Cheek by Jowl: a History of Neighbours

Cheek by Jowl: a History of Neighbours
Emily Cockayne
Bodley Head, 288pp

Read more by Peter York

High Concept Historians belong with stand-up comedians and food celebrities as part of a new group of exemplary middle-class careerists. Why write about, say, British foreign policy since the war (sales 200, all to think-tanks) when you could research something as fascinating and accessible as filth?

We owe micro-historians — they tend to be women — something for showing us how jaw-droppingly horrible the past was. Not just the drama of children up chimneys and women down mines, but also the daily burden of a very broad swathe of Brits, the all-round disgustingness of everything.

Emily Cockayne did this for us in her first book, Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England, 1600-1770. I’d always loved 1600-1770. The architects! The clothes! The paintings! Forget the Age of Enlightenment, just think of the stuff. But Cockayne told us just how shouty, smeary and smelly the whole thing really was. The jumping creatures in the powdered wigs. The food on the turn slathered with sauces. Bad enough for the top 1 per cent (if the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles stank of pee, God knows what the average English ducal house was like), and life for the remaining 99 per cent would be really rough.

It’s worth doing as a corrective to what The Sunday Times recently called ‘snobstalgia’; the idea that the past isn’t just another country, it’s a place where they do things better. And Clare Clark’s entertaining 2005 novel The Great Stink set her story in 1855, against the filthy, festering, stinking Thames and the great clean-up of the Joseph Bazalgette sewer system, rather than imperial wars.

We like this more domestic take on history. We like to watch Lucy Worsley with her bob and her lisp telling us about Tudor kitchens on the telly. And we like David Kynaston explaining the reality of the recent past — postwar Austerity Britain — in his ‘meanwhile over in a semi in Pevensey Bay’/Mass Observation way.

But it can all get tiring. Cheek by Jowl is about neighbours and neighbourly relations down the ages. So it’s that bit more High Concept, but at the same time it’s chock-full of detailed accounts drawn from diaries and court records and all the other grim and grubby documents of everyday life.

The burden of it is that until very recently neighbourly relationships were far too close for comfort — masses more about noise, dirt, smells and, above all, privies — but there were some compensations. The ‘community’ of close neighbours acted as midwives and undertakers, baby-minders and security alarms. The old architecture of the slums was so surreally dark, damp and misshapen that original troll-ish tenants (in a 90 per cent renting world) commonly walked through each other’s quarters to get to bed, were divided by mere straw or canvas and shared one outside privy with, say, twenty other households.

Like kittens in baskets or rabbits down holes, people were on top of each other. They had to adapt or fight — they did both — and stuff their ears when their hugger-mugger neighbours had noisy sex. It’s all too human by half.

We witness the move from wobbly wattle and daub to brick terraces, and thence to bypass variegated between-wars semis, the move from tenancy to mass owner-occupation and the move to privatise practically everything. The en-suite bathroom is a widespread aspiration now in families whose parents and grandparents shared on the stairs in Glasgow tenements or Bury back-to-backs.

Prosperity pulls people apart, can divide streets. New technology makes more interesting elective connections for us, what Cockayne calls ‘communities of interest rather than communities of geography’. People move house, move whole lives in postwar social mobility. Post-Thatcher we see houses as assets to exploit, not just burrows to crawl back into. You Can Never Go Back.

Morals like those drawn from Mass-Observation-ish anecdotes, packed in like fruit-cake, are a formula that works; it’s worked for Cockayne before, and works for me as a market researcher who loves the build-up of observation, from Pepys’ neighbours overflowing into his drawing room to the testimonies of witnesses who saw more than they ever wanted to though the crack in the daub.

And yet I found Cheek by Jowl surprisingly hard going. The Big Thoughts and Small Behaviours are too muddled up; the anecdotes are too closely packed and need editing for theme and chronology. Popular history needs the discreet hidden hand of careful pacing, the ‘that’s me told’ effect.

There’s a lot here, some of it very entertaining, but it leaves you wanting to come up for air.