OK, it seems like forever since I last wrote. I stopped blogging during the election, and it has proved hard to start up again, but I suppose I will slowly get back in to it. Part of the reason is I have been so incredibly busy with the old lady down my street who I have long been friends with; we now go for an hour long walk every evening, and her cup of tea every night takes another hour, with frequent visits during the day eating up my spare time. She’s lovely but the endless phone calls as she has become forgetful do drive me mad! Still I guess this is part of the “big community” we hear so much about — I’m lucky enough to live in a street where people are very friendly, (yes, that includes very much the really nice folks from the brothel that used to be down the road till the big police raid a couple of years back — not that I ever twigged it was a brothel till the police kicked the door in, and I lived next door to it!), and spend a lot of time talking to one another and helping one another out.
Actually thinking of the brothel, or massage parlour or whatever it was in reality reminds me of the one night I nearly realised what was going on, or should have done. A chap in a wheelchair knocked on my door, and when I answered appeared to try to be asking me to sleep with him. He had a mild speech impairment that made communication difficult, and I was very polite, simply assuring him “I was not that kind of girl.” (I’m not any kind of girl actually, I’m a bloke.) He remained quite insistent, and then I realised he wanted sexual favours from someone else, not me. I became rather confused and a little embarrassed, till he suddenly realised he had the wrong house number. That was a relief! I should have referred him to the woman at Lloyds Pharmacy who covered Lisa and others holiday or sickness when she was a Dispenser there — she was unfortunately entitled a “Relief Dispenser”, and that was what this chap claimed to want! Anyway the brothel is long gone, and life here has returned to what passes for normal in this ironically named street.
The whole brothel affair was brought to mind a few minutes ago when I was walking Chris in her wheelchair down the road. We parked in the shade of the garages to talk to Tina, and then a lady from a letting firm drove up, a pretty blonde girl. So naturally I had to wander over to chat to her a minute, as the residents of the street interrogate any one we see walking past (more on this soon). I asked her if the house was still for rent, and she said no, it had just been let — “to a lovely couple of working girls”. I must have looked shocked, because she blushed and said “I mean professional women”… That did not make it any better, and we both burst out laughing, and then she said I knew what she meant — “women professionals”, and laughed more and apologised and said she knew all about the brothel raid! Nice lass, very friendly, as letting agents tend to be. She assured us if we had any problems with the new people in the street we could complain to her — and I was mildly amused, and said “why on earth would we do that?” To which she replied – it’s that kind of street! Er, OK.
Life in the street progresses at the usual slow pace; we have all been worried about one of my neighbours cats, a beautiful fluffy black Persian that looks like a walking bush with two glowing orange eyes when she sees my cats and fluffs up. She was fitting on Friday, and it was touch and go, but after veterinary intervention, some shots and a considerable bill she is now seemingly fine – let’s hope she stays that way, she is a lovely beastie. Yet I wonder how many people in the UK would know about the current state of health of their next door neighbour but sixes cat???
So let me get back to what started all this. I’m busy with work, Becky, and lots of other things — but I have to stop and think about the “Big Community” idea that is currently so fashionable in Cameron’s rhetoric. Obviously I like living like this — or I would not do it — but would you??? It’s an honest question. I like it, but it drives me mad. In a sense I have spent much of my life “growing up in public” — I never valued my privacy much, and much of what I do (though not all) is well known to many people. I’m a chatty, outgoing, open kind of guy. I think a lot of you think you know me and what goes on in my life pretty well for that reason (though I think I could still surprise even those closest to me at times!). I know what “big communities” are like — and I know the pitfalls.
