I have been staring at my laptop screen trying to work out what to write for some time. I am starting to discover that keeping a weekly blog is far more difficult than I’d previously thought. Each week you need to write something different. It needs to be interesting. Sometimes, it’s easy and the words flow from the page. Other weeks I feel like my head is a big cavernous empty space and I have forgotten all words. It’s easier to write when I am angry. Or sad. Or irritated. Or upset. One of the reasons this blog tends to be a day late on bank holiday weekends is because I am not quite stressed enough on the Sunday, knowing there’s no work the next day, to pull together a coherent sentence. When the weather is beautiful, and I’ve had a lovely chilled weekend, when the Giving Up Sugar and the Giving Up Alcohol is just another part of my life that is going along quite happily, and there’s been no Major Life Event, and I am just chilled and happy? That’s when I have nothing to write about and I stare at the screen and think that I am going to have to take up a new hobby just so I have something to write about.
So I thought I would write about my day today.
As the song goes
“Wouldn’t it be nice to get on with me neighbours”
In London, this can often be more accurately phrased as
“Wouldn’t it be nice if I actually even knew my neighbours”
More accurate but it doesn’t scan and kind of ruins the song. I have lived in London for 17 years (I just worked that out, and then in shock had to then work it out twice more to make sure I was right) and can honestly state that there are very few places I’ve lived where I could even vaguely recognise a neighbour, let alone know their name. I’ve lived in some large shared houses where I’ve barely known the name of some of my own flatmates.
I’ve often wondered about this – whether it’s a general London Thing or whether it’s partly do to with my (up til now) fairly transient relationship with my community; I’ve rented since 1997, moving roughly once a year when the rent is put up, or when relationships change, or when the place I am renting is unexpectedly sold. In fact this has been my experience much further back than 1997; Mother Dinosaur Pirate and I moved 13 times in the space of 7 years due to the same issues. One one occasion the house we were living in was actually condemned (it had missing floorboards under the carpet, making strange floor-hammocks for the cats, and mushrooms growing on my bedroom wall.)
I don’t know if my somewhat nomadic relationship with living spaces prevented me from getting to know my neighbours, or whether the fact that many of my other neighbours were also renting. Apparently that Londoners are unfriendly and lack community spirit. I am not sure I buy that any more. Perhaps all it takes in one person to say hey, I want to know my neighbours. I am going to Do A Thing.
That’s exactly what a chap on the street next to us did. He decided to have a street party. He posted letters through the doors of his street, stating his intention, and asking if anyone could help by loaning tables, selling raffle tickets, doing a shift on the bouncy casltle etc. After a few weeks it was decided that they should open the invitation to the nearby streets, and we recived a letter through our door inviting us to the street party.
Thus far, the only neighbours I have met are the family to our immediate right and the french lady to our immediate left, and mainly because we get packages for each other. Of course, I have also met the lady slightly further to the right, having been rescued by her and briefly watching kung fu panda with her son. A little concerned that I might be meeting people who’d go “oh, you’re the girl that locked herself out” or that I would do the thing where you have to make conversation with strangers and your mind goes blank and you resort to telling them you like their hat or asking them what they do for the 4th time, Mr RDP and I headed around the corner to check out the street party, with some slightly melted home made peanut butternut cups as our meagre offering.
We arrived to a proper old fasioned scene – one I vaguely remember from 1981 and the street parties celebrating the wedding of Diana and Prince Charles (my parents let me believe that these street parties were for my birthday, because it was the same day. I believed this for several years.) – bunting across the street, an assortment of mis-matching chairs, trestle tables and the odd dining table someone had wrestled from their house. A DJ, an impromtu belly dancing class in the street, small children with their faces painted like cats or spiderman and lots of people tentatively adding food to the tables, trying to work out the rules. Can we put food anywhere? Can we share? Where should we sit? After the initial awkwardness Mr RDP and I took deep breaths and got stuck in.
Conversation, something I usually struggle with, particularly without the benefit of beer, was actually pretty easy, as you could have the same conversational starting point with everyone. Which number are you? Which street? Been here long? and off you go. Most conversations ended up being how wonderful the street party was, how good the food and the weather was, but some took surprising twists. One chap it turned out has 30 animals in his house, including an albino python and several lizards and some OMGTINYKITTENS and runs a mini rescue centre. Another is a builder who has been in nearly every home along the streetdoing up other people’s houses. I made an effort to remember people’s names and house numbers, but suspect I am on a losing game with that one. A rather rowdy game of street netball fully broke the ice (and almost my knee, but that’s my own fault.) Our local MP even turned up (I am a big fan of our local MP) and ATE ONE OF MY PEANUT BUTTER CUPS and WASN’T ILL. She then stayed and talked to everyone for a few hours – paying particular attention to a trestle table where people had been adding post it notes to answer the question “what can I do for the community?” and “what do I want from the community?”
It was hard to belive at times that we were just 15 minutes from the centre of London. We’d headed round there thinking we’d be there for an hour or two and then Mr RDP would head off to band practice and I’d come home to tidy, do the blog and my BSL homework. And yet 5 hours later I was still there, socialising with my neighbours (Mr RDP having somewhat reluctantly left for band practice 40 minutes later than he should have).
The sense of being part of a community was so strong and enticing; I didn’t want to leave. It felt like a magical space; like I’d stepped into an alternative London where everyone really did know their neighbours names and backgrounds and what they do for a living and the names of their pets and I felt like if I left the spell would be broken and I’d be heading back into the part of London where you never ever make eye contact with the people in the flat below and pretend you haven’t seen a neigbour so you can avoid conversation. It was agreed by all that it was too wonderful an occasion to be a one off, and that it should be an annual event, held on each of our three streets in turn. Everyone started to wander back to their own houses; “nice to meet you! Hopefully, um, see you around?” and the spell slowly broke.
I don’t know whether being in an owned property, rather than a rented one, makes a difference to my sense of belonging, or of my desire to belong to a community. I’ve always loved the idea having a community around me, and being part of someting familar and supportive; but never truly got involved before. Perhaps out of fear of People I Don’t Know, perhaps because I was always so busy playing roller derby, and perhaps there is someting in the transient nature of renting. But then, perhaps I just haven’t made the effort before. Communities don’t just happen. They are made by the people within them and they need people that care to pull them together.
As she left the local MP turned to me and said “Will I see you on Thursday? I assume you’ve signed up for my new women’s group?”. In fact I had, but had started to think about not going because of Unknown People Fear. But in the street in the sunshine surrounded by Unknown But Lovely and Interesting People who all live within minutes from me I realised that if I want to be part of a community I have to play a part too, and not just wait for someone in the next street to make it happen for me. “Yes, I’ll see you on Thursday.” I said.
At the very least, it might give me something to write about.