The NHS clap last summer was a warming moment of unity across the country, but I enjoyed it for more personal reasons too. As individuals lined up on their doorsteps, clanging pots and pans, I had the rare opportunity to indulge my curiosity and identify everyone living on my road.
Until then, my knowledge of neighbours was fairly limited. I knew there was a young man in the house opposite who likes to smoke on his front step, a middle aged bloke downstairs who practices his bass guitar in the early hours of the morning, and a friendly French girl next door, who I’d bonded with over our shared frustration at the late-night bass player. At 8pm each Thursday, this small pool of neighbours was routinely expanded to interaction with the whole street.
It seems I’m not alone. In a recent poll, 1.42 million Londoners said that the Clap for Our Carers was the first time they’d ever laid eyes on the people who lived next door. And a quarter of adults say they’ve now spoken to neighbours who they’d had no contact with prior to the pandemic.
Confined to our own homes, lockdown has given us a chance to strengthen ties within our local community; 77% of people in the UK say they’ve received an act of kindness from a neighbour during the pandemic.
With London ranked one of the loneliest cities in the world, I’ve always found the anonymity existing between so many neighbours to be quite isolating. So, I embraced this period of heightened community spirit. After Boris’ big December U-turn, and keeping to 2020s spirit of unpredictability, the girl next door -who shares my disdain for the bass guitar- became my Christmas day companion.
Substituting my family for a neighbour I’d only interacted with a handful of times would have seemed very strange a year ago – but the threshold for what’s strange is high these days. Our Christmas support bubble felt surprisingly familiar –perhaps, even when you barely know a neighbour, there’s a curious intimacy that comes from living in such close proximity –and hearing constant snippets of each other’s daily routine. (When I texted to ask her what time she was coming round, I could hear her phone vibrate through the walls).
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It’s not just in cities that lockdown has had a marked effect on local community. In the small, rural village where my parents live, behaviour that passes for normal in London – like fully avoiding eye contact with a neighbour – would be terrible etiquette. And yet, despite the friendly waves and fleeting chats over garden fences, it seems rare that anyone spends a proper evening together. The village pets are generally better at integrating – as evidenced in my (ex)dog who now permanently resides across the road.
In the past year, the shift in relations has been striking. A village WhatsApp group was created to support those isolating, pool food shopping and for the mandatory exchange of Covid-related memes. At one point, a Zoom drinks party for the village was proposed -an amusing turn of events for a bunch of neighbours living 20 metres apart, who’ve barely arranged a real drink in the 20+ years many have known each another.
It would, of course, be naïve to pretend that heightened solidarity between locals has been the full picture anywhere in the UK. It’s also been a time for snitching and curtain twitching and clashes over different interpretations of lockdown rules.
Anyone with a ‘Nextdoor’ account could probably tell you that.
The neighbourhood app, designed for plumber recommendations and babysitting adverts- with a “no politics on here” rule to preserve harmony- has, as usual, illustrated that the personal is political.
In my local Nextdoor group, there have been individuals moaning about heavy-breathing runners being a public health hazard – with one neighbour suggesting we should “just mow them down at the zebra crossing”.
A particularly memorable fight broke out after the Prime Minister was admitted to intensive care. One neighbour voiced concern at the news and was promptly accused by another of violating the Nextdoor golden rule: “your political partisanship will not be tolerated on this app!”
Yet, despite the odd scuffle, these posts have been vastly outnumbered by messages of support. Anyone who has posted about shielding has been flooded with caring messages from neighbours offering to do their shopping. And posts suggesting constructive ways to support struggling local businesses have abounded.
Perhaps the real question then, is how long will this heightened community spirit last? Will we be able to sustain this camaraderie with other locals post-lockdown?
Wartime analogies have been used often in the context of the pandemic. To some extent, they explain the social psychology at play with our neighbours. A shared enemy encourages collective cohesiveness. But if this is a wartime solidarity we’re experiencing, what happens when our joint enemy in no longer a threat? Could the enemy once again be a neighbour who keeps putting their bins out on the wrong day? And will my parents finally have some in-person drinks with others in the village or will they return to a brief wave over the garden fence?
A recent survey suggests we may see an enduring effect. 53% of Brits vowed to make more of an effort with those in in their local community once lockdown lifts.
Memes may dwindle on neighbourhood WhatsApp groups and I certainly plan to spend Christmas with my own family next year, but lockdown has reminded us that there is still a real willingness and desire to be part of a local community. We have an underlying propensity to look out for our neighbours – the virus has just given us as a way to express it.