Category Archives: The neighbourhood

In search of new friends

There are certain things you plan into your life, and plenty that you don’t or can’t. There are people you never expect to meet or connect with but do, and there are people you try to find and yet still miss.

Friendship is rarely a pre-planned relationship. It’s often most easily found with those who are most like us and share our life experiences.

And yet, in the face of such odds, I am trying to find friends in my town who are different to me. I guess all we can do is keep putting ourselves into contexts that are different, hoping that friendship will spark somewhere.

In pursuit of this hope, a couple of weeks ago we arranged to visit our local mosque, on National Visit My Mosque day (Sunday 5th February). Yes, National Visit My Mosque day. Who knew that was a thing? It started in 2015, and I stumbled across its existence somewhere on social media about a week before.  I live in a town with a massive Muslim population, mostly from Pakistan and Bangladesh, and probably the majority of them live in one particular part of the town. It seems logical to me how ghettos like that grow – when you move to a new country you choose the neighbourhood where you know people. But then it gets so big that that in many ways it becomes self-sufficient with its own micro-economy and schools and community centres, and it gets harder and harder to meet people whose culture and ethnicity is different to your own, even though you’re in the same town. So. The chance to visit a local mosque, at their invitation, seemed like a brilliant opportunity. Maybe I would make a friend.

It was a Sunday afternoon, and all four of us went. Some friends, another family with small children, joined us. The Mosque in question, the only one in Luton which had opened up for the day, was actually a converted end-of-terrace house. It wasn’t dissimilar to a church hall, apart from the things up on the walls. There were girl guides (a Muslim branch), small children running around, an urn of tea and a plate of biscuits, and then, more unlike a church, curry. It was hard at first to get into conversations (I was perhaps overly cautious about launching into conversation with the older Muslim men, given the varying attitudes towards women’s roles in Islam, and then the women were all grouped together, chatting away amongst themselves) but then I found someone who was very chatty, a man around my own age. And I found out a lot. It turns out that studying a paper on Islam for GCSE Religious Studies doesn’t tell you everything about this ancient and complex religion.

Some of the things we talked about felt familiar, with many parallels in my own faith – the denominations, the evolving interpretation of Scripture, even the differing levels of reverence afforded to Mary in Christianity and the prophet’s mother in Islam. There were many differences too. Some things also sounded a bit batty, but to be honest that made me reflect on the battier elements of my own Christian faith. I enjoyed the conversation, and I was grateful to be invited into their faith community, even for a couple of hours.

A few days later we invited our neighbours round for drinks. We’d planned to do it in the run up to Christmas but had been thwarted by a chicken pox scare, and then the neighbours had seemed genuinely disappointed that we’d cancelled, so we picked another date. We had five households join us from the street – two of which have lived here more than fifty years. One of our neighbours speaks very little English and we were really touched she came. Another neighbour, an Irishman, baked scones for the occasion. I probably ate more than anyone else, but then that’s always been a gift of mine. It was a late night, and the beginning of new friendships which proximity will hopefully help us to feed.

So, small steps, and the challenge is to keep taking them even when they feel small and awkward. All encouragement welcomed…

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We’re leaving London

Here’s a story I never really anticipated writing. After 13 years of living in London – basically my whole grown-up life – we are moving out of town, before the end of the year.

except that now it's goodbye...

except that now it’s goodbye…

If you’ve been reading for a while, or know us outside the world of the blog, you’ll know how much we love this place. This enormous, chaotic, diverse, beautiful city. And more specifically, our little corner of it in the south. We have lived in the same flat since being married, on the same estate, and have tried to put down roots here. We got to know the neighbours and helped relaunch the tenants’ association; we tried to grow veggies on our balcony (not all that successfully); we became part of a local church and threw ourselves into loving and serving this patch of earth. We worked part-time and hung out on the balcony. We lived in a small flat on the third floor and were very happy. We thought we were here to stay.

And then those stairs (and the prospect of another baby) pushed me over the edge and so we started looking for somewhere local on the ground floor. In fact, nearly a year ago I went round to all the local estate agents to ask them to call me if they ever got word of a ground floor flat for sale on our estate (we didn’t even know if three bed flats existed on the ground floor at that point). Then, earlier this year, we had an amazing offer. A wonderful neighbour across the road who we knew from the tenants’ association offered to sell us her lovely ground floor flat.  Only the financial stretch was much bigger than we’d anticipated. We agonised over it. Staying in London is expensive, we know that, and we weren’t dreaming of anything big or fancy. But it brought into focus some other priorities. We work part-time because we want to make space for a certain kind of life. We don’t want to be fenced into working longer weeks and longer hours because we have to pay the mortgage; to see less of our kids as they grow up, and have less energy left to dream and take risks on creative projects. So in the end we walked away.

