Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Decline of Neighborliness - My Take

This is Tighsolas, or House of Light (or Peace) in Gaelic, a Queen Anne Revival Style Home that still stands today.

This picture was taken in 1900 or so.

Tighsolas is in Richmond, Quebec, which in 1910 was a fairly prosperous town in the Eastern Townships, equidistant from Quebec City and Boston, Massachusetts, but like most mid-size towns of the era, seriously on the decline economically.

Tighsolas is where my husband's grandmother, Marion Nicholson, grew up, with Margaret her mom and Norman her Dad and Edith and Flora and Herbert her siblings.

Their story is told in Threshold Girl  and is available on Amazon in Kindle.

I wrote Threshold Girl  using the Nicholson Family Letters of 1910 as a jumping off point.

The Decline of Neighbourliness by Emily Cockayne is an essay I fell upon today, looking up free online courses, as this morning's New York Times had an article on the current proliferation of online courses. (NPR, I notice, had covered the same topic a few months ago.)

I was looking up UK courses, as a few years ago a friend of mine had sent me a link to Oxford lectures online - and I hoped to find it- but I hit upon their Open University website, not quite the same thing.

Still I found a list of courses offered (not for free) and found this article which appealed to me, because  I have spent the last 7 years researching School Marms and Suffragettes, exploring the differences between then and now.

I learned from my research that the lives of middle class people 100 years ago were very very social, unlike, say, my own middle class life.

Here's an excerpt from a 1910 letter:I went over to call the Montgomery’s and they made me stay for tea; they were having it at 5 o’clock. Thursday I had Mrs. Gawne  calling. She was entertaining  us, telling how cold the Sutherland house was. That is the way when you rent a house. It certainly would take more to heat it than the one she used to live in on the farm with the ceiling so low that you could hardly stand in it.  I had nine callers Mrs. Neeson, Mrs. McMorine, Mrs. George Alexander, Mrs Rennie McRae, Mrs. Fred Verrill, Mrs. Dr. Tomkins, Miss Tina Cross Mrs. CJ Hill so I was quite busy for a little while. I will send you the Times after the election of the councilors.

In the article Emily Cockayne, who has just released a book called Cheek by Jowl: A History of Neighbours, writes

Unlike our ancestors, most of us don’t need to ask our neighbours for assistance because we buy our own things and we no longer share combs, jugs and tools with the neighbours. We prefer not to live in our neighbours’ pockets. The welfare state has provided services which neighbours had previously performed. These developments have seen us nurture and develop our sense of privacy. In Point Counter Point (1928), Aldous Huxley has the young working-class socialist Frank Illidge declare that ‘The rich haven’t got any neighbours.’ By contrast, the poor, living cheek by jowl, could afford ‘no refined and philosophical ignoring’ of the neighbours, and in extremis, ‘there can be no question of refusing’ to help. In modern Britain, most of us can afford to live like Huxley’s rich neighbours, ‘boxed up’ in our ‘own secret house’. 

Hmm. My own secret house. Sometimes it seems that way. And I live out in the burbs, which these days are very very quiet. Of course, I'm a kind of a recluse. My husband is the one who talks to all the neighbours, well, the men who once a week in the summer come out to cut the lawn. Men still borrow things from each other, tools. 

Before I wrote Threshold Girl, when I thought of neighbours I thought of Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz from I Love Lucy running back and forth between their apartments, asking to borrow sugar as an excuse to sit a while and gossip. (Of course, hilarity ensued) But with 24/7 grocery stores we can't use that excuse anymore.

Today I think of Mrs. Montgomery, the lady who lived beside the Nicholsons in Richmond. She was super nosy and not very tactful (if she didn't like your expensive new hat she told you so) but she was always there with the chicken soup when you were sick.

The Skinners lived on the opposite side. Mr. Skinner, a dentist, shoveled out the walk of Tighsolas after many a snowstorm when Norman Nicholson was away working on the railroad.

Both Skinners, Mr and Mrs. took Marion's older sister Edith on long automobile trips in the summer of 1911. They even drove to Montreal one weekend, a trip that took 6 and a half driving hours with two extra hours for lunch!

The Nicholsons got along with the neighbours more than they did their own relations, usually.

I wonder if the BBC Radio Four is going to serialize this Decline of Neighborliness book.  Well, Cheek by Jowl The History of Neighbours. They just reprised a reading of  a book on Hedges, which covered much the same territory. And they did that amazing Amanda Vickery series about the History of (what was it) Ordinary Life??

No, but I see that Woman's Hour interviewed her.

Hmm. Her book is available on Kindle....I bought it! I can even read it off the cloud, so I don't have to go find the thing and charge it.

Another thing that used to create social situations, LENDING BOOKS! I wonder if Cockayne covers this topic. Hmm. 

Calling Cards. They came with the Nicholson family letters, from the same Victorian Trunk.