Monday, May 19, 2003
City of Strangers
Darren, over at These Moments I've Had, feels saddened by the transformation of his home town of Skelmersdale from sleepy village into concrete New Town, and the passing of the way of life his grandparents knew. It's something I can relate to.
For the first eighteen years of my life I lived in a grotty Lancashire town, in a row of terraces which people from the posh parts would rather patronisingly pronounce to be "just like Coronation Street". It was a tiny two-up two-down with no bathroom and just an outside lav. We were probably poor, but never noticed, because the rest of the street was too. That poverty, if indeed poverty it was, engendered a community spirit. All of us made a point of knowing our neighbours' business, but everyone also kept a helpful eye out for everyone else. We all lived together on the same street, after all.
Front doors remained open and unlocked from early morning to round about ten at night. No-one played their Dansettes loudly after dark. The biggest crime was nicking a sherbet dip from the corner shop. And yes, they did have a street party for the Queen's Silver Jubilee. A house and garden out in the suburbs might have been prettier, but this was still a safe place to grow up in.
I moved out to go to University, the first and only one in the family. And when I returned home for the holidays, now an outsider, I noticed things changing. Graffiti on the walls of the factory down the road. More and more doors locked and barred shut, not just at night but during the day as well. Gossip, some of it vicious, rather than good-natured banter. A stabbing in the local pub.
I can't place the precise date when all this started happening, but I know it coincided with Thatcher's rise to power, and her introduction of a culture of greed and envy into a society she claimed didn't exist.
And now I live in London. I've been in the same flat for four years, which, for me, is something of a record. Yet I've never once met the neighbours, let alone borrowed a cup of sugar from them. Nor have they come up and introduced themselves to me. We increasingly shut ourselves away in our own little boxes, scared of any intimacies, fiercely protecting our privacy, wary of getting ourselves involved.
The old street up North has long since been bulldozed away, and probably for the best. I doubt there are any streets like it anywhere in the country now. And while things certainly weren't rosy in those days, I do miss that sense of belonging somewhere, to a community where it's not Me First, but rather All Of Us Together.