What have play streets ever done for us?

I had to pop out to the shops last night for some milk. The shop is the Morrisons across the main road at the end of our street, so it’s a question of walking halfway down the street, crossing the road, entering the shop, buying the milk and home again: a ten minute job. At least I think on an ordinary London street it would have been a ten minute job, but our street, you see, isn’t ordinary any more. Any time I step out of our front door I could meet half a dozen people I know through the play street or other street events – and usually do – so my milk errand took just under an hour.

First I met a teenager walking in the same direction, sent out by his parents to buy some groceries before Morrisons closed. His parents help organise the play street, so I know them well. He responded to my greeting with a standard teenage non-committal reply, and I tried to give him a wide berth in order not to be an embarrassing adult.

Morissons has been rearranged, and all the customers react the same way. Someone will arrive at speed  at the end of an aisle (it was nearly closing time), skid to an abrupt stop and stare down it wildly, clearly realising it was nappies where it always used to be noodles, and tear off again the way they have come, sometimes muttering urgently into a mobile phone. I bumped into the teenager. ‘I’m so confused!’ he said. ‘Where’s the milk?’

I tried to help out but wasn’t really much use, directing him to the completely wrong aisle. At least there was a sense of camaraderie . Then in front of me at the checkout was another neighbour, whose wife had had a baby a week earlier – something I only knew because the whole family had come out for the play street, bump and all.

‘Hello,’ I said. ‘I bought you a card then I realised I don’t know your name or where you live’ and that somehow didn’t feel like the very surreal thing to say that it actually was…

On the way home I saw another neighbour letting herself into her house. We became friends after I got to know her when gathering signatures for the play street application. I’ve been meaning to ask her for a while about the friendly 9-year-old boy I call Spiderman who spends hours playing on the pavement outside her house – even between play street events…and in fact even during school hours. He and his parents are clearly blissfully unaware of the unwritten rule about not letting your child play unsupervised in the road, by which I mean on the tarmac, without an adult in sight. It’s very refreshing.

‘Oh, he lives with me,’ said the friend.

It turns out that far from sharing Nigel Farage’s horror at the idea of a family of Romanians living in the house next door, she has invited a family of Bulgarians to live in her front room. (Well, okay, invited a family of two – Spiderman and his mother – to live in her spare room.) They’ve not been in the country long and were re-locating from her daughter and husband’s overcrowded one-bed flat down the road. My friend usually rents a room out to individuals, but this woman brought Spiderman with her to see the room and he was so friendly that my friend couldn’t resist.

When I pointed out her differences with Mr Farage, she shrugged and pointed out that her own parents had come from Jamaica and started life here with very little back in the sixties, so what’s the difference?

Right on cue the whole family emerged from the house, including the daughter. She works 12 hour shifts as a chambermaid at some central London hotel. She has promised Spiderman a scooter in time for the next play street event.

By the time I’d got home with the milk and delivered the card to the neighbours who now have names, my tea was a bit cold.



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