Sunday, 20 December 2015

Animals - One Of Only Two Things That Will Get British People To Talk

A South African friend of mine who has lived in the UK for over a decade still complains about the lack of community in Britain and how that British people, even when neighbours, simply ignore each other.  I have lived in lots of different places in the past couple of decades from London to a rural Warwickshire village and many towns in southern England and some in the Midlands, somewhere in between in scale.  Aside from when I lived in Poplar in East London and that was in the 1990s, I have found her experience to be the same for me.  When people say 'they kept to themselves', in fact that goes for everyone in the street even the person the newspaper, radio or television journalist is talking to.  British people may gawp at their neighbours - I have had people literally standing in their front gardens staring at me but not acknowledging my greeting, most recently in the house I moved into this September, but they will not talk to them apart from in two exceptional cases.

This is in contrast to some other countries.  Yes, there is a fantasy of US suburbia where everyone talks.  I am sure my South African friend would find the community of her youth has now faded.  I have encountered it a bit in Belgium.  The pull by global society is always to be suspicious of your neighbour and have nothing to say to them.  The concerns about immigrants and terrorists, very often linked in people's minds, simply exacerbates this situation.  However, in some parts of some other countries, a basic level of communication has to be eroded.  In Britain, suspicion and silence come as the norm and it is only exceptional circumstances that shift this, not the other way around.

The first occasion when British people (and indeed anyone from abroad who catches on quickly) talk to each other, even those they may have been living next door to, is when something goes seriously wrong.  You need a whole spate of burglaries, not just a few, for the ice to be broken.  A murder or an abduction is usually necessary to really get people to talk to each other.  A big fire or a riot will have a similar effect.  There is a finite time for which this effect will last.  It is dependent on the severity of the incident and how long concerns about it go on.  The politician Tony Benn noted that when travelling on trains, people only began to talk to each other when the train broke down or was severely delayed.  Often once the journey resumed they returned to their silence.  Generally, if everything is going normally on public transport and you try to speak, people will distance themselves; will not respond and may even complain that you are a 'nutter'.

The tendency of crisis encouraging Britons to speak is probably declining itself as indignation, even fury, has replaced simply moaning as the UK's prime pastime.  These days I find it is mainly the elderly who speak during a problem; the younger people, even the middle aged, now simply text or tweet furiously about it or even shout into their phones, rather than complain about it with the people around them.

Twice over the past two years, I have discovered the other thing that will get British people to magically talk and that is animals.  It is said that the British love animals more than they love children and I think this is probably true.  While having a child can be a link to colleagues to strike up a conversation, an animal can do this with complete strangers, including your neighbours.  Two years ago I was renting in a room in a house owned by a Lithuanian family in South-West London.  They would often be out at work during the day and sometimes their bitch a golden Staffordshire bull terrier, who was very well kept and friendly and had the run of a large garden, would be whining to be taken for a walk when I got in, often hours ahead of the other residents.

One day to calm her I took her for a walk.  I had no experience in walking dogs except handling a friend's black Labrador for an afternoon about twenty years earlier.  In addition, I quickly learned that she only understood commands such as 'sit' and 'stay' in Lithuanian.  Lithuanian is one of the oldest languages in Europe which has not undergone much change except increase in vocabulary.  Proper nouns of all creatures including humans and dogs depending on whether they are the subject, object, being ordered, etc.  Anyway, with a gentle but firm hand I was able to walk the dog along the local river bank.  She was exceptionally well behaved, heeling and lying down if another dog approached.  The thing was that she was a key to suddenly a whole host of people talking to me.  Despite walking down the same streets five times per week, without the dog I was invisible; with her I seemed safe and worthwhile talking with to men, women and children of all ages.

A similar effect has happened now that I have returned to southern England.  As noted above, I have been renting this house since September, a little over three months now.  I have waved and tried to introduce myself to the neighbours in the close I live at the entrance to, to no avail.  No-one has given me their name or even responded to me walking up and saying 'hello'.  I know I look a little odd and people are particularly suspicious of middle-aged men, but the woman who lives in the house, who is younger than me, has had a similar reaction.  After three months, we have no idea of the names of any of the neighbours and apart from one man who drives a company van, no idea of what they do.  We have picked up scraps of information from seeing them coming and going, but nothing more.  If someone said to me that the person next door was called Mr. Smith and he was a local footballer or if they said he was Mr. Korzeniowska and he was a terrorist, I would have no idea if either of these statements was true or not.  I know he has two expensive cars, a blonde woman and small girl and a small dog, that is it.  I have not even seen his face in these dark evenings.

Now, this week something changed.  A cat decided that it lived in our house.  Every time we opened the front door it would run into the house and be reluctant to leave.  It is well tended and had a collar and bell but no tag.  We have been advised to check if it has a chip implanted but it is difficult to get her in our car and we do not know if we will have to pay to have this checked.  Given that this is a large housing estate with houses back-to-back and labyrinthine closes, she may have strayed off her usual patch and be confused how to get back.  She likes none of the food we have offered and keeps looking for toys we do not have.  The woman in my house went to everyone in our close and because it was about a cat suddenly they began talking.  It was none of theirs, but people who had ignored us repeatedly were suddenly giving their names and speaking.  Even the man who lives opposite who parks his van to block the exit of my car because he has lived in the close longer and feels he has that right, suddenly introduced himself when he saw us with the cat.  Putting up posters about her got complete strangers from neighbouring streets talking to us at random.  Our appearance has not changed; our behaviour has not changed, but abruptly we are perceived as people that can be spoken to.

 Dogs and cats like me.  Other people's dogs will often come to my heel or even get in my car.  However, personally I cannot stand them; they all stink.  Furthermore I think people who focus on cats and dogs lack an essential element of humanity.  Yet, it is clear now that they have an important use.  We are not allowed to keep any pets under our tenancy and we need to get this one back to the owner, who we fear may be abroad or away over the Christmas period.  However, in a couple of days she has done us a great service in making us appear acceptable and finally we have some of the communication we had wanted/expected.  How long we can 'milk' this opportunity I do not know.  However, I do recommend that if your British neighbours give you the silent treatment, borrow someone's cat or dog and it will change their view of you in an instant.  It is clear that buying a dog was the best thing the Lithuanians could have done to be accepted quickly in their particular suburb.  I have no understanding why this situation is the case, but it is something I have finally learned.  It does not make me a fan of either dogs or cats, but I can see their use.

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