James Evans explains the value of knowing thy neighbour.
Last month, Brits were greeted with the extraordinary news that three women, allegedly held as slaves for thirty years, had been freed from captivity in south London. I was shocked and appalled. It serves me right: when I heard about the freeing of the three abductees, Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight from a house in Cleveland, Ohio, in May, my habitual complacency that ‘it could only happen in America’ had kicked in.
In fact, the situation of the three women in the British case had lasted far longer. Whatever the outcomes of the enquiry, people in Lambeth will rightly be asking themselves why they didn’t realise what was going on.
In truth, the answer is common to our crowded and advanced western societies. Although we often live cheek by jowl with each other, we rarely socialise with our nearest geographical neighbours. The polite distances maintained by unacquainted neighbours often result in people not even knowing the names of those closest to them! On the crest of the technological wave, relationships are increasingly ‘virtual’ or associated with school and work networks, and decreasingly based around the communities where people actually live. It is no wonder that people’s inclination is to ‘mind their own business’ and not that of those who live around them.
The polite distances maintained by unacquainted neighbours often result in people not even knowing the names of those closest to them!
The Lambeth case is a stark reminder that other people’s business can be our business too. Within our frequently socially dysfunctional communities, we need people who can identify and help those who are struggling and help the forces of law and order to stop opportunistic criminals. In one of their most optimistic lyrics, Abba brought us the following words of hope: ‘Happy New Year, Happy New Year//May we all have a vision now and then//Of a world where every neighbour is a friend’. Knowing our neighbours better and keeping our neighbours safer would be a fitting resolution for 2014.