Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Trouble with Them Next Door

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Trouble with Them Next Door

Article excerpt

Byline: GILLIAN TINDALL

CHEEK BY JOWL: A HISTORY OF NEIGHBOURS by Emily Cockayne (Bodley Head, [pounds sterling]20) SEVERAL years ago Emily Cockayne produced a book about the dirt, the noises and the smells which surrounded even our more respectable ancestors from the late 16th to the late 18th century. It was a fun account, full of details of disputes and complaints, well-strewn with manure, and it was obvious that usually the troubles stemmed from neighbouring houses.

Now she has written what might well be regarded as a companion volume, since she has taken on the whole subject of neighbourliness -- or, more often, the lack of it. But she has broadened her field to include every period from the later Middle Ages (which is when records of local spats begin to become available) to the present day, a huge swathe of time and social and architectural change. Not surprisingly, the structure of her book tends to collapse under such a mass of material, most of it not very carefully examined.

It would be ungrateful to ignore the book's jollier moments. We all like hearing about ancient misbehaviour, especially if we can relate it in some way to our own experiences. When two Elizabethan neighbours in Houndsditch indulged in adultery, avidly observed by the couple in the adjoining house, details of disarrayed clothing make the whole incident real to us, including the final remark "having so done he wyped his yard on her Smocke". The author makes the point that such spying was then regarded as positively moral, part of the duty of more God-fearing parishioners, but that innumerable other adulteries were probably hidden and thus remain hidden from us too. If her account seems overweighted with legal wrangles and violent scenes, up to and including murders, that is because such things enter the public domain and are recorded.

But here already a wider dimension to the topic becomes apparent. People form sexual and romantic attachments with whoever is accessible, and in the past this usually meant others living nearby. …

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