Who are your neighbours?

HOW well do you know your neighbours? Gayle Wade looks at the shifting social structures that make up our British neighbourhoods.

HOW well do you know your neighbours? I was struck by a newspaper article last week, which claimed that only third of us know more than ten of our neighbours by name.

Personally, I don't even know that many. I could only name about five of the people living in my street, and they are people who were already here when I moved in over 20 years ago.

There is another handful of people who I have nodded to in the street hundreds of times over those twenty years but could not put a name to, and yet another group of more recent residents whose faces I wouldn't recognise if I passed them in town.

When I first came here, I was at home looking after small children and there was more of an opportunity to bump into neighbours and chat.

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Now I am out at work all day. Some near neighbours have installed unwelcoming six foot fences which exclude the possibility of exchanging a few words while hanging out the washing.

Research for the Royal Society for Arts has apparently identified an attitude which they are calling "community detachment syndrome".

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Most people said they would not strike up a conversation at the school gates or pass the time of day with a stranger in a local shop.

In these days of car transport, we are just as likely to find our social life revolving around friends who live several miles away but share our interests.

Families no longer live on the same street, or just around the corner.

They may be spread across the country - or across continents.

Perhaps the most important test of community involvement is the responsibility we feel for older neighbours.

My mother lives on a quiet street in a large town fifty miles away, but she is lucky enough to have neighbours nearby who keep an eye on her and help out with odd jobs.

Someone told me of a German friend who explained that, where she comes from, families tend to live in 3-storey houses.

The grandparents live on the ground floor, their children on the first floor and THEIR children on the top floor, presumably on the principle that younger legs can climb stairs better.

The unusual thing about this arrangement is that apparently, when the middle generation want to sell the house and move, the grandparents stay put and the new owners take on responsibility for them with the house.

The idea is that there will always be someone to look out for the older generation and they will not be left on their own.

So as well as getting a surveyor in to check out the house, buyers will presumably be wanting to check out the health and temperament of the resident geriatrics.

Although this sounds like science fiction to me, I am told that our system of leaving the grandparents to fend for themselves seems equally alien to the German woman.

Maybe we need to break through that typically British reserve and make more of an effort to reach out to the neighbours - who could be our friends.

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