Cheek by Jowl: A History of Neighbours, By Emily Cockayne

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The Independent Culture

Almost everyone has one and nearly everyone is one. If you have one, you are one. Thus Emily Cockayne begins her history of neighbours, a topic that, by this reasoning, should interest almost all of us. I enjoyed Cockayne's book immensely, not least because it made me resolve to be more philosophical about any problems I have with my own neighbours when compared with what early-modern Britons had to put up with.

"Two sets of inhabitants in one Chester house," explains Cockayne, "lived separated by a broken wall and a painted cloth". This flimsy barrier, familiar to householders of the time, demarcated space rather than provided privacy. It's no wonder that neighbours were often witnesses in court and, as in 1598 when Margaret Browne of Houndsditch reported next door's infidelity, could provide horribly detailed statements ("[he] had carnall Copulation with her and having so don wiped his yard on her Smocke"). And it wasn't just embarrassing to be scrutinised – it could be deleterious to business and even deadly. Neighbours considered "marginal, strange, annoying, scolding, slandering, lonely, or non-conformist were more liable to accusation [of witchcraft] than popular, involved and helpful neighbours".

Before the 20th century, neighbourliness was often a safety net. The kindnesses – minding children, lending money and goods – was, among poorer people, a mixture of a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God attitude and a we're-all-in-this-together one.

There was certainly plenty of togetherness, whether the romance that blossomed between neighbours (Cockayne notes the surprising number of poets who had a thing for her next door – most notably Keats and Byron) or the less welcome cosiness between the Manchester slum dwellers in the 1850s who had to share six privies between 114 people. As Cockayne puts it, "people in the past knew their neighbours' toilet habits": she is something of an expert about this as the author of Hubbub: filth, noise and stench in England 1600-1770.

There was also a coming together of fists and faces, victims and murderers. Not getting on with the neighbours is nothing new. Drunken rackets are timeless: speakers have merely replaced singing and the scourge of the Victorians, pianos, although modern planning laws would probably have something to say about the building of "spite walls", tall barriers which were a way of blocking out light as well as maintaining privacy.

Cockayne's history of neighbours is also one of building styles. The introduction of terraced housing had a huge effect on who was next door (terraced streets being more likely to see specific classes congregate rather than the ad-hoc housing that went before). The brutalising results of true back-to-back housing condemned inhabitants to a life without privacy.

During the 20th century, slum clearance, council housing and social mobility saw neighbours metamorphasise, for many, from support system to social rivals to something to be avoided at all costs. Cockayne repeatedly points out that for every person who bemoans the modern lack of neighbourliness, more are relieved to have escape from constant censure and surveillance. While we're more alienated from our neighbours now than ever, that's because we're less desperate and destitute. Cockayne argues that the welfare state did for neighbourly togetherness – but it also did for having to deliver next-door's babies or help lay out their dead. The golden age of neighbourliness, she argues in this engaging and thought-provoking work, was also a vintage era for poverty, slum-dwelling, disease and violence.

So the next time I feel like banging on the party wall, I'll spare a thought for the long-ago neighbours of a man on Tottenham Court Road who kept 100 pigs next door.