Earlier this month I’d spent a frosty Tuesday in the docks of East London keeping warm and toasty in the University of East London’s archive library. The area used to be the hub of London’s Docklands up until the middle of the last century and the library is adjacent to the water. I’m undertaking a research project for author Kate Thompson for her next novel, which is set in East London during World War II and I visited the library to listen to East side Community Heritage recordings of local people talking about their experiences of that period. The Cockney view of life is unique and they always have the ability to make me laugh, even when talking about horrific experiences such as the war. One of the recordings takes place at a local community centre and as the group gather and settle down to chat they cheer when spam and corn beef sandwiches are passed around alongside cups of milky tea.
There was anxious laughter as Joan said ‘it was lovely really’ when she reflected about the sense of community she enjoyed rather than some of the horror and loss she must have experienced. ‘Neighbours looking out for your kids if you had one indoors sick, they’d go and get a bit of shopping for you’. Doris explains that their neighbours wouldn’t hesitate in sharing their coal rations with them. Doors were left open for people to come in and out, ‘You didn’t have nuffink but neither did anyone else’. The group agree that the war cost them their sense of community. A large number of homes were bombed in East London resulting in many residents moving to Essex and Kent, whole families were pulled apart. These destinations might only be a short train ride away but to them it felt like an ocean between them after living amongst their friends and family all their young lives. Rose from North Woolwich, talking in 2004, says she feels sorry for those people in the new tower blocks that are being built ‘they just sleep there, in their box, they go to work, come home, go back to work again’. She assumes they don’t know their neighbours and exclaims ‘what kind of life is that?’.
On my way home I looked out over what would have been the docks and watched the planes land on the alarmingly short runway of London City Airport. With the cockney voices still chatting away in my head I tried to imagine what it must have been like living here, the water full of skyscraper sized ships with sailors from every part of the world loaded with cargos of tea and exotic goods. I recalled East Ender Doreen complaining she couldn’t sleep when the docks were closed as she couldn’t stand the silence. I made my way back to the DLR and brought myself back into the present by reading the news. The Commission for Loneliness in honour of murdered MP, Joanne Cox was one of the lead stories of the day. Ms Cox had come up with the idea after joining her grandfather on his postal round in the West Yorkshire and realising that he was the only person that some people would see that day. One thing that struck me was that the elderly people I had heard chatting on the recordings did not appear to be lonely. They were very much involved in the community, visiting a different social club every day and in younger years, they had arranged festivals for their local housing estates. I started to think about Rose’s comment about young people living in a ‘box’ of a flat and not knowing their neighbours. I started to think that perhaps Rose was right and it wasn’t the elderly that were lonely but those much younger and too busy working to have a social life. In 2015 the Office for National Statistics undertook a study on loneliness and well-being in old people but when they correlated it with an earlier study they found that people of working age between 35 and 54 were the most lonely of all the age groups and the least likely to socialise.
I recently gave up my full time job in a busy, friendly office of around 200 people and I’m not ashamed to say that I cried on my last day. I enjoyed the job but I knew what I would miss the most was the friends I had made at work. A few weeks after leaving I suffered a family bereavement. Feeling sad and a bit lost, I decided to visit my old office. I wanted to go somewhere familiar, to a place where people shared their every day events with each other. Conversations can switch in seconds from a huge row with a boyfriend the night before or to that evening’s dinner choices. My ex-colleagues were pleased to see me and I enjoyed sharing the latest gossip and what I describe as the every day chats. I thought back to Rose and her comment about people going to work then coming home to a box and I realised that not everything has changed since the war, we still have a community but they are now the offices, the bars and pubs next to the office and not necessarily our homes.
So what about the future? Will I become lonely now I am not surrounded by people all day? I could see how this could happen, especially as there is a moving trend to zero hour roles and more people working from home. I recently attended ‘You Say You Want A Revolution’ exhibition at the V&A in London. There is a section dedicated to the hippie ideals of sharing knowledge and seeking alternative communities. The Internet was invented by a group of hippies who had an idealistic view of their invention bringing people closer together and yet 40 years later this has resulted in more and more people being asked to work from home. In the case of Richard, an IT project manager, he was required to work from home due to the lack of desk space at the office. The only day he could work in the office was a Friday as many people chose to work from home that day but of course there were not many people around to interact with.
I agree with Rose that our home lives have shifted but I disagree we have lost our sense of community, as human beings it is there but not in the way she experienced it when she was growing up. I appreciate that loneliness is a complex subject, someone can be surrounded by people and still feel lonely. In the practical sense there are people who live in a remote area or are not physically able to join a group or a community. Charities such as Age UK and initiatives such as Commission for Loneliness are working towards combating the increasing phenomenon of loneliness. The rise of social media could result in people only being in touch online and not meeting face to face. Relationship charity Relate disagree as 64% of respondents to their survey said they saw their friends once a week and use social media to check in with people. The charity highlights the importance of communication in relationships and their findings show that social media is helping as people communicate with each other in a variety of different mediums. I am writing this post in a cafe over looking the Thames, not far from the docks where Rose lived. All around me there are people deep in conversation on their mobile phones, a couple discussing social care over their coffees, a young woman with an elderly couple engaged in a lively conversation. So Rose shouldn’t worry, people will always seek human connections, as long as we have access to good wifi, our communities will grow outside of our boxes.