I’ve been a fan of John Lanchester’s fiction for years, so I was thrilled to attend a Dulwich Book Festival event at Dulwich College last night, where Mr Lanchester was interviewed about his new novel, Capital, by economist Vicky Pryce.
The novel is set in the fictional Pepys Road in Clapham, where the various inhabitants are startled to receive a message posted through their doors – ‘We want what you have’. Mr Lanchester, who lives in Clapham himself, explained that part of his fascination was to show how little the neighbours had in common, and that this common threat was actually all that brought them together, overcoming their entrenched London reserve and dislike of talking to each other.
‘The experience of London is of parallel lives – not knowing your neighbours is almost a form of good manners,’ he said. ‘We press up so close against each other that we need this reserve.’ I know what he means, certainly when you consider tube journeys, but is this really a truth universally acknowledged?
This idea that no-one in London knows their neighbours seems almost unchallenged – Miss Pryce concurred that she didn’t know her neighbours, and they seemed to agree this was the natural state of things in London.
Well, I’m bit flummoxed. Of course, it’s not exactly Albert Square, or Ambridge, but I do know my neighbours in this corner of Dulwich, and I’ve always known my neighbours in the London houses and flats I’ve inhabited in the past 33 years. There’s an art to keeping a discreet distance, of course, but knowing my neighbours has given me comfort and pleasure. I like seeing familiar faces (I’ve just waved at a neighbour walking past my study window. She smiled and waved back, not, I think, too nervously) and stopping for a gossip. It makes me feel part of a community, comfortable, included.
More than that, I owe a lot to my neighbours. Some are real friends, not just nodding acquaintances. When I lived in Greenwich, the neighbour in the flat downstairs encouraged me to go with her to the local Amnesty International group. I went along, made several life-long friends, and met my husband. Last time I went to Cambridge I stayed with a former neighbour, who is still a close friend of my mother, 33 years after our family moved to south London. Friendships and bonds with neighbours can endure for decades. I think it’s a joy to be able to walk to a friend’s house for coffee, as I can do in Dulwich, instead of making complex arrangements involving trains or designated drivers.
Perhaps its the quick turnover in some parts of London that mean people know each other less. I only chatted once to my neighbour in Leigh Street, Bloomsbury, in the 9 months I lived there. The ground floor was inhabited by students who seemed to come and go, so I never got to know them. I did meet the shop keepers, though, and am on first name terms with the dry cleaner and optician (which may reflect the amount of money I spend with them).
After the discussion at Dulwich College, I commiserated with Mr Lanchester on the unfriendliness of Clapham, suggesting he move to Dulwich instead, where, I told him, everyone knows their neighbours. ‘I don’t want to know my neighbours!’ he exclaimed, a look of horror on his face.
Well, I guess writers need their peace, and their space. I do remember correcting a northern friend who said that northerners were more friendly, with the words ‘no, they’re just more nosy.’ But personally I like to know that, if I venture out of my study, craving human contact, there are people who won’t find me too weird for wanting a chat. Fortunately Mr Lanchester told us that he never reads anything written about him, so there’s no fear of him finding out about this terrible social faux-pas. I’m still greatly looking forward to reading my copy of Capital, which he kindly signed, about the strange, disconnected lives of those antisocial Claphamites. I’ll report back when I’m done.
Note: the event was organised by the splendid Dulwich Books, our very friendly neighbourhood bookshop, recently voted London’s Best Independent Bookshop 2012!