Monday, 20 August 2012

Our letterboxes aren’t fit for purpose: so involve neighbours Royal Mail today announced that it will be rolling out its ‘Delivery to Neighbour’ initiative which I’ve mentioned a few times. With Ofcom’s approval, they’re pre-empting the consultation, for which the deadline is a week today. I’ve just been talking to Nikki Bedi on Radio London about some of the neighbourliness issues. I made the point that some people will have genuine good reason not to be taking-in a neighbour’s packages, and we need to avoid their being stigmatised by the opt-out sticker (‘Neighbours not trusted here’) on their doorway. Technology, as I’ve suggested before, can surely be used to advantage, for instance through QR-coded digital instructions on the package. The scheme obviously implies a potential increase in neighbour interaction. The Ofcom consultation document reminds us that ‘in the trial areas there was a reduction of approximately 40% in the numbers of undeliverable items that were returned to delivery offices’ (emphasis added). That might be interpreted as a non-trivial increase in the number of neighbourly conversations that might not have happened before. Hopefully we’ll hear of more neighbourhoods with an informally ‘designated’ older person who is at home most of the time and known to the postal worker – and in return for the neighbourly service the recipients readily stop for a chat and catch up when they go round to collect their package. Online technology has helped to reduce the number of letters we get, but contributed to an increase in the number of packages being transported. We live in smaller households and there is less likely to be someone at home during the day, so there’s an increase in the proportion of packages not being delivered. Our letterboxes aren’t fit for purpose. The market solution is the external security box or parcel pod, with the deliverer placing the package into the unlocked container and usually being expected to ensure it is locked afterwards. This is part of the ongoing not-entirely-tasteful extension of secured privacy beyond the home, and Kev's Automatic Door Principle (which I referred to here) applies - another example of technology confiscating tiny social interactions. I’m sure the market for such boxes is set to expand, although our house-builders and architects might yet come up with alternative solutions. I much prefer the simple social alternative of the ‘Delivery to Neighbour’ scheme. Previously: Further footnote on taking in neighbours’ post Footnote on taking in your neighbour’s post Neighbours not trusted here 20 per cent of us don't want neighbours to handle our post
In the nabe-or-hood: an etymological excursion ‘the kids can’t get ice cream cause the market burned down and the newspaper sleeping bags blow down the lane and that goddam flatbed’s got me pinned in again’ Tom Waits, ‘In the neighbourhood’ [Swordfish trombones] 1982. There are nuanced ways of describing where you live, which may well reflect class differences – people who live on gated estates don’t call it an estate, they call it ‘community’. What does the American use of ‘nabe’ rather than ‘hood’ tell us? Henry Grabar explores the history of the terms in yesterday’s Atlantic, uncovering for instance a 1922 reference to a ‘nabe gym’ as well as the more regular ‘nabe theatres.’ ‘Nabe’ predated what he calls ‘the back-end shortening of neighbourhood,’ which began with a Chicago gang in the 1960s. It seems use of ‘nabe’ increased significantly in the 1990s, generally in connection with ‘wealthy and gentrified’ localities – places that were definitely not seen as ‘hoods’. Discussing the origin of ‘hood’, Grabar observes that, to some, the original sense seems to be lost, and perhaps irrelevant, rubbed away by time and frequent use. To others, no doubt, calling an up-and-came neighborhood a ‘hood’ imparts a coveted sense of black authenticity. Perhaps if the differences between black hoods (remember the use of the word ‘ghetto’?) and white enclaves had been less pronounced in the US, this might have become a case of assimilation and we would have seen trendy gated estates referred to as hoods. Grabar senses that the word ‘hood’ seems to be gentrifying nearly as fast as its brick and mortar counterparts. The article is a useful reminder to pay attention to street culture for its linguistic innovation and power to reflect social contrasts. That doesn’t mean a kind of ‘no pressure’ irony attached to Plan B – yes, some of us might dare to harbour expectations of what the writer-rapper can achieve after ill Manors, but please, no assimilation. Grabar concludes that hood and nabe may be converging, but they don’t mean the same thing yet. The nabe… is a place you try to live. The hood is still a place you try to leave. By way of a footnote, and to add a little European perspective on this excursion, here’s a wee curiosity about the etymology of ‘neighbour’ and ‘neighbourhood’. Although the former is clearly quite ancient – Chambers’ etymological mentions Old High German, Old English West Saxon, Old Icelandic and so on – the first recording of ‘neighbourhood’ meaning ‘vicinity’ or ‘environs’ (meaning an approximate place irrespective of residents) does not arise until 1577. Of course, ‘neighbour’ implies a consequent neighbourhood, and the etymology reinforces it. The word neighbour (neah-gbur) meaning ‘near-dweller’ - or, in some interpretations, the person who tills the near (next) field - is etymologically linked to the word ‘borough’ (burh, burg), a bounded place of dwelling, which in turn has links to the meaning of stronghold, fort, mound (‘barrow’) etc. There’s even a slightly far-fetched link (Italian, borghetto) with the word ghetto. Ah...

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