We circled around the area and viewed a whole host more flats, never seeming to land on the right thing. There was one place we saw that seemed like something close to the perfect thing, and I stood outside and prayed about whether we should go for it. And I heard a clear no.

(It’s not that I had much confidence in that ‘no’, or my own ability to hear any meaningful direction from God at that point, but then it was all I had right then. So we walked away).

It was a confusing and disorienting time. We sporadically googled properties in other parts of the country where we had friends and family, but there never seemed like a strong enough reason to go any further with those searches. We didn’t want to leave.

We decided to take some time to pray. Because that’s a large part of how we make big decisions. Not that we don’t try to think practically and creatively, to talk about what we want for our family and future…but we always come back to the question of where we feel led, where we feel called, if we sense anything pushing or pulling us in a specific direction, anything we might discern as God’s Spirit leading us somewhere.

We asked some friends to pray and to share with us anything they heard, or felt, or thought. And a strange unity of responses came – pictures and stories and suggestions that started to point in one particular and unexpected direction. (A northerly one). Towards a place where Andy had lived before, where there were people we knew and loved, from which we could still reach London. As we look at it now, it makes a lot of practical sense. But in all honesty we never saw it coming.

And so to cut a winding and unexpected story a little bit shorter, we will be moving to Luton before too long.

If you know anything about Luton it’s probably the fact that it has an airport (that hilariously titled hub, ‘London Luton’). Or you might know that it rarely appears on lists of picturesque and desirable places to live in the UK. The airport at least will be good news for all our family in Northern Ireland, and also for Jesse who adores seeing aeroplanes overhead.

I feel a huge mixture of things about the move. There is definitely excitement in there because I love new horizons and adventures, But there is also grief – at leaving our home, our community, basically my entire parenting support network, and perhaps even the life I moved to London in order to create. A very different life materialised, and one that I treasure. But there are also some dreams that were buried here.

There’s more that could be said, that I will try to find ways to communicate. But for now, it’s enough to say that there’s a big change coming.

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We are moving house, so maybe you’d like to see around?

One of the biggest reasons that things have been quiet on the blog for the past couple of months is because I have been CONSUMED with the intense experience that is trying to sell a house (or rather. flat). Of course, I don’t mean that we’ve moved house in the past two months, because we all know it takes FOREVER (in the UK, when buying and selling is involved), but we have been doing the hard yards of transforming our flat into a clutter-free oasis of beauty (or something a little more in that direction, anyway), getting it on the market and then thinking about what next. There have been days when I have felt done in by the whole experience.

There are a lot of questions you are probably asking: Why are you moving? When? and where to? To be honest we’ve been feeling our way as we’ve gone and it has often felt like an epic treasure hunt, so I’m going to try to tell the story bit by bit, a little like the manner in which we have uncovered it.

As I have mentioned many times when writing about where we live, we absolutely love this flat for so many reasons – the community, the neighbours and the neighbourhood – but the stairs are killing me. Carrying a wriggly toddler up and down them (all 6 flights) repeatedly each day is pushing me to the edge of sanity. And once we add another munchkin into the mix it will just be too much, so we have to lose the stairs. (Farewell beautiful views of the London Eye, the Shard and Big Ben). And then we try to find a stair-free way to stick around in the neighbourhood.

After all my battles with clutter, who knew that the incentive of needing to sell the flat would finally drive Andy and I to go the many extra miles to get rid of it? You remember that below-stairs area I was trying to take in hand a while ago? Well, look at it now. I hardly believed we had it in us.

This is what it was like for months...

This is what it was like for months…

well, here it is now.

well, here it is now.

I’m really not one to offer up my interiors as a thing of beauty – neither my decor nor my photography are up to it – but seeing as it’s all so tidy now, and seeing as we won’t be here too much longer, I thought you might like to see some corners of our home? Because it has been such a lovely home.

Here is the sofa which the previous owner found abandoned on the street, the day after praying for a sofa. She had it fumigated.

Here is the sofa which the previous owner found abandoned on the street, the day after praying for a sofa. She had it fumigated.

The dinner table, and the painting Andy gave me on the day he proposed.

The dinner table, and the painting Andy gave me on the day he proposed.

And the kitchen.

And the kitchen.

I don’t have one of those nifty lenses that estate agents use which make your flat look twenty times bigger than it actually is, but obviously those photos are somewhere on the internet now. In fact these are low-fi, badly lit iPhone photos, as you can probably tell. My nice camera is at the back of a big cupboard.

We’re not going to win any Ideal Home awards but living here has been a total delight and a privilege, and there will undoubtedly be some serious grieving to come. I have been here, in this very flat, nearly seven years, and in every way it has been a grace and a gift to belong here.

