Lost Community

karenbirchbw-245x3001The idea of community has changed a lot over the past two generations.

My paternal grandparents lived in a terraced, back-to-back in Liverpool. My mothers parents in a terraced, back-to-back in Widnes. Their parents lived in the same street, as did an assortment of aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. The furthest away that a relative lived, other than those who had emigrated to America after the second world war, was Altrincham, just 30 miles away. To be this far away from home was considered exotic behaviour. Each year the whole street piled onto a couple of charabangs and we all headed to Southport for the day. There was a steady stream of people passing the door. My Nana would whitewash her front step and chat to her neighbours, all engaged in the same task. Services were provided by real people; a man from the Pru to collect insurance, the pools man with the coupon each week, the tallyman to collect payments for goods bought on tick. Groceries were bought from Sharp’s on the corner, fruit and veg from Appleton’s on Peel House Lane and a pint of beer enjoyed with friends over a game of dominoes in the local pub that everyone simply called “the bottom”, as it was at the bottom of the street.

I’m not trying to paint a picture of some idyll; having an outside toilet, no central heating, a tiny kitchen and even smaller bathroom, working at what my grandfather himself called “ignorant work” simply to pay the bills is not a state I would wish to go back to. What that life did have was a sense of community. People were linked to other people and to their businesses.

When my grandmother went to buy groceries she did so at Sharp’s, from Mr and Mrs Sharp, who owned the shop. If something wasn’t right, fell below standard or was otherwise defective my Nana could take things back and complain, if need be, directly to the person she bought it from. The same with fruit and veg, or meat. If the meat was tough or off, then a complaint could be made to the butcher. Or you could buy from a different butcher next time, as there was more than one on the main street.

With my parents generation came many improvements, better access to education, better jobs, more opportunities. They were able, and encouraged, to buy their own home. Not in the grim terraces of the old cities but in the new housing estates that were springing up on the outskirts of the old towns. So it was that my parents moved from Widnes to a new house on a small estate in Great Sankey, some 5 miles from Widnes and a dozen miles from Liverpool. If you go there now Liverpool, Widnes and Warrington have all merged into one massive housing estate pock marked with B&Q’s and IKEA’s, but back in the day this was open countryside. Shopping was still local; a ginger haired man in a red van delivered bread, the Alpine man delivered fizzy pop and old Mr Davidson, of Davidson’s the Grocers, delivered the weekly shop in his big green van every Friday. If we ran out of anything during the week I’d be sent out clutching a string bag and a couple of shillings to Davidson’s. If I hadn’t enough money it didn’t matter as Mr Davidson would make a note on the receipt and stick it on a spike next to the till. At the end of the week these odd pennies owed were added to Mum’s bill for the weekly shop. I should say, however, that it did matter to me! I could never understand why my Mum didn’t always make sure that I had the right money as I found it excruciating to watch as the pink receipt was speared and put on display for all to see. I can see now that it didn’t matter to Mr Davidson or my Mum. They knew each other and there was the trust that came from that personal relationship.

But then came KwikSave, the first supermarket round our way, closely followed by ASDA. KwikSave was truly dreadful, with cardboard cartons stacked on cheap metal shelving so it never caught on with my Mum, but it was a great adventure to shop in ASDA. Long wide aisles packed full of food and small electricals, with a bakery, greengrocery and butcher’s in the same store, plus cards and toys and all manner of other stuff. And slowly, just as the new out of town estates broke the link between people and the place they were born, the supermarkets replaced the small corner stores and broke the link between shopper and shopkeeper.

My generation moved further away from their place of birth. I was born in Widnes and spent the first 15 years of my life within easy walking distance of the maternity home I was born in. But my parents moved to upmarket Cheshire as my Dad’s career blossomed, then came my own university education and aspirations and then marriage to an ambitious young graduate, all of which conspired to take me further away from the close knit community of my grandparents. And the same is true of all my cousins, my generation. We are spread throughout the UK and beyond. We are still a close family but can no longer just pop across the road to see how each other are doing. And so communities have dissolved. Not because of the bulldozing or our inner cities to be replaced in the ’60’s by high rise blocks, though that didn’t help, but by the creeping aspirations of my generation.

Now aspiration is a fine thing but we now find ourselves hankering after the benefits that the communities of my grandparents took for granted. We have older people who, having bought their own house away from their birthplace, are now finding that they have a lonely old age in a big empty house. No one calls to collect the insurance money or HP payments. There is no front step to whitewash as a reason to stand and chat to neighbours. Their children have also taken the decision to move away from the place of their birth. No one calls. As a colleague of mine says, “we have a generation long on capital but short on care.”

And the supply chain for our food has become longer and more complex. The local butcher might have charged for a quarter of corned beef when the weight was only 3.5oz but these seem small faults compared to the large scale fraud that allows horse meat to enter the food chain purporting to be beef. With a complex chain of suppliers, speculators and middle-men between the animal and the processed beefburger it has proved easy to perpetrate large scale fraud. It is much more difficult for a butcher to look a customer in the eye and tell them that the joint of beef they are about to buy is real beef if they know it to be horse. The personal, one-to-one relationship between customer and supplier is a better guarantor of veracity than can be expected from multinational food conglomerates who seen their customers not as people but as profit centres.

It’s no wonder that we are looking back to communities as they existed a couple of generations ago for inspiration in creating the communities we would like to see for our children’s generation.

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