Know thy neighbour

THE Bible exhorts us to “love thy neighbour as thyself” which is not necessarily easy if he insists on cranking up the leaf blower at 8 o’clock on a Sunday morning or the teenage children play the latest hits (which you would hate at ANY volume) at a level that makes the glasses rattle on the sideboard.

We actually can’t complain about any such antisocial behaviour as our neighbours all round are lovely – we live in part of the town where old cottages all back on to each other with a network of walled gardens, which the cats love, much to the frustration of at least one dog! But not everybody is so lucky.

It would probably be easier if the admonition was to “know thy neighbour” because these days that is not always easy; isolation is a serious problem even for people who live in towns and theoretically can see people every day. So it is perhaps not surprising that there are misunderstandings that can easily escalate into something more serious.

When did you last talk to your neighbour? If you live on a housing estate or in a block of flats, from where most people go off to work, you may not even recognise the people who live next door. You may get to know people at work or other parents at the school gate or school functions, but your immediate neighbours are strangers to you and you to them.

If you live in a village which is lucky enough still to have a shop and a school and a pub and a church, chances are you will be on at least nodding acquaintance with quite a few people. You may be a recent arrival, but if you are friendly you will soon get drawn into one or other of the village networks. When a friend who is not one of the world’s great flower arrangers, nor in any way religious, moved into a small Dorset village, she was invited to join the church flower group and loved it.

Another friend, who came to this town many years ago on her own, joined the church, the twinning association, the garden club and the arts group and soon made many friends. We met her through the arts group, seeing her at both classical and folk concerts locally and in London. We got talking because we obviously had musical tastes in common and rapidly found that she was a great dog-lover, so we started travelling together to share the costs, and she bonded instantly with our then elderly and crotchety wire haired fox terrier. She was the first friend to meet the next one as a puppy, was his adored auntie for all of his 14 years and is now the equally adored auntie of his successor, Pippin, who occasionally takes over this corner of the website.

But we are lucky – through our interests, our professional tendency as journalists to talk to people, and the friendly town and rural area in which we live, we have made many real friends and can hardly walk up the road or go to the farm shop or supermarket without meeting lots of people, so that a simple shopping outing becomes a series of animated conversations.

Not everyone is so lucky. There are many who have seen their traditional neighbourhoods torn apart by the brutal forces of global economics and corporations, importing cheap goods produced by people who work in poor conditions on wages far below the poverty line. Other communities are reeling from the impact of influxes of people who speak different languages and follow other customs or faiths. Too often, there is nobody, as an organisation or individually, able or willing to try to help newcomers to assimilate or to encourage the existing population to accept the new arrivals.

And so a centuries-old tradition of accepting people blown to our shores by war, pestilence, persecution and devastation is now being eroded. Instead of welcoming refugees, asylum-seekers, people fleeing unimaginable horrors and oppression, we fear massed hordes marching across Europe, in hope of welfare and housing which our countries can ill-afford. We don’t see individual suffering and too many of us are willing to bend to the ignorant and ill-informed ranting of newspaper columnists and populist politicians.

It has been heartening to see the support from ordinary people here and in Germany and France (and the US) for grass-roots organisations such as or campaigning aid charities calling on governments to show compassion and take in more of the migrants.

The increasing polarisation of groups of people who “stick to their own kind” adds to un-neighbourliness – if you don’t understand the language your neighbours speak, of course it is not easy to understand their lives and their personal stories.

But the ability of humans to communicate, with or without a common language, should not be underestimated. Sometimes your fears and prejudices are quickly confounded through nothing more than eye contact and a smile.

We were reminded of this while waiting to come back through passport control in Heathrow recently, with people off flights from Egypt and Iceland. A young mother with five children, aged from about 10 down to about two (who had been entertaining the increasingly hot and irritated queue), was asked by an immigration officer where her husband was. It was hard to imagine a white woman with children would have been asked the same question. She and her children all had British passports. The woman in front of us, clad from head to toe in a black burka with only her eyes visible, looked at me and raised her eyebrows. I said something, she replied and we gradually got into a long, interesting and very funny conversation about the horrors of international travel. As we talked, we all realised how much we had in common – sisters under the skin, if not the outer garment. We could easily be friends if our paths brought us close again.

The past few days have brought warnings from church leaders and concerned politicians that many of the middle eastern refugees will die on the frozen mountains of the Balkans if no solution is found. There are renewed calls for the wealthy countries of the west to show common humanity and help these victims who may have been bombed by their own government, brutalised by terrorists or caught in the crossfire between fanatical warlords intent on destroying everything that does not comply with their own philosophy.

As never before, we need to be good neighbours.

Fanny Charles