The John Griff column: Love thy neighbour – but at what price?

They have had sitcoms written about them, they are sometimes the targets for the stand-ups and they sometimes spoken of in disparaging terms, depending on our relationships with them. They have a noun of their own and they might live very close to us – or many miles away. We are encouraged to be better at being them and being rated as an example of one is generally aspirational for most of us.
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Where would we be without good neighbours?

I don’t mean the ‘Can I borrow a cup of sugar?’ kind. Nor the stereotyped, conflicted version that used to be on ITV’s ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ in the 70s. Neither do I mean the kind who live in chocolate box homes and with every domestic appliance available to hand, decorated according to the acolytes of the Pinterest or Etsy listings. No, instead I mean decent, regular, dependable neighbours who can be relied on to do more than take in the occasional Amazon delivery (other service providers are available) or sling a meaningless ‘From All at Number 12 to All of You’ Christmas card through the letterbox once a year.

Generally, throughout my life, I think I’ve been very lucky – and I do mean ‘lucky’ – with my neighbours. When I lived in Wootton as a child, our neighbours were the sort we went on holiday with many times and with whom we formed lifelong relationships. When I bought my first house I had great neighbours – we were in and out of each other’s houses and gardens regularly. And when I moved into my current home in Northampton, I was blessed with neighbours that shared their time, their food and were always on hand to help if it was needed.

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This week, the couple who rented the property next door to us moved away – the resulting loss seems devastating. Michael and James have been wonderful neighbours, bringing a real warmth to the area socially, as well as hosting us and being hosted in return. They’ve puppy-sat Ella, been out to dinner with us and really got under our skins almost as extended family of our own. They desperately wanted to buy the house outright and get on the property ladder by staying where they were, but found the price being asked to be simply too much and had to move away to secure that first rung. And in so doing, we’re all feeling a kind of emotional as well as physical loss. In reality, they’re only 15 minutes away by car – but it’s not the same. Proximity really does make a difference.

Or does it?

Neighbourliness scales with distance I think – we have neighbouring villages, neighbouring towns and neighbouring counties. Perhaps a little further afield there are neighbouring countries and planets too - with people like Elon Musk trying to put us on them. Can you imagine the first neighbourhood on Mars? No jokes about the atmosphere please! But if neighbourliness is primarily concerned with location and proximity, why do we so frequently have problems with it? Look at Putin’s forces and Ukraine, or North and South Korea. Take a moment to consider the neighbourliness between Pakistan and India - or even Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales. This year sees the largest potential for political change, with more countries than ever before going to their respective polls. How might neighbourliness change with their outcomes? For that matter, what will be the reaction on the streets to the change of MP in Wellingborough? Will the change bring people closer together, or drive them apart? My late godfather and uncle Ian always used to reckon that a shock in a by-election was good for a General Election because it woke people up to voter power. Maybe that’s a unifying thing - we’ll see when the polls open later this year.

Surely neighbourliness is as much about mutual respect and the give and take of life as anything else. The community of Billing Aquadrome has yet again been hit by flooding with the recent rains – and its only February. The stoicism of the locals has been remarkable and there’s been a sense of helping each other out again, as well as providing for themselves. I recall the Easter floods of 1998 – many were plunged into desperate attempts to save their homes and salvage their belongings from the waters as the Nene flooded and vast tracts of the county became submerged. In the aftermath as the water level receded, I recall people from neighbouring streets coming together to help each other because of a common, shared experience. One man I spoke to said it had been a positive experience for him, which surprised me because at the time he was sitting in his favourite armchair - in the middle of the street. When I asked how he came to his conclusion he simply said: ‘I’ve never spoken to my neighbours before - we have something to talk about now.’ Simple, but fundamental.

I suspect we could all do with a little more neighbourliness – however it is embodied and whatever sparks it, be that through adversity or simply wanting to live in a kinder world. If we were all to pause briefly and consider the virtues of developing it, I’m sure that there would be a huge dividend to come from it and an acceptance of each other than might not have been there before – one with a better chance of lasting. What’s more, that neighbourliness has the potential to spread, ripple-like and with real power. After all, who would say ‘no’ to it?

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Those good neighbours – are we, in fact, looking for reflections of ourselves? How would we stand up to close scrutiny? Point the finger at someone and invariably we find three more of our own pointing straight back at ourselves. Does it need someone else to set the agenda or an example of how to make the world a better place? Of course not – maybe it does need a nudge though. I hope that Michael and James find happiness in their new home - whoever their new neighbours are, they are going to be the beneficiaries of two fantastic newcomers. Lois and I will go and visit them in due course. But will we be just visitors, or still neighbours, a few steps removed?

That, I guess, will be down to us all to work out - together.

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