Friday, March 23, 2012

"One can claim protection from the street-grinder, but who's going to interfere with the man next door suffering from jim-jams?", or, More on neighbors

Emily Cockayne's first task in Cheek by Jowl: A History of Neighbours is to decide just what a neighbor is: "Medieval villagers farmed strips of common land," she writes, "and the word 'nigh-bour' originally meant "the man who tills the next piece of ground to mine." That's not a particularly helpful definition for today, where, in urban spaces at least, the person who tills the next piece of ground to you is likely a friendly hippie from 'round the hill rather someone you would think of as a neighbor. But even recent usage can be frustratingly vague:
Early-modern neighbours could be anybody in the parish, albeit they might live a mile from each other. The looseness and geographical vagueness in the terminology makes it difficult to uncover much about what it meant to live very near to somebody. . . . Even in more recent times some biographers have been cavalier with the term "neighbour." Some have used it to mean "from the same town," or even "the neighbouring shire." These writers sent me on wild goose chases, tracking down "neighbours" who actually lived miles apart.
Then there's the problem of who counts as neighbor, exemplified by this passage from Elizabeth Taylor's biting, strangely affecting novel Angel (1955):
Lady Baines was Angel's nearest neighbour, she had declared on her first visit, ignoring the dozens of cottages, the doctor's house, the Vicarage, which lay between Paradise House and her own home. "No one between us and Lady Baines at Bottrell Saunter," Angel told people, doing the same.
Cockayne settles on a definition that seems utterly reasonable for both past and present:
One of my own neighbours told me that "a real neighbour is someone you can visit in your slippers" (he was wearing his at the time).
From there, Cockayne is off to the races, telling story after story of neighborly disagreement and disaster (and, occasionally, camaraderie or even romance). She acknowledges that the balance between bad and good neighbor stories may be skewed to the bad by the available sources, as no one goes to court to sing his neighbor's praises, but that's almost beside the point. Certainly Cockayne is mounting an argument--more deliberately than in her previous book, Hubbub--this time about how changes in living conditions have always been intertwined in complicated ways with changing notions of privacy, personal space, wealth, and social duty. But the nasty stories are what give the book life, and while perhaps the occasional account of neighbors helping with childbirth or sharing food may be necessary to the survival of our faith in human nature, what we really want is to read more disputes over dunghills and such.

And, oh, do we get those!
Dunghills were heaped up wherever they could be contained, sometimes against the neighbour's house. Rain saturated these stinking piles, encouraging damp to penetrate indoors and creating the potential for flooding. A London inkeeper heaped dung against his neighbour's wall in 1677 and the moisture from it soaked through the wall "to the great damage and the Annoyance of her house."
In this case, I might have listed "annoyance" first. Then there's the general nuisance of shared toilets--especially when combined with bored children:
Walter Greenwood and his chums interrupted their neighbours' motions by waiting until the shared toilet was occupied and then, "armed with a slat from an orange box at whose end stood a candle stump fixed in its own grease," they would slide it through the emptying flap and toast the occupant's bottom. Becoming a victim of "arseon" was only one of the many risks faced by neighbours sharing a toilet.
Then there's the more general nuisance of the loony neighbor:
In May 1883 [Henry] Kirkham "made divers loud offensive and alarming noises . . . beating and hammering with pokers hammers and other Instruments . . . and screaming, groaning and making other noises and also heating melting and dissolving divers large quantities of brass." His neighbours also complained of the smells and effluvia from his house.
It gets worse:
Ten neighbours were listed, who were also disturbed by his habit of "deliberately exposing himself naked in a most indecent posture situation and practice to divers liege subjects both male and female."
And that's well before the invention of the trench coat, the flasher's friend!

Familiar names turn up as well. George Gissing's diary provides some wonderfully grumpy, even catty moments, enough to make me wonder whether I should read the whole thing. "Fine days," he writes in August 1891,
but rendered utterly miserable by vile squabbles here in the house. The Rockett people behaving with every kind of vulgar malice. It makes me ill; I pass the time in sick, trembling rage unable either to read or think -- Yet i do think in a way; there has come across me, out of these miseries an idea for a volume of short stories, to illustrate the wretchedness of life in lodgings, to be called "At a Week's Notice."
Samuel Johnson, on the other hand, is positively charming in his neighbor-baiting:
In Oxford, Samuel Johnson was reported to have reprimanded Sir Robert Chambers for gathering snails and throwing them over onto his neighbour's garden, rebuking his "unmannerly and unneighborly" behaviour. Chambers argued that his neighbour was a dissenter, so Johnson changed his tune--"if so, Chambers, toss away, toss away, as hard as you can."
Cockayne's book loses a bit of steam as it approaches the present. That's less a fault of her writing or her material--a brief discussion of Silver Jubilee parties amusingly calls to mind the block party for Charles and Diana that Adrian Mole relates in his first diary--than a result of the fact that our own era's stories are always going to be less interesting, and more inflected by the familiarity of the actual frustrations they relate, than the past. A tale of an armorer who "built a forge made of earth and timber next to a neighbour's house" and "sledghammered armour plating and shook the neighbour's walls, ruined beer and wine in their cellar and filled their home with smoke" is, at four centuries' remove, as amusing as it is shocking; a £5,000 fine for noise pollution issued in 1993 over a crying baby simply elicits wincing sympathy for everyone involved.

But then, even though--or perhaps because?--I grew up in a small town, I've never really been the neighborly sort myself. I like having a neighborhoodl=. I like going into shops and knowing the people there and being known in return, and I like recognizing the dogs and stray cats of our streets. But I'm not one to look for communion or friendship from my neighbors. I understand the utopian impulse that would have us all sharing lawnmowers and trading services, but I want to choose the people in that circle myself, not have geography and real estate patterns do it for me. I think of a man quoted in David Kynaston's marvelous Family Britain: 1951–1957 after a tour and a sales pitch for the just-being-built New Towns:
The sort of thing the planning boys dream up, but which doesn't work out. . . . Then, there's no privacy--think of it, front gardens in common. And the back gardens divided only by wire, so your neighbour knows all about you. And to think of it on washing-day. And there's going to be a community centre. Yes, it's not a joke, there really is. A community centre! Planners are nuts on palliness.
I've turned to Kynaston before when I've been on the theme of neighbors, and I'll close with a line I quoted then, from a set of sociological interviews conducted in 1950s Britain. An interview subject says of a neighbor:
I never thought I'd come to hate anybody like I do her.
To avoid that risk, I'm inclined to stay at the level described by a 47-year-old housewife from Sunbury-on-Thames when asked if she knew her neighbors:
Lots I suppose but only to say "Good morning etc" or to have "the daily grumble" with either on the road or perhaps on the bus, wherever we happen to meet.
We may be dung-heap free, the smithys and slaughterhouses are far away, and my neighbors, I'm confident, are perfectly nice and good people . . .but I hope you'll forgive me if, Cheek by Jowl in hand, I continue to be a tad circumspect despite.

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