Did you know – in London you are never more than 4.5 metres from a neighbour?*
Our playing out the other week had an interesting effect we hadn’t foreseen – the children have started organising their own play dates. Yes, I know! How dare they? And not just with children from approved, carefully vetted families of a similar social background either!
One organiser’s child (age 8) made friends with a boy from the other end of the street, and announced to his mum that they were going to play together on such and such a day.
‘What, at his place?’ said the mum. ‘I haven’t met his parents! I’ve never been to his house!’
Which could well have been my reaction. Anyway, my neighbour persuaded her son to hold the play date at their own house, and when the new friend duly turned up, she hovered nearby just in case. What she noticed afterwards however was not that her son had learnt a gamut of new naughty words or how to access internet porn (or whatever she was worried about) – but that he was a different person. He came to supper calm, happy and confident. I think she put that down to the fact that he had done such a grown up thing – organising his own play date on his own terms with his own friend – and that made him feel pretty good about himself. (Also, the friend proved to be quite a nice lad really.)
Interesting, isn’t it?
The friend now knocks on his door twice a week after school and stays until suppertime, and they sometimes continue their playdate virtually by sharing the same world in Minecraft until bed. Sweet.
In the same week as our first playing out session we got some brand new neighbours in the upstairs flat next door. They are Ghanaian by origin, and there isn’t a lot we don’t know about them, because when we went to introduce ourselves their very bright, very talkative nine-year-old daughter held forth on the doorstep about everything we could possibly want to know and a lot more besides.
‘I try to tell her,’ groaned the dad when he could get a word in edgeways, ‘there are some things you only say inside the house…’
Anyway, the front of our houses are joined – this being a terraced street – while the back ends are narrower, and separated from the neighbours’ by a few metres. So when I hear the Redster apparently talking to herself in my study it’s because she’s hanging out of the window talking to one of their two girls through their kitchen window. This is how the four girls have struck up a beautiful friendship. They’ve thrown balls to each other through the windows, lent and borrowed books, and finally the neighbours’ girls just came and knocked on our door like kids used to do in the olden days: ‘Can I play?’
And when they all settled down on the sofa for a game of Minecraft on the iPad, I saw my opportunity and said (just like the olden days) ‘Go and play outside!’ (I’ve been dying to say that.)
They did, too. They took the chalks and skipping ropes and played on the pavement. They used the skipping rope handles to take lethal swings at each other and they used the chalks to draw characters from Minecraft, but who’s quibbling? Meanwhile I chatted to their mum through her kitchen window. I ended up, would you believe, actually lending her some baking powder. Just like neighbours in the fifties. (And she didn’t mind that its ‘best before’ date was May 2013.)
The only slightly worrying moment was when I checked the pavement and it was devoid of any living thing. Turns out that they were not herded into the back of a van by passing child snatchers, though – they’d gone up the road to knock on another door, and before long there were six children hitting each other with skipping rope handles and drawing Minecraft characters on the pavement.
It’s anarchy, I tell you. Anarchy.
* Actually I made that up, but it sounds plausible. The photo shows the neighbour’s kitchen window and our study windowsill (on the right). As a better illustration of neighbourly proximity, when I took this photo I could clearly hear a girl’s voice from next door saying: ‘Mummy! My poo won’t flush!’