Saturday, 19 September 2009

Good neighbours

It’s funny how nostalgia paints idyllic views of the past. Mining was never a pleasant occupation – it was the second most dangerous in Britain after deep sea fishing. A couple of visits down the pits in the seventies left me with a lasting memory of the lurid glow of the lights, the claustrophobia, the rivulets of sweat in the coal dust on the miners’ bodies, the noise and the terrible sight of seven hundred yards of earth falling five feet when a set of pit props was moved.

Nevertheless, I remember the image of peace and harmony that was painted by a documentary I once saw on a Welsh mining village where each evening at about 5:00 the men, home and clean after their day in the mine, would come and squat on the front door steps of their narrow houses, to smoke and chat. All gone now, of course: Mrs Thatcher who made so much of her desire to conserve traditions, tore the heart out of those communities when she wiped out coal mining as an industry, and they’ve not recovered to this day.

Still, some traditions are deeply anchored in the human psyche and though they may be uprooted in one place, they re-emerge in another.

Where we live in Stafford we’re blessed with excellent neighbours but cursed with north-facing gardens. With the strictly rationed amount of sunshine we tend to get, we can’t waste any of it by sitting facing away from the sun. In Danielle I have a most resourceful wife and so she has simply moved a couple of chairs round to the front of the house. Though this is the unenclosed, public side, that’s where she’s been enjoying as much as she can of a glorious September that has done so much to make up, in light and warmth, for the lamentable July and August we had this year. Again.

There she sits, reading or knitting. And our excellent neighbours have taken to gathering around. Knitting has caught on among them too, with even Jenny, at fifteen, working on some socks. Her mother Melanie and our other neighbour Becky are also keen. Honestly, at times it’s like the women knitting round the feet of the guillotine in the French revolution out there, with all the needles going.

Yesterday I was working 200 miles away, down in Kent. I was delighted to get home just in time to catch the last of Danielle’s enjoyment, with Becky, of their afternoon’s sun worship, before its object finally dipped below the horizon.

It’s wonderful to see a time-honoured tradition, of neighbours gathering outside their houses to talk and take their rest after the efforts of the day, in the companionship that makes a real community.

Mrs T. said there was no such thing as society, only individuals and families. But as usual she was wrong and I have living proof of it on my own doorstep.

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