In June, a bailiff found Anne Leitrim dead in her Bournemouth flat. Her body had been there for seven years. Her home was beside a communal garden and was on the ground floor, with two of the windows left open. But no one had come by. Lovely Scottish brogue she had, the neighbours remembered. I wondered how many neighbours I have who would come knocking on my door. I couldn’t think of any.
Then I bumped into a woman on the street. We struck up a conversation. “I know you,” she said. “You’re the guy on the mobile phone.” Was it just me, I wondered, or is this feeling of disconnection more common? A survey by the Office for National Statistics rated Britain the loneliness capital of Europe. Across the world, we are moving from the city of Ford, designed for cars, to the city of Facebook, in which we are connected but only virtually.
A few months ago, I did in my Achilles tendon playing cricket. Over the following weeks, I walked around the local park in Brent on crutches. I noticed apples and grapes all over the place and saw them start to ripen. One day I was overtaken by an octogenarian Italian man with gout. “Excuse me,” I asked him on impulse, “but do you know how to make wine?” He stopped. “The soles of my feet,” he replied, “are still red from making wine as a boy.” We were off. We were going to become winemakers. Forget Bordeaux. Imagine the rolling vineyards of Brent, the Napa Valley of north London.
We’re aiming for 150 bottles, with “NW6” on the label and a bouquet of Bakerloo, a hint of diesel from the Pendolino and, if we are lucky, a trace of plutonium from the late-night nuclear train. But this is about more than wine. Could we rediscover lost skills and reconnect with each other?
The old man’s name is Paulo Santini. He is 84 and lives two doors down from me with his son and wife. He had last made wine 55 years ago in his village in Emilia-Romagna. This September he made it again, leading 30 of us from the neighbourhood. There was Nicola Bruno, a former lorry driver with an eye for the ladies, who passionately disagreed with Paulo on questions of yeast. There was Luz, a Filipina great-grandmother; John Joe Moloney, an Irish engineer with a fruit press; his girlfriend, Vanessa, from Venezuela (think Sophia Loren on a ladder in Willesden); and Padre Natalino, a priest with an oak barrel that wouldn’t fit through his door. We trampled the grapes – 400 pounds from the area’s wild vines – barefoot, our legs blood red as we came out of the barrel.
In front of my house, there are now two barrels fermenting the harvest. Every six hours we stir and the smell of alcohol wafts towards Kilburn Police Station. There is a Breaking Bad dimension. We’re calling the project “Unthinkable, Drinkable Brent”. We know what we’re doing isn’t a big deal but, to me, it matters. It’s a small step from thinking of myself as a consumer to feeling like something close to a citizen. And it has made me think. Real civic power doesn’t get handed down from the top: it gets made, step by step and from the ground up.
The final step is squeezing the pulp for the premier cru. Our dream? A street party. If it doesn’t work, we’ll have a lifetime supply of vinegar.
Leo Johnson is the co-author of “Turnaround Challenge: Business and the City of the Future” (OUP, £20)