Friday, 09 March 2012

The golden age of neighbouring is now Monocle 24 had a feature about urban neighbours last week. It included an interview with Lucy Musgrave talking about the public realm – so refreshing to hear someone just use that term these days, in the public realm, let alone speak about it with such refreshing assurance. There was also a lengthy piece about the garage sale trail, a booming initiative that sees social benefits (including informal local trade as well as environmental advantages) from the systematising of local markets based around household surplus. And there was an interview with Emily Cockayne about the history of neighbours, heralding her forthcoming book, Cheek by jowl. I’m fortunate to have a review copy on the desk beside me, and will be offering some comments here in due course. For now, a few thoughts prompted by Emily’s remarks. She put particular emphasis on the way that relationships between neighbours had changed by midway through the twentieth century, with opportunities for less and less contact, which changed expectations. Urban neighbours in previous ages often struggled for the segregation of living space, so the history of neighbouring depends heavily on a consideration of the architectural and design constraints. My take on that is that the notion privacy had to be invented and may not be a given feature of human social relations. (Why isn't there ever an anthropologist here when I need one?) By 1950, says Emily, if you were a good neighbour it meant you kept yourself to yourself. The point – well-made already in much of the literature but here with a wider historical perspective than, say, scholars like Barry Wellman have adopted – is that since then a shrinking proportion of our friends are now neighbours. But where does the assumption come from that all or some or any neighbours should be friends? In early modern England, people moved around a lot more than is sometimes assumed, so I’m not too sure about the assumption that one might have known few others beyond the locality, and therefore if you had friends, they’d be neighbours. Allies, certainly, you probably needed as many as you could accumulate within hearing distance. Are we faced with historically fluid meanings of ‘friend’ I wonder? Anyway, contemporary neighbouring to me seems clearer if we accept the distinction between friendship and friendliness (a chance to declare indebtedness to Philip Abrams). Asked by the interviewer if she favoured any particular age for neighbouring, Emily replied ‘It’s now!’ The golden age of neighbouring is now she says, because we can choose the degree of relationship we want to have. Tell that to the Daily Moan. I’ve long been curious about the comparison of our age with the late medieval and early modern periods, and I crammed some of that fascination into my reflections about changing attitudes to ‘community’ in Picnic last year. So since I started reading Cheek by jowl I’m finding Emily’s range of sources stimulating, and her highly-readable style is a delight. More soon.

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