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03 July 2011 at 20:46 - Posted by Anonymous

How to turn a street into a community


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London - Last Sunday, 16 people came round to my home to eat cake, drink wine and celebrate the birthday of a mutual friend. Nothing unusual about that, you may think.

Except that until a few months ago, we had been virtual strangers; a random group of people who just happened to live in the same street, our contact confined to familiar neighbourly disputes over noise-nuisance, dripping drains, parking woes and upturned bins.

A recent survey found that 70 percent of Britons don’t even know their neighbours’ names. A shocking statistic, but one that I could certainly relate to.

I’ve lived in the same small mews street in North London for more than three years, and while I had learned a few neighbours’ names in that time, I knew precious little else about them.

But now, after an incredible six months, I not only know them a great deal better, but am proud to call them my friends.

And I would like to tell you how that came about. Not as some self-congratulatory or selfrighteous testimony, but in the hope that it might - just might - encourage others to get to know their neighbours better, too.

For I believe that Britain would be a far, far better place if we were able to build stronger communities through the simple bonds of neighbourly friendship.

We were there last Sunday to toast Geoff’s 68th birthday - a celebration made all the sweeter for the fact that it was he who had brought us all together in the first place, albeit in rather sad circumstances.

It all began back in early September. I was rushing home to write a piece for this paper and to prepare for a dinner party for ten people when I spotted a neighbour walking aimlessly down the small road that connects our cottages.

Jumping out of the cab, a pile of groceries in one hand, newspapers in the other, I was busy; in a rush; no time for social niceties. The usual excuses for ignoring those around us.

I nodded and waved hello, but this time something seemed amiss. There was a sadness in the stoop of his shoulders. Nothing dramatic, but when he caught my eye, I could see he “wanted to chat”.

My first instinct, I’m ashamed to say, was to rush on by, thinking to myself: “I’m a busy woman. I don’t have time for a roadside chat.”

But then Geoff spoke. “There’s something I want to tell you,” he began.

Oh dear, not another problem with the foxes in my rubbish bins or noisy dinner parties.

“I’ve got cancer,” he said.

We stood on the pavement as he told me what had happened. He hadn’t been feeling well. His GP had sent him in for tests and, before he knew it, he’d been sent to a bowel cancer unit at University College Hospital to be told the grim news.

“The specialist told me: ‘It’s a tumour and you’ll need a course of intensive radiotherapy and chemotherapy to see if we can shrink it and make it easier to operate, when we decide to operate...if we can operate’.”

Geoff and I were not friends, still less confidantes. But it suddenly struck me, as we stood outside my home, that the reason he had stopped me in the street might be that he had no nearby family to fall back on.

His wife had died three years ago and they had no children. That much I knew. I was later to learn his siblings were scattered across the globe, too. In other words, he had no one. And he had cancer.

So I asked him in for a coffee, the first time he’d been inside my home apart from for a hastily arranged drinks party a couple of years previously.

We sat and talked, him mostly in that disarmingly honest way people do when they’ve just been told they have a life-threatening illness.

“I’ve told the doctors unless there is a good chance of extending my life, I won’t go through with any treatment,” he explained. “I’d rather live out my natural life than be butchered for nothing.

“But if there’s a good chance...” His voice trailed off. “There’s so much more I want to do.”

I realised in that moment that I knew hardly anything about Geoff, except his name and address and that he’d been widowed. No idea of his past achievements; his hobbies; his loves and hates; his hopes for the future; the things that made Geoff Geoff. Nothing.

Ah, but that’s not quite true. I remembered that my parents had come to stay with me the previous month. I’d been out for the day and they had forgotten their keys again (no mobile phones, either) and had returned home in the pouring rain with no way of getting into the house. Goodness knows how long they’d stood there before Geoff had walked past, turned around and come back to ask if they’d like to shelter in his house until I returned. Yes, they would. Very much indeed.

Over the ensuing hours, Geoff had given them a tour of his wildly, wonderfully eccentric home - an Aladdin’s cave of his and his late wife’s eclectic antiques and curios, collected over decades of their life together. He’d made my parents tea and chatted away with them until I got home.

Yes, Geoff had a good heart. That much I did know.

So on the day he told me of his terrible news, we sat and drank coffee and then a glass of wine or two (the dinner party would have to wait) and then he left. Back to his empty home which, while it may not have been a lonely place when he was well, was now shadowed with cancer.

Over the ensuing weeks, as Geoff underwent his gruelling course of chemotherapy, we started to chat on the phone. We texted; I popped around with flowers and tidbits of food to try to tempt him as the treatment took its toll.

Then one day I noticed his fridge was not as bare as it had been. It was full of delicious homemade dinners and treats, juices, fresh milk and bread. What’s more, the house now had flowers in it.

The reason, I soon discovered, was that I was not the only neighbour now watching over him.

My immediate neighbour, Sophie, was Geoff’s first port of call in an emergency. However busy she was, she always found time for him; for tea, for sympathy.

The man directly behind my home - the one who hated the squirrels that often visited our gardens - was coming over, too, and collecting Geoff’s rubbish, making sure it was out in time for our bin collections.

Catherine was newly arrived in the street - she’d been here only a few months - but she was bringing flowers and delicious home-cooked soup, too. It was later I learned it was her husband Adrian who was the cook.

In a way that I imagine (perhaps naively) was more commonplace in the 1950s, everyone started “popping in” to make sure Geoff was fed, flowered and comforted.

There were 16 neighbours in all, whom Geoff dubbed his guardian angels.

We were very far from being angels. Just ordinary people who sometimes came to sit and hold his hand during the darker days, either in hospital after the major operation or when he came home. People who could help do the practical things that Geoff now found harder; making sure he had what he needed, whether it was toothpaste or tulips.

On the two occasions after the operation when Geoff was unexpectedly rushed back into hospital, one of us would grab his things, another take them to hospital for him. We had a couple of sets of keys we passed around. We all worked, but somehow we made it work.

An example? One evening, I dashed home to get dressed for a formal drinks party and there was a message from Catherine saying Geoff had been readmitted to hospital during a routine visit.

He’d called her to see if she could bring his things in. She’d collected his overnight bag, but had now got stuck at work. Could I take Geoff’s stuff in for him?

Of course I could, although I’m ashamed to say that when I arrived at the hospital, I still didn’t even know his surname and had to wander from ward to ward trying to spot him.

Everyone did something, little or large. And, in the process, we became true neighbours - not just in the sense that we happened to live next door to one another, but in that we were doing the little things necessary to look after a member of our community.

There’s so much talk these days of how ghastly life has become: the breakdown of civil society, the death of courtesy, the absence of community values. It’s easy to blame feckless families - and, yes, they have certainly played a big part in shaping “Broken Britain”.

But even the most civilised of neighbours can be guilty of a failure to care; of being so wrapped up in our own lives that we fail to consider the man or woman next door. We, too, are culpable of creating a care-less society.

A survey recently found that the majority of people say they are “never-neighbours”; in other words, they would never consider dropping in on the person next door.

But, as I discovered, it doesn’t take much to make amends, to strengthen a community.

The people in my street didn’t need lectures from No10 about the Big Society, or hectoring from the Left about social welfare. We just needed someone like Geoff to bring us together.

Last Sunday we celebrated Geoff’s birthday. But we were also celebrating something else: the new friendships we had never envisaged.

We are truly good neighbours at last.

Who are yours? - Daily Mail

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