I was out front filling window-sill cracks this morning when one of my elderly neighbours appeared alongside, with a bottle of medicine. ‘I don’t want to come too close,’ he said, ‘I’ve got a dreadful cold. But could you help me to open this?’
It had a modern child-proof cap, which I loosened. As he took the bottle back I thought, perhaps this is an innovation that post-dates the last time he took medicine? That would be characteristic, for this is a ruggedly independent, practical man who would seldom ask a favour. We talked briefly about other things and off he went.
There are several classic neighbouring themes bound up in this tiny encounter: I’ll try to round them up concisely.
First, it’s a reminder that when we ask survey questions about whether neighbours ‘exchange favours,’ the point is really about the latent potential for support, together with the readiness to draw on it. Time and again we’ve had studies on aspects of neighbouring which say this happens or that happens to a given percentage, but don’t help us to get at the ways of optimising informal support. Seeing me out there, from his window or door – and faced with a medical need he had not managed to resolve by himself – my neighbour took the opportunity to draw on the accretion of adequate familiarity from years of recognition and the occasional few, largely inconsequential words. As I noted some years ago, the essence of neighbouring is that it is low-level and relatively trivial, but it accumulates.
Next, we have the old theme of visibly occupying the neighbourhood. I was outside and therefore legitimately open to interruption. It’s unlikely he would have gone round knocking, for such a favour. It reminded me of comments from a workshop participant years ago (reported here, p11), relating how long it had taken her to paint her front door, because of all the neighbourly conversations that followed from occupying that semi-private, pseudo-community space. I also recall someone in an audience deciding on the same basis that she was going to grow potatoes in her front garden.
And two more points, based on the fact that we have been neighbours for 28 years. This exchange was nothing to do with ‘visiting in each other’s houses’ – as some surveys like to frame relations; nor was it anything to do with knowing names. We call each other by our first names; I don’t know his surname and I doubt he knows mine. I have never been in his house nor he in mine.
An understanding of neighbouring that gets distracted by such details, it seems to me, risks overlooking more important ingredients: mainly - the fundamental importance of recurring visual recognition; that neighbouring is not the same as friendship; and that it is founded on respect for privacy and the navigability of semi-private space.