Tuesday, 17 May 2011

In praise of . . . neighbours (next door, that is, not on TV!)

Yesterday my next-door neighbours of over 30 years moved house, to be nearer their children and grandchildren. I'm going to miss them.

Over the period they've lived next door to me I've seen their children grow up and leave home, their parents age, their house get extended. Over holiday periods, we've watered each other's plants, moved each other's post, fed each other's animals. We've taken in parcels for each other, each had a set of the other's keys (which has more than once rescued an accidental lock-out situation) . . . and all those little day-to-day practical things that help life to run more easily. In addition we've listened to each other's woes and joys (they had a new grandson last week) and helped out in other ways. When I fractured my ankle, my neighbour took me to Casualty. When a tree in their garden fell down in a storm while they were away, I contacted someone who could deal with it.

I hope the people who move in will become good neighbours, but it will take time.

The reason I'm writing about this here, on this particular blog, is to reflect specifically on the relationship of 'neighbours'. We weren't 'friends'. I don't mean that we weren't 'friendly', but we didn't - for instance - socialise together. We talked over the fence, or at our respective front doors, but only occasionally sat down together in one or other of our houses. In bad weather we would even discuss things on the phone, rather than walk outside and get wet! We led very different lives and didn't really have much in common that might have led to 'friendship' as it's normally understood. . . but we were good neighbours to each other.

Suzette Haden Elgin is an interesting guide to helping us think about the difference between 'friends' and 'neighbours'. She's a linguist and author, both of academic papers and science fiction novels. She uses her knowledge of linguistics to inform her novel plots, and she uses her novels to make available to a wide audience interesting facets of the relationship between language and culture. Her most well-known book undertaking this task is Native Tongue.

Briefly, she has created a scenario in which interplanetary and inter-species diplomacy require some very specialised and skilled language interpreters. A clan of several families have a monopoly on this service, so everyone in the clan is a superb linguist, speaking a large number of non-human languages (on their world, all humans now speak 'Panglish'). The women, whilst just as expert as the men, are an oppressed group within the very patriarchal clan. Having created this world of expert linguists, Elgin then has the women create their own secret language, one that encodes women's experience of the world, rather than men's. The language, called Láadan, has now been developed beyond the concept in the book, to become closer to a functioning language (rather in the way that fans of Klingon have done).

A few examples of Láadan vocabulary will give a flavour of what Elgin means by 'encoding women's experience':

doroledim(sublimation with food accompanied by guilt about that sublimation) This word has no English equivalent whatsoever. Say you have an average woman. She has no control over her life. She has little or nothing in the way of a resource for being good to herself, even when it is necessary. She has family and animals and friends and associates that depend on her for sustenance of all kinds. She rarely has adequate sleep or rest; she has no time for herself, no space of her own, little or no money to buy things for herself, no opportunity to consider her own emotional needs. She is at the beck and call of others, because she has these responsibilities and obligations and does not choose to (or cannot) abandon them. For such a woman, the one and only thing she is likely to have a little control over for indulging her own self is FOOD. When such a woman overeats, the verb for that is "doroledim". (And then she feels guilty, because there are women whose children are starving and who do not have even THAT option for self-indulgence... )

radiídinnon-holiday, holiday more work that it’s worth, a time allegedly a holiday but actually so much a burden because of work and preparations that it is a dreaded occasion; especially when there are too many guests and none of them help

rarilhto deliberately refrain from recording; for example, the failure throughout history to record the accomplishments of women [ra=non- + ri=to record, keep records + lh=negative connotation]

And these examples are so as to lead in to this one:

rahobethnon-neighbor, one who lives nearby but does not fulfill a neighbor's role (not necessarily pejorative) [obeth=neighbor]

This clearly suggests that there is such a thing as a neighbour's role. My recently moved neighbours and I fulfilled this role for each other, to a high degree. With my next-door neighbour on the other side, this hasn't been the case nearly so much. We're perfectly civil to each other, we tell each other if our house is going to be unoccupied overnight, and we occasionally take in parcels for each other if a postman or courier rings at the door to ask one of us to do so . . . but that's as far as it goes. I'm now reflecting on why this difference . . . and I'm not really sure. This neighbour has now been widowed for some time and is becoming increasingly frail and forgetful. My neighbourliness now consists primarily in keeping an eye out, being aware of how he is, and letting his daughter (who lives a few streets away) know if there is any cause for concern beyond what she sees in her daily visits.

But there's not much - beyond a friendly 'hallo, how are you?' - in relation to the rest of the street. We're a small cul-de-sac so we might be thought to be an example of how a whole street could be 'neighbourly' to each other . . . but we aren't. We aren't unfriendly or stand-offish, but we're 'rahobeth' as Elgin defines. And as she points out, this isn't necessarily pejorative.

Because I live near the corner, and my kitchen window overlooks the street, I find myself being 'neighbourly' to assorted people who aren't geographical neighbours at all . . . the child who came round the corner too fast on his bike and fell off, breaking his collar bone (I fetched him in, gave him a drink, phoned his mum) . . . the teenager who limped up the road pushing his bike and then just lay down on the pavement outside (he'd fallen off and was concussed, I phoned his mum) . . . the elderly blind pedestrian whose dog got totally confused avoiding the parked cars while crossing the road ( I went out and asked where she was trying to get to, and put her back on the right pavement) . . . and so on.

I find myself saddened by what seems to me to be the excessive gratitude shown, especially by the mothers. I feel as though I've only done what any sensible adult would do. They say that you can't trust people 'these days' to take any responsibility. I wonder what it must be like to let your child out of the house every morning, feeling that other adults might not act appropriately if a problem arises.

David Cameron has talked about 'the big society', and I wonder if it's in large part about relearning what neighbourliness is; although there's clearly also an attempt to make it something bigger and more organised.

We're not the first people in history to be exercised by these questions:

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Luke 10:25-37 (New International Version)

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1 comment:

  1. There was an interesting programme on British television on Monday night - "The Street That Cut Everything" - which was a six week social experiment in a cul-de-sac in Preston, in which the council ceased to exist for those residents; they were all given six weeks worth of council tax, and in return all their council services - street lighting, after school clubs, housing benefit, waste collection, free school meals, adult social care, etc were withdrawn from them, and they had to work together as a street to fill the gaps themselves.

    Initially they worked well together (if somewhat chaotically), but as the experiment moved on and they had to face both the consequences of their lack of initial organisation and planning, and the tough choices they were having to make as the money ran out, serious arguments started to develop as the tough choices became personalised - one family declared that as soon as the experiment was over they intended to move away because they couldn't bare to have such horrible people as their neighbours.

    Another resident in a piece-to-camera towards the end of the programme commented how the experiment had left them a community in tatters that would probably never recover. My thought about that was that a lot of what was shown in the programme was that they were never a community in the first place - that had they been, some of the tensions which had surfaced would probably never have arisen, or at least they would have been handled considerably better than they were.