A row of houses in west London. Credit: Getty Images
Cheek by Jowl: a History of Neighbours
Bodley Head, 288pp, £20
In 1944, Birkenhead council considered a revolutionary plan for a new housing estate, drawn up by Charles Reilly, former professor of architecture at Liverpool University. He proposed that small numbers of houses should be clustered around 44 village-style greens and that three to five such clusters should share communal facilities, such as a low-cost restaurant (the homes would have minimal kitchen facilities), bar, hall and library. Residents would also share a hot water system. As Reilly saw it, his design would foster “neighbourly living”, retaining “the friendliness of the little streets” from which the residents were being rehoused.
Would it have worked? We shall never know. Birkenhead councillors feared that the greens would be turned into “hardened mud” and preferred the borough engineer’s more orthodox plan, which allowed residents “to keep away from each other as much as possible”. Nearly all post-1944 housing was built on a similar principle. Reilly greens, as they became known, were adopted in a couple of other towns but only in modified form. The long-term trend – for people to live at greater physical and social distance from one another – accelerated to the point where, according to a poll in 2010, nearly half the adult population thought they knew more about their favourite celebrity than about their neighbours.
Emily Cockayne seems unsure whether this decline in neighbourly feeling is a good or bad thing. The temptation, which she does not entirely resist, is to sentimentalise the past and portray happy, caring, sharing communities, in which neighbours popped in and out of each other’s houses, “borrowing” cups of sugar, proffering a few pennies when the breadwinner was unemployed, helping with domestic chores during infirmity or old age, even adopting orphaned children as their own. The welfare state, with its social workers, home helps, meals on wheels and subsidised child care, is usually blamed for the decline of communal self-help. The role of capitalism, which requires us to be free from mutual obligation so as better to fulfil our roles as consumers and producers, is less often highlighted.
As Cockayne amply illustrates, neighbours, until recently, were often much too close for comfort. In late-19th-century Leeds, 80 per cent of all housing was “back to back” – a term that is now (thanks to the opening credits of Coronation Street) frequently misunderstood, since it meant not adjoining backyards but, on three sides out of four, adjoining walls. Sometimes, as many as 20 houses shared one end-of-terrace toilet.
In How the Poor Live, published in 1889, George Sims wrote: “They live their lives before each other’s eyes, and their joys and sorrows are the common property of the entire community.” The essentials of life, such as water and coal, were often collected from shared sources. Walls were so flimsy that everything from wailing children to domestic violence and ecstatic sex could be heard and even seen. Houses were cramped, dark, smoky and airless; whenever possible, the inhabitants worked and socialised outside. Disputes often led to shouting matches and worse. As Cockayne observes, “Poorer neighbourhoods were more tightly knit; but tight knitting has greater tension.”
For the most part, however, neighbours had no alternative but to rub along as best they could. In the absence of midwives and undertakers, neighbours attended at the beginning and end of life, helping deliver babies and lay out the dead. They willingly offered assistance, because they might need it themselves in future. Where money is lacking, people resort to forms of barter.
Some of that survived into the second half of the 20th century. In my 1950s childhood, we were the first in the neighbourhood to acquire a television; at teatime, other people’s children came to watch it, even when I didn’t wish to. Conversely, my parents were late installing a telephone; they went to a Mrs Prince across the road to call relatives in an emer-gency. It is hard to think of contemporary parallels. For most, affluence has led to self-sufficiency. Today, neighbourly relations rarely go beyond doorstep greetings. Fences, walls and hedges grow ever higher. As the anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer observed, the typical neighbourly relationship in England is one of “distant cordiality”.
Cockayne offers little explanation or analysis. Is there some human impulse that drives us to keep ourselves to ourselves, or is it just a reaction to how, in the early stages of urban development, we wallowed, sometimes literally, in each other’s excrement? Are villages historically more neighbourly than towns, or is that a myth? Do the English differ from other nationalities – including the Scots, Irish and Welsh, whom Cockayne largely ignores – in attitudes to neighbours?
We must speculate about such questions ourselves or seek other sources. Cockayne has written a vivid and absorbing account of neighbours from the late Middle Ages onwards and, like all good history, it leaves the reader wanting to know more.