Friday 17 July 2009

Thou shalt join in

This is the kind of thing that sends me running for cover:

Imagine a summer's day on which millions of us, throughout the UK, sit down to have lunch together, with our neighbours in the middle of our streets, around our tower blocks and on every patch of common ground. The food, entertainment and decorations we will have either grown, cooked, or created ourselves. This will be a day to break bread with our neighbours, to put a smile on Britain's face.

Ever since I heard about The Big Lunch, I've been nervously dreading the knock at the door, announcing that some enterprising individual has organised an event in our street. And from time to time, I've checked the website, where you can find out if there's a lunch near you. Oh, the relief of reading that 'there are currently no lunches on your street'. It's just a couple of days away now: I think I can probably relax.

What's wrong with me? Am I some kind of misanthrope, or are my introverted tendencies coming to the fore again? Maybe I'm just reacting against growing up in a Methodist church where 'Thou shalt join in' was the eleventh commandment. (One of the things that attracted me to Catholicism in my early twenties was the opportunity to slip anonymously into a back pew, then slip out again at the end without being asked earnestly if I was new to the area, or besieged with invitations to stay for coffee, or come along to the sports and social club on Thursday night). It's probably a combination of my Nonconformist upbringing and socialist politics that make me feel I ought to join in with community activities of this kind, and guilty that I'd rather stay at home and read a good book.

But recently I've discovered a more elevated way of rationalising my reaction to this kind of thing. I've been reading Jane Jacobs' 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which argues for the virtues of organic city life against both contemporary urban planning and modern suburbia. One of the characteristics of the 'good' city, according to Jacobs, is that it enables social interaction without everyone knowing your business:

Cities are full of people with whom, from your viewpoint, or mine, or any other individual's, a certain degree of contact is useful or enjoyable; but you do not want them in your hair. And they do not want you in theirs either.

Jacobs lays great emphasis on the value of privacy:

Privacy is precious in cities. It is indispensable. Perhaps it is precious and indispensable everywhere, but most places you cannot get it. In small settlements everyone knows your affairs. In the city everyone does not – only those you choose to tell will know much about you. This is one of the attributes of cities that is precious to most city people…and it is a gift of great-city life deeply cherished and jealously guarded.

This isn't to argue for the net curtain culture of suburbia. In Jacobs' view, what's remarkable about the city is its ability to combine a respect for privacy with enjoyable social contact:

A good city street neighbourhood achieves a marvel of balance between its people’s determination to have essential privacy and their simultaneous wishes for differing degrees of contact, enjoyment or help from the people around. This balance is largely made up of small, sensitively managed details, practiced and accepted so casually that they are normally taken for granted.

The important thing to stress here is the informal and voluntary nature of these social interactions - Jacobs gives many examples, drawn from the experience of her own street in Greenwich Village. But she is emphatically against any attempts to stage-manage a sense of community:

‘Togetherness’ is a fittingly nauseating name for an old ideal in planning theory. This ideal is that if anything is shared among people, much should be shared. ‘Togetherness’…works destructively in cities. The requirement that much shall be shared drives city people apart.

Elsewhere, she elaborates on this paradox - that official initiatives (or semi-official ones, like The Big Lunch) to 'organise' togetherness often have the unintended consequence of driving people back inside their little boxes:

The…common outcome in cities, where people are faced with the choice of sharing much or nothing, is nothing….If mere contact with your neighbous threatens to entangle you in their private lives, or entangle them in yours….the logical solution is absolutely to avoid friendliness or casual offers of help. Better to say thoroughly distant.

Although she is writing about a particular inner city environment, I would argue that Jacobs' arguments have universal validity.

Lest you still think I'm a curmudgeonly misanthrope, let me enter in my defence the fact that I do, actually, belong to a number of communities: my family, first and foremost, then various overlapping communities of interest associated with my work, not to mention the virtual communities of like-minded bloggers and fellow family historians. And I am a member of some local, geographically-based communities - based around our children's schools and my musical interests, for example. But the crucial thing is that these, too, are voluntary and purposive, rather than arising from the accident of living on the same street.

Attempts to recreate a chimeric sense of local community, like The Big Lunch, are misguided and backward-looking. They are of a piece with Gordon Brown's paternalist-communitarian version of New Labourism, in which 'community' is offered as a means of creating social cohesion and mediating social inequalities and differences. As an adult educator working on disadvantaged estates in the 1980s, I resented the way in which 'community' seemed to be offered as a sop or compensation for poverty and unemployment. The middle classes had education, resources, mobility, but the poor were expected to stay put and be satisfied with a 'sense of community'.

So when I hear the word 'community', particularly when some government agency or social entrepreneur is seeking to impose it on the rest of us, I reach for my (metaphorical) net curtains and double-bolted front door.

Incidentally, the BBC coverage of The Big Lunch includes this 'then and now' look at a street that last held a street party in 1977, for the Silver Jubilee. The reporter's questions are of the leading, 'Do you think things are worse now than they were then?' kind, but the clips of the original party are fascinating - they look like they come from another age. To people who don't remember the Seventies, they must seem as ancient as my parents' photos of their VE Day street parties did to me when I was growing up. Watching the video, I suddenly felt rather old:

No comments: