The Death of Community Spirit

I love a good joke that also doubles as a true and accurate social commentary. One good example of what I mean is this one:

“I’m really worried about the old dear that lives over the road from me. I’ve not seen her for weeks, milk bottles have built up on the door step, and blue bottles fill the whole window. I hope she’s okay.”

I remember hearing that about 3 years ago and it made me laugh. Not only is it humorous because of the “daftness” of worrying, when you could easily go across the road to check that the old dear is alive – but like most jokes, the humour for me lies in the truth, however dark or awkward it may be. The truth in this particular case is that community spirit in Great Britain is in a critical condition.

It is true that many people are living a near isolated existence within their geographical districts today, for a variety of different reasons. The Royal Wedding last year will help me to demonstrate the point. How did Great Britains massive street party of 1981 compare to 30 years later? In 1981, I was 5 so I may have an ultra thick pair of rose tinted spectacles on while I recall the event. But I remember very clearly a happy, fuzzy day of community togetherness, our street full of dining tables stacked with food, drink, union jack based decorations and those annoying things that roll out and make a really high pitched noise when you blow into them. This scene was not exclusive – it was the same throughout the country.

Fast forward 30 years and lets compare that national day of community high spirited togetherness against last years Royal Wedding celebrations. The only comparison was a few pockets of middle class communities sparing no expense for their extravagant televised street parties in London and across the Home Counties. But it was a very tiny percentage of folk who participated in community events – to make up a percentage off the top of my head, it was probably 3%.

But why though? We can’t use the excuse that we don’t like Kate and William, or the monarchy, or Royal Weddings. We can’t say we don’t wish them well, and we know that we are all very protective of William because of who his Mum was. Over a million people queued up and camped on concrete floors for days to catch a glimpse of the happy couple. This was a massive spectacle not only in Britain but all across the planet, and we didn’t really bother organising anything amongst our neighbourhoods to mark this special occasion and make great nostalgic warm fuzzy memories for our kids to cherish in later life.

The reason the community didn’t come together is this : There is no community left in most of the country.

Local TV and Radio news crews were begging for street party tip offs so they could embark on putting together a rather fake impression that everybody was out in the streets, waving their union jack hand held plastic flags and rejoicing at the wonder of Kate and Williams nuptials. Funnily enough, I was out in the community on that day last year, (building a flat pack chicken house for a friend as a matter of fact.) I heard no sound that day, it was eerily quiet in the well populated district where I live in Lancashire. People, it seemed, were just glad of the day off and stayed indoors or visited family. I think this is very sad. I saw one street party in the town as I made my way home. Well, it was more of a wheelie bin blocking the road with a sign on it saying “No Entry – Street Party.”

I love the picture below, it was taken in the community in which I was lucky enough to grow up in the 1980s. The road is lined with members of the community for the annual Whit Walks celebration, where a marching Brass Band would play at the front of the procession, and dignitaries, church groups, Cubs, Scouts, Brownies and proud parishioners would march along through their community. This picture is of Dukinfields march in 1984. The Whit Walks is a Manchester tradition dating back to 1821, and in many towns still survives today – where the councils health and Safety departments allow it, and police road closure costs aren’t too prohibitive.

I wish that we could find a way to change the fact that people are now more inclined to keep themselves to themselves rather than embrace their neighbours and indulge in a stronger community life. I wish I lived in a world where the post man still knocked on my next door neighbours and asked if they wouldn’t mind taking in a packet if I’m out. I get on well with my neighbours on both sides, and they would happily take in a packet for me. But Royal Mail don’t ask anymore because the answer is usually no.

So where did it all go wrong? Why are we keeping ourselves to ourselves? There are no scientific answers I guess. But perhaps there just isn’t such a need for the type of close knit communities that rallied together during and after the second world war. Or maybe we have all been brainwashed and scared by the medias portrayal of our wider community being a dark, nasty and unsafe place where murderers, robbers, paedophiles, rapists and confidence tricksters are all hoping that we will befriend them and become their latest victims?

Another explanation could be that we just don’t like real people anymore and we’d prefer to communicate via Twitter and Facebook to our virtual hand picked community of neighbours.

But lets take a moment to look at how well united and close knit our British Asian communities are. I drive through Blackburns Bastwell district often, because I’m kind of addicted to the kebab rolls from Shandar takeaway. This area is exclusively Asian, and the presence of a white person is quite noticeable. One thing that always leaves an impression on me is how tightly knitted and close the community is here. It makes me feel quite envious, and it makes me nostalgic for the way I remember life in the close community of back to back terraces where I grew up in Greater Manchester during the 1980s. I could go and ask our Muslim brothers what vital ingredients are needed to help us go back and rebuild our once strong communities, where people took a great pride in feeling part of the place. After all these families in Blackburn all have Facebook and Twitter too.

My kids are busily enjoying their childhoods, playing out and going to school and participating in youth clubs and groups. For them community life is all around and it is very much alive and well. Its just us grown ups who need to make more of an effort to get to get to know one another, rather than rush into the house, head bowed avoiding eye contact, to catch the latest pointless argument in Albert Square.

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3 thoughts on “The Death of Community Spirit

  1. Sarah says:

    Loved this piece Steve; made me think hard about your point but have to disagree. Maybe my village is the exception because we all gathered together for a royal wedding party. There were offical and unofficial parties in Fence and Barrowford and friends moved between them throughout the night and day. We sat there in our best clothes and cried during the ceremony and debated why the occasion was so important to us. Nostalgia was the main reason. I have brilliant neighbours who care for us and we care for them so much too. I don’t deny our Asian community has a strong sense of family – but so do I and my friends. It is a shame that in Lancashire they are so separate. The white British family unit has changed – and my family more so than most – but we still look out for each other and care for each other. I don’t think this is a bad thing although my church would say differently. We move across the country for work and that means friends become honourary family members. What prompted your blog on this? X

  2. Fernanda says:

    Just found your blog by chance. I’m a Brazilian with a British soul. I’ve fallen in love with Britain as a child (maybe as a result of my father’s love for History, castles, heraldry, monarchy – not sure why) and followed my passion, ending up working as a translator. I really liked your depth in-view of the country. I’ll surely visit often. Fernanda

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