Earlier this year I’d spent a frosty Tuesday in the docks of East London keeping warm and toasty in the University of East London’s archive library. Bracing the bitter wind, looking out over this Easterly stretch of the Thames, I tried to imagine the area as it used to be as a thriving hub of London’s shipping docks up until the middle of the last century. I’m undertaking a research project for author Kate Thompson for her next novel, which is set in East London during World War II and I’d come along to listen to East London People’s Archive, audio recordings. The Cockney view of life is unique with the ability to crack a laugh, even when talking about horrific experiences such as the war. This particular oral history takes place at a local community centre and as the group gather and settle down to chat they cheer when spam and corn beef sandwiches are passed around alongside cups of milky tea.
There was anxious laughter as Joan reflected on the sense of community she enjoyed during the war, ‘it was lovely really’ she said, rather than mentioning some of the horror and loss she must have experienced. ‘Neighbours looking out for your kids if you had one indoors sick, they’d go and get a bit of shopping for you’. Doris explains that their neighbours wouldn’t hesitate in sharing their coal rations with them. Doors were left open for people to come in and out, ‘You didn’t have nuffink but neither did anyone else’. The group agree that the war cost them their sense of community. A large number of homes were bombed in East London resulting in many residents moving to Essex and Kent, whole families were pulled apart. Even though they were only a short train ride away, to them it felt like an ocean between them after living amongst their friends and family all their young lives. Rose from North Woolwich, talking in 2004, says she feels sorry for those people in the new tower blocks that are being built ‘they just sleep there, in their box, they go to work, come home, go back to work again’. She assumes they don’t know their neighbours and exclaims ‘what kind of life is that?’.
On my way home I half shut my eyes against the bracing wind and watched the planes land on the alarmingly short runway of London City Airport in a strip of the Thames that would have been packed full with skyscraper sized ships and I tried to imagine what it must have been like living here back then. Sailors arriving from every part of the world bringing with them cargos of tea, spices and menagerie animals. I could still hear East Ender Doreen chatting in my ear complaining that she couldn’t sleep when the docks were closed as she couldn’t stand the silence. I made my way back to the DLR and brought myself back into the present by reading the news. The Commission for Loneliness, in honour of murdered MP, Joanne Cox was one of the lead stories of the day. Ms Cox had come up with the idea after joining her grandfather on his postal round in the West Yorkshire and realising that he was the only person that some people would see that day. One thing that struck me was that the elderly people I had heard chatting on the recordings did not appear to be lonely. They were very much involved in the community, visiting a different social club every day and in younger years, they had arranged festivals for their local area. I thought about Rose’s comment about young people living in a ‘box’ of a flat and not knowing their neighbours. Perhaps Rose was right, it wasn’t the elderly that were lonely but those much younger and too busy working to have a social life. In 2015 the Office for National Statistics undertook a study on loneliness and well-being in old people but when they correlated it with an earlier study they found that people of working age between 35 and 54 were the most lonely of all the age groups and the least likely to socialise.
I recently gave up my full time job in a busy, friendly office of around 200 people and I’m not ashamed to say that I cried on my last day. I enjoyed the job but I knew what I would miss the most was the friends I had made at work. A few weeks after leaving I suffered a family bereavement. Feeling sad and a bit lost, I decided to visit my old office. I wanted to go somewhere familiar, to a place where people shared their every day events with each other. Conversations can switch in seconds from a huge row with a boyfriend the night before or to that evening’s dinner choices. My ex-colleagues were pleased to see me and I enjoyed catching up on everyone’s news. I thought back to Rose and her comment about people going to work then coming home to a box and I realised that not everything has changed since the war, we still have a community but they are now the offices, the bars and pubs next to the office and not necessarily our homes.
So what about the future? Will I become lonely now I am not surrounded by people all day? I could see how this could happen, especially as there is a trend towards zero hour contracts and people working from home. I thought back to ‘You Say You Want A Revolution’ exhibition at the V&A Museum in London and a gallery dedicated to the hippie ideals of sharing knowledge and seeking alternative communities. The Internet was created to bring people closer together and yet 40 years later this has resulted in more and more people being asked to work from home and only connecting via a broadband network. In the case of Richard, an IT project manager, he was required to work from home due to the lack of desk space at his office. The only day he could find a spare desk in the building was a Friday as many people chose to work from home that day but of course, there were not many people present to interact with.
I agree with Rose that our home lives have shifted but I disagree we have lost our sense of community, as human beings it is there but not in the way she experienced it when she was growing up. I appreciate that loneliness is a complex subject, someone can be surrounded by people and still feel lonely. In the practical sense there are people who live in a remote area or are not physically able to join a group or a community. Charities such as Age UK and initiatives such as Commission for Loneliness are working towards combating the increasing phenomenon of loneliness. The rise of social media could result in people only being in touch online and not meeting face to face. Relationship charity Relate disagree as 64% of respondents to their 2010 survey claim they saw their friends once a week and use social media to ‘check in with people’. The charity highlights the importance of communication in relationships and their findings show that social media is helping as people communicate with each other in a variety of different mediums. I am writing this post in a cafe over looking the Thames, not far from the docks where Rose lived. All around me there are people deep in conversation on their mobile phones, a couple discussing social care over their coffees, a young woman with an elderly couple engaged in a lively conversation. So Rose shouldn’t worry, people will always seek human connections, as long as we have access to good wifi, our communities will grow outside of our boxes.