit whisperers,” a translator of the disaffected working classes. He framed national divisions as primarily between the “Anywheres” and the “Somewheres.” The Anywheres derive their identities from intangibles such as their education and careers; the Somewheres derive theirs from a sense of place and local community.

    The Anywheres are not new, exactly. Aristotle remarked on the theoretical dangerousness of someone without a state. In his Politics, he says that “he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either a bad man or above humanity; he is like the ‘tribeless, lawless, heartless one’ whom Homer denounces – the natural outcast is forthwith a lover of war; he may be compared to an isolated piece at draughts.” The Anywheres seem particularly ascendant these days, so Goodhart’s categories are useful not just for thinking about Brexit, but for understanding twenty-first-century Britain more broadly. The key reason, I think, that Chessington remains a highly intergenerational town is that it is still populated by working-class Somewheres: if you stick around in a place, you can’t help but form bonds between old and young, within your family and without.

    Chessington remains a workingclass redoubt of just under twenty thousand souls, largely the families of what an outsider might call “white-van men” – builders, plumbers, electricians.

    How did Chessington get this way? You can trace the place back to Anglo-Saxon days, but for a long time it was just a hamlet, outside the slightly more substantial village of Hook (to this day, one of my mum’s more aspirational friends insists she lives in Hook, not Chessington). Chessington really began to develop as a town after the zoo’s founding in 1931, soon subsuming Hook. Rows of newbuilds went up, along with the train line to London built in 1939. The post–World War II suburban boom took it from strength to strength: half an hour from Waterloo by rail, with good road connections into London, it provided ample work opportunities, growing into a thriving working-class town, insulated from London and Surrey on either side.

    By the mid-1960s, it was an ideal place to settle down, which is exactly what all my grandparents did. Dave and Pat, my maternal grandparents, were local already (the house Dave was born in is five minutes from mine); the welfare state was in its prime, and both worked in the National Health Service, allowing them to buy their family home in 1966. My paternal grandparents, Dan and Maud, hailed from Ireland and the Channel Islands. After serving in the Royal Navy, Grandad Dan could never return to Ireland for fear of Republican reprisals. He and my grandmother met during the war and, after grandad’s career brought him to Surrey in the late sixties, Chessington became their home. UK homebuilding peaked around this time, and he and my granny bought a house on one of several new estates. Granny remained proud for years that theirs had been the show home for the whole estate – so proud, it seems, she didn’t change a thing. After they died fifty years later, we discovered they’d not once updated the wiring.

    highway under an overpass

    Bridge Road, Chessington, 2020. Photograph by David Howard.

    In my parents’ lifetimes, various other circumstances helped keep Chessington a stable place for family life. In 1980, Margaret Thatcher introduced the “Right to Buy,” allowing people to buy their council homes (of which there were an abundance – council housing encompassed more than 30 percent of homes in the seventies). Despite being opposed to the policy in principle, my dad (like almost everyone else) couldn’t turn down the offer. Transportation improved as well: in 1985 Chessington joined the M25 with the completion of Junction 9, opening up a new world of work for my dad as a haulage and demolition driver who eventually set up his own business. Proximity to London always meant prices were somewhat higher than elsewhere – two of my aunts had to move out to get on the property ladder before getting back in. But having been populated by working-class folk in the preceding decades, and then filled with large amounts of council housing, the town resisted anything resembling gentrification.

    So, bit by bit, Chessington became a highly intergenerational place. Dave, Pat, Dan, and Maud all died here, each pair leaving behind four children. Today, three of each set still live here, as do most of their children (and their growing number of grandchildren). They are my aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, and nieces. I can barely leave the house without bumping into one of them. Almost all these people could be fairly described as Somewheres. Perhaps my family is a bit bigger than some others, but most folk in Chessington are a lot like us. This is their Somewhere; their values in life are shaped primarily by what goes on here, not in Westminster or New York or Los Angeles. Their families, like mine, have been around for a while, so their intergenerational networks involve not only family members but the countless mates-of and ex-boyfriend’s-mums-of that they can’t help but acquire. This is why you will often find eighteen-year-olds drinking in the pub with their mum’s friends.

    So what’s changing? My fear is that this town of Somewheres may be, unwittingly, turning itself into one of Anywheres.

    Two things, above all else, threaten the demise of intergenerational families here: house prices and higher education.

    House prices are a national problem, nowhere more than in London and its fringe. Like everywhere else, Boomers and Gen-Xers bought property when times were good, so they could afford to raise their families here. In many places, when house prices rise, owners sell up and move on, usually to a more prosperous neighborhood. Not here. Chessington is surrounded by leafier, more affluent areas – Surbiton, Claygate, Epsom – but no Chessingtonian in his right mind wants to live in such poncy places. Working-class people don’t want to move to middle-class places; they want to stay where they are but with more money. Rather than a new house, money goes to improving the one you already have. My church’s new pastor remarked in a sermon recently that he’d never seen a town with so many loft conversions – and it’s true.

    Yet the children of these Boomer and Gen-X homeowners now struggle to afford to live here. Two of my cousins, both with children of their own, have had to move in with their parents to save for a house. Others I know have had to uproot themselves to somewhere cheaper to start their own families, turning intergenerational relationships once maintained on a daily basis into the stuff of WhatsApp groups and bank-holiday visits. When their parents eventually die, having likely sold their house to pay for their final years in a nursing home, inflated house prices (exacerbated by the expensive elaboration of loft conversions and extensions) mean there’s no way their children will be able to afford what were once their parents’ homes. A bubble seems set to burst: when the affluent working-class Boomers start dying or selling their homes to pay for care, an affluent middle-class commuter set will arrive in force, likely gentrifying the place, driving prices up even more, and killing off a working-class town once and for all. The younger generations will be scattered to who knows where, like the exiled Cockneys of Essex.

