About seven or eight years ago, I was asked to address a conference on social cohesion, which is the politicians and opinion makers’ term for neighbourliness.
When I got there I found the room was full of trendy middle class professional types, drinking coffee and fresh orange juice and munching pain au chocolat for their breakfasts. I had prepared notes for a speech, but when I got to the podium I felt myself becoming mischievous – a response, I think, to a lot of the small talk I had heard at the breakfast buffet.
I folded up my notes, shoved them into my pocket and decided to wing it. I looked at the people in front of me, most of whom were texting or jotting things down on their delegate packs and said: “Mabel, Doris and Hannah Pyatt lived at number one, across from them was a bloke called Gilbert who lived on his own, next door to us were Mr and Mrs Larkins, then Mrs Seal and her nephew Frankie who played in the Salvation Army band and next door to them was Arthur Maxfield who had a Jack Russell and used to go ratting on the tip, opposite was John Tom Hope and his sister Hannah…” and I carried on until I had named every family on both sides of the street I grew up in.
When I finished I asked: “Can anybody in this room name all their neighbours? Please put your hand up.” There must have been 140 people in that room and not one put up their hand. I said: “Alright, let’s make it easier, put your hand up if you know the name of your next door neighbours.” Only about a half of them did. We live in peculiar times, don’t we?
If people who specialise in community matters can’t even name their neighbours, what chance is there for the rest of us?
I’m not sure my little experiment went down too well – there were one or two red faces among the local politicians in particular – but I think we all learned something and that is it’s not as easy to talk about community now as it was perhaps 40 years ago.
I was thinking about this recently when I read a report from Neighbourhood Watch which revealed that less than a quarter of us feel any sense of belonging to where we live, yet we all still crave neighbourly contact.
The report also revealed that one in ten people can’t name a single one of their neighbours.
The report went on to tell about a survey involving a social anthropologist that was sponsored by comparethemarket.com, the one that uses cuddly meerkats.
In a month-long experiment, residents of Lingard Road in Manchester were asked to smile every day at people in their street and keep a diary of the reactions they got. Most people reported that although they got some funny looks, they found at the end of the month that they had said hello and found out the names of their neighbours and a bit about their lives and that they did feel something positive had happened.
The social anthropologist Kate Fox said: “We have become reserved, but as human beings we still have the need for community that we have always had, it’s just that some of the things that help our social interaction – pubs, local shops, clubs – have disappeared.”
When I was a boy, our next door neighbour Doris would come to our house every evening to swap her Evening Post for our Daily Mirror and to swap the story of her day with our gossip. She used to stand at the back of the sofa, sometimes for an hour at a time.
When she had gone my gran would say: “She’s a nosy devil” but she never stopped her coming in to our house, it’s just what she did.
Once, when Doris didn’t come, I was sent to see if she was alright. I found that Doris had fallen down in her kitchen and hurt her leg, I sent for the doctor. There’s a lot to be said for trying to be a good neighbour.
I don’t think we need conferences on social cohesion to know these things, either. I think small simple gestures like saying good morning can start the ball rolling and before you know it, we’ll all be building better and safer neighbourhoods.