People often sneer at suburbia these days. They assume it’s dull, conventional and stuffed with nosy old spinsters hiding behind their net curtains and privet hedges.
They think it’s all identical little houses, pebble-dashed, semi-detached with pointy roofs and a couple of mock-Tudor beams. Inside, it’s three-up, two-down, kitchen at the back, all identical.
They are perhaps mocking what they believe to be the home of Middle England, where everyone pokes their nose into everyone else’s business because there’s so little going on in their own lives.
For many years, I felt like this myself. Ruislip – my typically suburban home town in Middlesex – seemed motionless and stifling to the young me. Everything shut down on a Sunday. There was nothing much to do and nowhere to go.
I didn’t leave until I was 21, when I moved to London, thrilled to escape the stuffy old place for good. And it’s only now, aged 69, with the benefit of hindsight and firmly entrenched in the madness that is Central London 2012, that I look back and realise that Ruislip was actually a lost paradise.
Back then, suburbia was one huge playground for us children. I was an only child, luckily living in one of the larger, detached houses, but we all had our gardens, the fields, the woods, the banks of the River Pinn, the lido, our dogs, pet mice and riding (it didn’t cost an arm and a leg in those days).
And oddly enough – and this is perhaps the major difference between my childhood and that of today’s children – we were allowed out. By ourselves.
Even my mother, Anxiety Queen of the Century, let me go out to play in the woods and pick bluebells, aged nine, with my friends, and no grown-up to supervise us.
No one seemed to be as frightened as they are now. There was hardly any traffic, so crossing the road was not the near-death experience that it can be today. But we did apparently have a mad Tarzan in the woods, and the odd flasher wandering the streets and the common.
I never saw the ‘Tarzan’ myself, but we all knew that he would suddenly appear, swinging down from a tree in his loin-cloth, whooping and giving lady walkers a terrible fright.
My friend Laraine, out riding, remembers coming across a very rude man on the common one day, but she and the other young riders galloped around him in a circle on their ponies, like red Indians around the white settlers’ caravan, and scared the poor man witless.
Even then, the grown-ups didn’t seem to panic. Nothing stopped them from letting us out to play. They seemed to understand the intrinsic need for children to take risks and learn the basic life lesson that actions have consequences.
So what did ‘play’ mean back then? There was barely any telly, no mobiles, iPhones or iPlayers, no internet, computer games, PlayStations and no pop stars. We had only the simplest of equipment: jacks, marbles, skipping-ropes, bats, balls and bicycles.
Most of the time, my friends and I made our own games up: making perfume from rose petals, brewing ginger beer, holding snail races, picking blackberries, making dens in the woods.
We played by the river bank, fishing for sticklebacks and newts, climbed trees and cycled everywhere.
Other children played doctors and nurses, but not me and my chums. We preferred more daring games, such as jumping off the garage roof – which was several feet high. And, most daring of all, we once hauled my boxer dog, Lusty, up there in a blanket. What a triumph!
But whatever was my mother thinking to allow that? Did she even see us at it?
In fact, she seemed to leave us to our own devices most of the time. No after-school this, that or the other.
This must all sound so primitive to today’s young. How would they cope with just two channels of black- and-white telly for only a couple of hours a day? And just the one rotary-dial telephone in the hall?
So how did we manage?
I don’t want to sound a show-off here, but we used our imaginations. We had to. There wasn’t anything much else around.
For the grown-ups in Ruislip, just like anywhere else, life could sometimes be difficult, and under the respectable surface, Ruislip was sometimes hit by scandal.
Some of the parents in the neighbourhood were locked in unhappy marriages. One mother I knew of had countless affairs; another turned to drink; and my Auntie Celia tried hard to diddle us out of money left to us by my grandma when she died.
These events took their toll on my mother, who used to shout a lot, especially at my father, who was such a sulker.