Cheek by Jowl: A History of Neighbours by Emily Cockayne

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Cheek by Jowl: A History of Neighbours by Emily Cockayne

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A social history of the British neighbour, illustrated with many case studies, from medieval times to the present day
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 273 Date: April 2013
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9780099546948

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As Emily Cockayne emphasises at the beginning of the first chapter, almost everyone has a neighbour; if you have a neighbour, you are one yourself; and neighbours can enrich or ruin our lives. In this engaging book, she takes various case studies and anecdotes of living side by side in Britain from around 1200 to the present day.

Living next door to other people has sometimes resulted in love affairs blossoming. In 1818 the poet Keats fell violently in love with Fanny Brawne, his neighbour in Hampstead. They became engaged, and her presence, it was said, ‘came close to intoxicating him’. Sadly he was in the grip of tuberculosis, and they had to content themselves with exchanging yearning letters for much of the rest of what was to be his short life.

While sometimes neighbours have fallen in love, at the other end of the scale, friendships could turn sour and even occasionally end in murder. Such was the case of John McCabe and William Francis in Ipswich in 1892, both having been employed by the Great Eastern Railway Company until the former was sacked for embezzlement. Their former friendship turned into a bitter feud, which culminated in McCabe threatening to attack Francis and striking him on the head with fatal results. He was sentenced to death, although as his name does not appear in ‘The Hangman’s Record’, the chances are that this was commuted to imprisonment.

Fortunately there have not been too many instances of such an event coming to pass, but there have been some bizarre nuisance stories. In 1872 a huge monkey, which had been won as a prize, lived in a garden in Greenwich. Although he was kept on a chain, he learned to escape and took to pursuing the neighbour’s wife. She and her husband made a legal application to the police for the animal to be kept under control, but were informed that they would have to bring a civil action as existing legislation covered only dogs, not monkeys. In the early years of the twentieth century, the combination of thin walls and increasing ownership of pianos led to many complaints by those who lived next to musicians, or to those who fancied themselves as musicians at least. Never was this more true than in the case of a rather pious gentleman in Chelsea in 1910 who would persist in practising hymns every Sunday, all day, on one finger – and, we presume, with rather limited ability. More recently still we have become familiar with the problem of giant leylandii, which grow to an extraordinary height in little time and may provide adequate protection and privacy for the owner but also result in a sudden disappearance of light for the people next door.

The British obsession with neighbours has led not only to some astonishing true life stories, but also immortalisation in song and on television. It is inevitable that we are reminded of the Small Faces’ ‘Lazy Sunday’, inspired by writer Steve Marriott’s inability to get on with his, and a few years later of the ever-popular sitcom ‘The Good Life’, in which Tom and Barbara Good’s decision to keep chickens and pigs in their garden horrify their well-heeled and more conventional but reluctantly supportive Margo and Jerry Ledbetter on the other side of the fence. The author herself even makes an appearance as a girl of four at the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, in a photograph and an anecdote about a street party held to celebrate the occasion in Bramhall.

Nowadays, it seems that notions of neighbourliness are increasingly a thing of the past. After the Second World War, when many goods were rationed and money was scarce, people would willingly borrow and lend gardening tools and other items. With the affluence of the next generation, everybody could suddenly afford whatever they wanted within reason and there was no need to share – although that is not to say that the present recession might not see the pendulum swing back to the post-war age of austerity. However it appears that we no longer know our neighbours as well as we did. Perhaps we no longer feel the need, as ‘we have lost the grinding poverty’ that nurtured such necessities. Tellingly, Cockayne refers to the ways of the 21st century in which we communicate, reminding us that ‘the Facebook wall has replaced the garden fence’. She could also have mentioned texting on the ubiquitous mobile phone. Yet it is inescapable that living conditions were such in the past, and generally far worse, that close camaraderie was an inevitable result and more or less a necessity.

Despite such changes in technology and society, the author’s message is generally that human nature being what it is, things often change very little. Her various case histories of neighbourliness, and the lack of it, underline how little human nature has changed over the centuries. While there are not many conclusions to be drawn from this book, it does nevertheless offer an interesting insight into the way we lived, still live today, and interact with others around us.

If this book appeals then you might also enjoy A Field Guide To The British by Sarah Lyall.

Buy Cheek by Jowl: A History of Neighbours by Emily Cockayne at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Cheek by Jowl: A History of Neighbours by Emily Cockayne at

Buy Cheek by Jowl: A History of Neighbours by Emily Cockayne at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Cheek by Jowl: A History of Neighbours by Emily Cockayne at


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