    Christians, who know all too well from the Garden of Eden what happens when man reaches beyond his limits, should really be the biggest Somewheres of all.

    Then there’s education. In The Road to Somewhere, Goodhart observes that the “helter-skelter expansion of higher education” and “the elevation of educational success as the main marker of social esteem” since the early 1990s have powered the triumph of Anywhere values over Somewhere values in British society. The Further and Higher Education Act 1992 doubled the number of universities in Britain by turning all polytechnic colleges into universities. Before then, the polys were largely associated with STEM qualifications, but after chafing at the snobbery of the established universities, they gradually developed their own creative and humanities degrees. The merits of the 1992 Act are still debated, but it undoubtedly led to an explosive increase in university attendance that continues to this day. Between 1992 and 2016, UK university attendance nearly doubled. Its impact is measurable by me: 1992 is the year I was born, and I was the first person on my mother’s side of the family to go to university.

    The prospectus of our local girls’ comprehensive school boasts of its sixth form that “the vast majority of students receive the maximum five ‘offers’ from their chosen universities and most are accepted on to their ‘first choice’ of university course.” One thing this means is that many of these girls won’t return home. They’ll stay in their uni town, move abroad, or move a few travel zones north into London proper. Those who do return will have immensely weakened their bonds with the place; they’re likely to view homecoming as a kind of defeat. And you can understand why. Before they go to university, the stories of a thousand-and-one films and songs drip-feed into teenagers’ minds something I call “Born To Run Syndrome”: “Oh, baby this town rips the bones from your back / It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap / We gotta get out while we’re young / ’Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run.” Chessington is hardly the kind of derelict East-Jesus-Nowhere that inspired Springsteen in the seventies, but the well-trodden “let’s blow this popcorn stand!” myth is so ingrained by now that it may as well be. The political and ideological chemistry of university, too, is pure acid to familial bonds, invested as it is in questioning anything inherited, culture not least. Most young people don’t stand a chance of developing a healthy relationship to hearth and hometown. Anywhereism makes great inroads this way.

    a train waiting at a train station

    Chessington North Station, 1985. Photograph by Ben Brooksbank.

    Yet the real tragedy is that this corrosion of intergenerational working-class bonds seems, for the large part, self-inflicted. The Somewheres unknowingly, yet willingly, are handing their children over to the Anywheres. Despite the explosion of university attendance in the last thirty years, it’s still often a badge of honor for many working-class families to send a child to university, so they enthusiastically encourage their children into it. Such working-class aspiration can be a poisoned chalice, as Somewhere parents drive their children into the arms of the Anywheres. It is dispiriting to see the many teenagers I know ferried unquestioningly along the conveyor belt to university, forever weakening their bonds at home – all for the sake of (in most cases) a dubiously useful degree.

    Often, their grandparents found their Somewhere here; their parents grew up here close to siblings and cousins; they probably did too. But that’s changed. Despite contentment with their own lot, working-class parents often nurse an aspirational streak that supposes that somehow it’s “better” for their children to go off to university. This aspirational streak is exploited by secondary schools, who marshal all their resources to funnel children toward university, since more kids at university looks better for the school. Just before Christmas, my wife, a teacher at a local boys’ state secondary school, had a sixth-former go missing overnight. He turned up the next day, distressed and scruffy after a night’s wandering. He’d had a minor breakdown because of the pressure to apply to university – which he didn’t want to do. This is the other way Anywhereism wins: through the Somewheres’ suicide by aspiration.

    What becomes of these Somewhere-cum-Anywheres, wherever they end up? Some outcomes are obvious. If they have kids, grandparents are often a long way away, and there is just no replacement for having grandparents close by. But it’s about more than that: what of aunts, cousins, uncles, neighbors – those less well-defined, gloriously unscripted familial and extrafamilial relationships whose great strength is their lack of definition, leaving more room for the abundance of personality than those of parents or grandparents? Dylan Thomas wrote, “There are always uncles at Christmas” – gorgeously true, but why not all year round? Who can estimate the value of bumping into an uncle (unrelated to you by blood) at the shops, and him, unprompted, giving you a beefy kiss on the cheek, telling you “Don’t worry about the kids, mister, you’re a great dad”?

    My mum attended the aforementioned girls’ comprehensive in the seventies, and she recalls that “hardly anybody went to university.” She didn’t. Nor did any of her friends. She lives literally over the road from her old school and has never really gone anywhere else. She turned sixty this year and is holding two separate parties – the first for ladies only. She invited one hundred people, ranging from teenagers to women in their eighties. My cousins’ friends were there – because my mum has known them all their lives. Will any of those girls now applying successfully for their five university choices be able to throw a sixtieth birthday party like that? I doubt it.

    As a Christian, I’m inevitably faced with the question of what the witness of the church should be in a town sliding from Somewhere to Anywhere. On one level, there is an instinctive Christian reaction of unconcern – after all, our home is heaven; we are but poor wayfaring strangers traveling here below; in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, Chessingtonian nor Londoner. Considered this way, Christians may seem, on the earthly plane, the most Anywhere folk of all, our only Somewhere being the new creation. Yet grace does not destroy nature but perfects it. God has marked out our appointed times in history and the boundaries of our lands, and commands us to remain as we were when we were called. In an age that rejects the givens of human nature, there seem few greater imperatives for the church than to be a stickler for humanity. Considered this way, Christians, who know all too well from the Garden of Eden what happens when man reaches beyond his limits, should really be the biggest Somewheres of all.

    Contributed By portrait of Rhys Laverty Rhys Laverty

    Rhys Laverty is senior editor of Ad Fontes Journal and managing editor at the Davenant Press.

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