I’ve just finished reading a book called ‘My East End,’ which is an oral history of the London East End from shortly before the first World War through to after the second, filled with various stories from those who lived there. I highly recommend the book, but there was one element that didn’t sit so well. Despite the real highs and lows of the East End being remembered, there was a consensus that a sense of ‘community’ had been lost.
As someone whose family – in part – came from the East End and has since returned, I’m not sure that’s true. There’s no doubt that the community has changed and I completely agree that, while once you may have had a close bond with your neighbours, that isn’t always the case now. I can’t agree, however, that our generation hasn’t the community spirit of an older generation. Perhaps, it’s just a different sort of community.
Thanks to the commoditisation of technology and, in particular, the prevalence of social media, we are actually all a lot closer together. In fact, in 2011 it was reported that Facebook had shrunk the infamous six degrees of separation to 3.74, and I’d hazard a guess that this has shrunk even further in the last four years as more people have extended their profiles online.
I’m not trying to pretend that everyone you know on social media is as close as a neighbour may have been in the East End, but they are part of our modern-day community. We can find a whole range of ideas and opinions at the touch of a button, we can even resource experts – from bakers to bikers – that we may have lost touch with if it hadn’t been for social media. In fact, I’d argue that we have a more engaged and connected society than there ever was.
Living in the East End, in particular, I may not know my neighbour – aside from collecting parcels and sharing the lift on occasion – but I do have a brilliant group of friends in and around the East End that I can rely on, as people may have once relied on their neighbours. We all have different jobs and are at times tied up in our own worlds but, when people from different parts of society join together, that surely give us a greater appreciation for other peoples’ lives? We can understand a wider range of careers, backgrounds and opinions. Whether you’re a lawyer or a PR, from the North or from the South, living in Tooting or in Dalston, in my book, you’re all part of ‘my’ community.
Yes, the community of old has gone, but we have a new community in its place. As those of the old saw the virtues and vices of the community that once was, there are virtues and vices of the new community too. And if one thing’s for sure, it’s that we’re all tempted into a bit of nostalgia.
As Socrates allegedly said more than 2000 years ago:
“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.”