Love Thy Neighbour?

Neighbours … everybody needs good neighbours … so the song tell us, but is it true? "Of course it is!" I hear you cry. But do we all mean the same thing? And has the good neighbourliness of the past been replaced by a more modern version?
There's a tendency for us to believe that everyone but us lives in a fabulous community of neighbours who leave their back doors open for one another, deliver care packages whenever someone's ill and welcome newcomers to the street with a basket of freshly-baked cookies. And this may be the case, although I suspect this level of togetherness and mi casa es su casa-iness exists only in fictional communities like Wisteria Lane.  Nevertheless that Hollywood-inspired perfect community is something after which many of us yearn. And occasionally you can be blessed with the most fabulous of neighbours.

The road I grew up in in the 70s and 80s, despite being in an ordinary suburban area, had somehow managed to remain largely untouched by modern life. Many of the residents had lived in the street for decades and were well-schooled in the art of good old-fashioned neighbourliness. The couple next door to us were at the heart of local life. Their Boxing Day gatherings alone were worthy of the finest Agatha Christie house party - the entire street in attendance, every kind of refreshment and nourishment imaginable - all that was missing was the body in the library.
And yes, a few days after we moved in our new neighbour peered over the fence offering a cup of coffee. Five minutes later back she came with a silver tray, a pot of freshly ground and percolated coffee, milk, cream, two types of sugar and her best Denby pottery to drink it from.

They became the type of neighbours that you couldn't visit without coming back home with at least a couple of cabbages, a pound of runner beans and a bag of apples from their allotment. I once lost my tennis ball over the fence. Instead of just chucking the ball back, our neighbour suggested I come round and use their larger lawn. By the time I had arrived he had erected a proper net, changed into his whites and arranged for his wife to bring out a jug of homemade lemonade. For an eight-year-old girl it was like living in the pages of a Famous Five book. Of course, being so young I took it all in my stride so it was a bit of a shock to move, at eighteen, to a more 'normal' street.
That's not to say that we didn't still have great neighbours, but modern life tends not to support chatting over the garden wall. As my very wise dad says: 'without communication you don't get community'. How true! Most of us go everywhere by car.  We don't stand at the bus stop with the chap across the road or walk the kids to school with the lady next door. We can go all week without even passing the time of day with our neighbours. Acccordingly our expectations for and requirements of them have changed enormously. What most of us now want is the kind of neighbour who is friendly, reliable and considerate. Who is there if we need them without knocking on the door five times a day.
And, perhaps most importantly, we want neighbours who are as considerate of those around us as we try to be.  We want neighbours who don't have lots of noisy parties late into the night. Neighbours who park sensibly and safely, on their own more than adequate drives. Neighbours who don't make us feel guilty when we have to knock on their door to collect a parcel the postie has brought while we were out. Neighbours whose guests don't churn up the carefully manicured grass verges with four wheel drives. Neighbours who promise to put right damage done to our properties during work to their properties without us having to ask. Neighbours who get on with replacing the hedge we had to remove so workmen could get access to their gardens.  We'd like neighbours who keep their fronts tidy, who speedily get rid of old carpets and not leave them on the lawn. Who don't leave burglar-friendly ladders propped up against our shared fences. Who get building work done as quickly as possible and don't leave the rubble from a dismantled garage or roof in a huge pile for us to look at every time we open the curtains.  And who put out the correct bins on the correct days by the appointed time, rather than assuming that the wheelie-bin fairy will do it for them - it won't be a good fairy, it'll be a good neighbour.
If you're suspecting that these particular complaints might hint at a few raw nerves, then you'd be right. All of these points are complaints I've heard from friends over the last couple of years or which we've experienced.  From people who try to be the best neighbours they can be. Who make sure they don't impinge on the comfort of their neighbours. And who increasingly  have found that many of their neighbours don't reciprocate. It seems that less and less do people consider the impact of their actions on those around them. So much so that it feels like a developing epidemic.
So why is this? Is it just that we don't care so much about people we don't know? Or are we so controlled by rules that we have become determined to push them to the edge? Are we simply more selfish than we used to be? I'd like to think none of these are true and that things are not as bad as they seem. But I fear that the rest of us have gotten out of the habit of politely complaining, worried that we might cause offence or even exacerbate a situation, just as we most need to voice our concerns. We see so much in the news about neighbour conflicts developing into nasty confrontations, that we've lost faith in our ability to settle problems. We've begun resorting to polite but anonymous notes, or worse still to complaining to everyone except the person causing the problem. Can we really expect a problem to be resolved if we don't talk about it? Could it be that our neighbour just doesn't realise how irritating his or her behaviour is? Perhaps, then, we should be braver and put our concerns into words? I might just give it a try. We might not be going on their Christmas card list, but surely it's possible to be good neighbours without being good friends?