Book review: Cheek by Jowl: A History of neighbours

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Cheek By Jowl: A History of Neighbours
Emily Cockayne (Bodley Head, £20, *£16)

The British are funny about neighbours. We suffer, we inwardly fume, we moan to everyone except the perpetrator of an outrage against our space or eardrums, then we explode. Neighbours have been known to kill each other over the position of a fence or the height of a hedge. Meanwhile, neighbourliness remains a quality we cherish, even in its absence-the elusive Big Society.

Cheek by Jowl is an entirely delightful history of neighbour relations since the Middle Ages. I’m not sure that it serves as a guide to current behaviour. Until the Second World War, most people in Britain lived in conditions that we would now regard as unendurable-not just because of the smells and squalor, but the lack of basic privacy and personal space. Medieval busybodies could lift up cloths or peer through cracks to observe their neighbours in the act of adultery, the details of which were then related in court.

In the mid 1950s, Jennifer Longford lodged with a family on the edge of Bristol, an arrangement that involved sharing the wife’s bed. Some years later, she wrote up her notes of the time, published under the pseudonym Margaret Lassell, as Wellington Road. Mrs Johnson, as she called her, dabbled in prostitution. Although her husband didn’t object to sharing his wife’s favours, he wouldn’t lend the neighbours so much as an evening paper, on the grounds it wouldn’t be returned.

Generally, financially stretched neighbours in poor districts shared basic commodities, with those lending knowing that they could count on similar help in an hour of need. The middle class would have found this infra dig, but it was acceptable to borrow tools.

There were limits, however, and it was best not to overstep them. One 17th-century servant in Myddle, Shropshire, decided that the building of an oven at the house next door spelt danger to his master’s hedge, so he packed a hollow branch with gunpowder and smiled to himself when the new chimney blew off, setting the thatch ablaze.

In industrial towns, living conditions were once so cramped that many people preferred to spend their leisure hours on the street. Children were regarded as common property, to be cuffed by whoever witnessed misbehaviour. In the second half of the 20th century, increased expectations of privacy were expressed by taller garden fences, now often too high to look over. Distance has lent enchantment to the old days of gossiping when sweeping the front step.

Many of us will be hoping to revive a little of the old intimacy through Jubilee street parties in June. But as these islands become more crowded, housebuilding stalls and more people live in flats, the trend towards personal isolation may go into reverse. If we’ve forgotten about our neighbours today, we may not be able to do so tomorrow.

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