Firstly, I’m an amateur. What I do for Chris can not replace the dedicated health professionals — doctors, nurses, opticians, pharmacists, and the lovely NHS carers who come round four times a day to look after her. I can’t heal my neighbours cat — she needs a vet for that. I can’t look after the street lights, make sure the water supply is clean, or mend a broken boiler or chimney. Community activism and volunteering supplements but does not replace the need for dedicated professional services, and never will, unless we return to a very small economy and near subsistence living. Even medieval villagers were not as self-sufficient and isolated as people often think. A “big community” can do something to make life better, but it does not replace the need for social services and properly trained professionals. Secondly, while the voluntary sector with superbly run organisations – we all know the Red Cross, Age Concern, The Samaritans, the RSPCA, NSPCC, etc, etc, which perform such incredibly valuable work in our society — can take up some public services and perform them very well, these organisations still need funding. More importantly, they need committed, hard working volunteers. And sure, twenty years ago I knew loads of people who did this kind of work — but in fact that is getting harder and harder to achieve. People on JSA or HB are seriously penalised if they spend too much time working in the voluntary sector – because they are limited to working less than is it ten or sixteen hours now, or face losing their benefits? The Benefits people look askance at volunteers – if you can work for the PDSA or British Heart Foundation shop, why are you not getting a proper paid job they ask? So many volunteers are those who own their own homes, have an income from another source, or have well paid partners. When I was an undergrad Student Community Action was a popular way to help others and get some stuff on your CV – nowadays its muh harder, and as Student Grants were replaced by Student Loans the number of volunteers diminished as students who previously were leading tea dances or doing gardens in run down parts of town were suddenly forced to do a MacJob to pay their way. Not necessarily a bad thing — but we saw a contraction of the voluntary sector, as economic realities hit home.
Next up, it might sound idyllic living with great neighbours who look out for you and always stop to talk or ask you in, but is it really? Everyone in the street knows who Becky is, who Lisa is, and what my latest situation is at any given time. I can do almost NOTHING without becoming the centre of gossip for a week! I don’t mind, but you can absolutely forget privacy – DC, Kevin, Tom and Dave Sivier are all known by name and reputation and what they are up to equally to many of my neighbours, but they are just casual visitors to my home. In how many streets are passers by stopped and chatted to and quizzed about heir business? (the Brothel customers used to often walk round the block several times before ringing the door bell, because they were too embarrassed to walk up to the door while half the street was outside chatting, drinking tea and coffee on door steps or playing with cats or whatever…) In how many streets would a letting agent come to do something at a house be interrogated by people from the street, and feel she had to offer assurances?
And that is what it’s like. Forget privacy, forget coming home after a long day and just watching the telly. I have a constant stream of visitors and telephone calls, a hundred demands upon my time. Most of today has been spent on talking to neighbours, taking the wheelchair out, talking to Tom who popped round and making calls for people or just chatting on the street. I had a day fairly free – and while I had some work to do, and have spent more time on this post, I can promise you it can be a little tiring. I think a lot of people who bemoan the loss of community forget how claustrophobic the world I live in, a world that really is best represented by EastEnders or Coronation Street where everyone knows everyone’s business and everything becomes a cause for public discussion, is. Fall out with someone here, and thank heavens I never have, and your life could soon become almost intolerable. I think it’s really quite intimidating for people like my new Polish neighbours, who are talked at whenever they walk to their house, and find themselves the subjects of intense scrutiny, or for the young married couples down the street who don’t know the history of the various households, or unwritten “customary law” and “traditions” of the road I have spent the last five years learning. You park in the wrong place, like the poor actress who rented a house the Christmas before last for a few weeks while she worked the panto season, and face the consequences. She was unloading her baggage to move in the house, and had a group of neighbours asking who she was, why her car was there, and shouting at her because she had parked in a spot outside their window. I went out and tried to help her, and managed to find out she was becoming a resident, but then I became the subject of some of the hostility – she only managed a few days before she moved on I think. God help those who try and park their cars down here to go shopping: the roads nature pretty much precludes that though, as it is so narrow. Parking your car an inch too far across and impeding others access and you immediately incur a lynch mob…
Still it’s a wonderful place to live, and I want to reiterate that. If you are a private person like Lisa, or are used to the anonymity of a suburban semi, I’m sure it could be hell on earth. Communities are people, and big communities mean you have a lot more people in your life. I think Andrew Oakley would enjoy it here — I certainly do — but for those whose lives are shaped by privacy, neighbours who may nod in passing, and a comfortable retreat in to their own homes, this could be a future vision of Britain they are not keen to see come to fruition…