In 1598, a certain Margaret Browne of Houndsditch gave a graphic description to the court of her neighbour Clement Underhill engaged in an adulterous act with her lover, as observed through a hole in the party wall. Some people have always been very interested in what the neighbours are up to; all of us can be affected by them.
Emily Cockayne has investigated the relationship by conjuring up scores of pieces of evidence such as the one cited, from the early Middle Ages till the present day, trawled from manorial records, police and law courts, civic authorities and newspapers. The result is a nicely personal view of how we have got on with the people next door, homing in on the perennial issues — noise, sanitation, intrusion and privacy.
The book could well have been called ‘A History of Housing’, for that is what it is, also. Neighbours are a great deal more bearable when separated from one by more than a wall of lathe and plaster through which a hole can be poked. The cramped and foetid conditions of what historians like to call the early modern period led to enforced proximity with inevitable attendant issues about sewage — Samuel Pepys had a nasty bother over his neighbour’s privy overflowing into his cellar — and privacy. The term ‘eavesdropping’ comes from exactly that: standing beneath the eaves of a house in order to overhear.
The arrival of bricks and mortar, and eventually of the suburban semi, did much to alleviate the neighbour problem. A situation that enforced constant confrontation, negotiation and manoeuvre changed to one in which there could be simply ‘distant cordiality’.
Though, as Cockayne points out, something may have been lost. Proximity could be an imposition and a torment, but it also bred a culture of mutual help and of expedient altruism. Those who have few resources and don’t own much do best if they can rely on others: women helped each other through childbirth and the rituals of death; in crowded slum streets a needed implement would be passed from hand to hand. Today, we don’t much lend one another an iron, a knife or even a lawnmower, let alone attend next door’s childbirth. In a survey as far back as 1955, ten per cent said they would not rely on their neighbours at all.
We do not choose our neighbours: the unsought relationship is thrust upon us. They may of course become friends and rather more than that — boys fall for the girl next door, as Keats did for Fanny Brawne. We owe Virginia Woolf to the happenstance that her bereaved mother moved next door to the widowed Leslie Stephen and married him.
The whole neighbour situation is indeed of abiding interest and the stock material of television soaps like The Good Life, Love Thy Neighbour and Coronation Street. The 20th century may have seen a drift into ‘keeping oneself to oneself’, but suburban life prompted the phenomenon of ‘swinging’ (having sex with the neighbours). In the Sixties and Seventies it seems a clump of pampas grass in the front garden indicated availability. Dear me, I never realised why there was so much pampas grass around then — I thought it was a gardening fashion.
Neighbour relations is a fascinating subject, taking in as it does the whole chronology of changing social circumstances, from the way in which people have been housed to what they had in their houses, and how they conducted their lives. A seismic change in moral outlook means that nobody today would be assiduously spying on a neighbour in order to report their adultery — though we might be taking note of their failure to recycle, and the forthcoming hosepipe ban may bring a few feuds into the open.
Feuds there certainly are. According to a current estimate there are over 100,000 ongoing ‘hedge rage’ disputes. And there has always been material competition. The piano was once the principal source of noise complaint, but then it became the thing you had to have in order to keep up with the
This book takes one from the grim reaches of Victorian and Edwardian slum life to the relative frivolities of material aspiration. But it should be said that Cockayne’s coverage is entirely urban. Rural life is left out, where neighbour relations can be rather differently oriented, and village communities could be a subject of their own. Her method of piling up evidence can make for a bumpy ride, but the book is a great read. Give a copy to your neighbour.