The stuff that has been shuttled off and out of our flat is sitting in other friends’ houses and garages. There’s nothing I miss (apart from my maternity wardrobe, now there was a lack of foresight), which begs the rather large question of what we’re doing with all that stuff in the first place.

Even Andy (who is usually less bothered by the clutter than me) has reflected that it’s nicer to have a tidier home, so maybe this might kickstart us into a new season of pared down living. (If it wasn’t for the toys).

So there’s our beautiful home, ours for only a couple of months more (I’m guessing…). Stay tuned for the sequel.

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Meet the Neighbours (it’s an order)

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Some of the neighbours enjoying our Big Lunch last summer

 

From the time I Ieft home at 18, it took me nearly ten years before I really got to know any of my neighbours.  It’s just not how I lived.  I moved around different flats, living with different people, I travelled to meet friends, and it never occurred to me to make an effort to meet the other people in my building or street.

I went through some kind of epiphany or conversion around the age of 27, and decided to start making an effort,  But it was just that – an effort.  It wasn’t something that happened very easily or naturally.  I didn’t seem to have a lot in common with these random people.  The only communal spaces in our building were the narrow, outdoor balconies along which our front doors were strung.  In the summer it was nice to stand outside and gaze at the view, but it was weird to hang out there in the British winter.

Over time I’ve come to believe more and more in the value of knowing our neighbours.  It makes home feel more like somewhere we belong and want to return to, it makes it feel safer and happier.  But there are other advantages too, and that’s one of the reasons that I’ve been watching the progress of the Social Integration Commission over this past year.

You might have missed the fact of its existence, so allow me to catch you up.  It was set up in the spring of 2014 by an organisation called The Challenge as a way of investigating the state of social integration in modern Britain, the economic costs of a lack of social integration, and to make a set of recommendations which could improve the situation.

Screenshot 2015-03-12 21.19.19

There have been some fascinating discoveries.  In the UK our children are actually less socially ingregated than older people, which doesn’t say much for how socially mixed our schools are.  (Needless to say the new faith schools popping up through the Free Schools initiative aren’t helping the statistics).   Despite being much more diverse (in terms of ethnicity and class) than the rest of the country, our biggest cities are less socially integregated – perhaps because it’s easier for large homogenous groups to stick together.  Churches and other faith communities are often the best social melting pots and one of the few places where people from different backgrounds interact.  And white Brits are the least socially integrated group in the country.

Fascinating.  But what do you do with that information?

One of the main reasons that we live where we do is because we put a high value on living alongside and getting to know people who are different from us.  (We also feel acutely aware of the dangers of segregation and growing resentment between the different ends of the income spectrum, especially when it’s usually the people in the middle who leave the inner-city).  On our estate there are individuals and families from all over the world – Ecuadorians and West Indians, Sierra Leonians and Nigerians, Poles and Spaniards, Indians and Thais.  There are people of very different ages, different religions and different income brackets – the private owners and the social tenants live side by side.  We’re still struggling to work out how to be good neighbours and build the sense of community people seem to crave but we’re still working out how.  All I can come back to is that it takes effort.

But then there are moments – big ones like The Big Lunch, and small ones like running out of milk for Jesse and knowing that Agnieska will bail me out – when it feels incredibly worthwhile.  I love how many people in the block know and treasure our little man.

We are on such a learning curve, which is why I was so eager to read the Commission’s recommendations for improving social integration.  There are some obvious (and important) ones relating to schools and work-places, but what were their neighbourhood-related suggestions?  One easy answer is banning ‘poor doors’ (the practice of creating different entrances for private and social residents within the same development), which I hope is a no-brainer.  But they also recommend that planning authorities stipulate that new developments must incorporate plans that will enable different residents to mix (rather than trying to curtail this).  Bring back shared spaces!

There is also a laudable but unhelpfully vague recommendation that “people living in diverse areas should be encouraged to meet their neighbours.”  Yes!  (From the rooftops). Totally!  But who will do this encouraging? (Apart from me, obvs).  There are schemes afoot to help – Play Streets, Streetbank, The Big Lunch.  But it’s not exactly something you can legislate.  You can’t make people come to a jumble sale (ahem).  It takes time to win trust, and how many of us are willing to spare it?

(A side note: I think meeting the neighbours is a good thing to do whether or not you live in a socially diverse area).

I’ve enjoyed all three of the reports by the Commission (although maybe the economic one was the least exciting), and I’ve discovered that there are all kinds of practical proven reasons why making an effort to build friendships with people who are different to us contributes to our common good as a nation. As a city dweller it’s sobering to read how bad we are at it, despite all the opportunities we have.   I’m not sure it has changed much of my thinking.  I guess the point of it is to try to influence public policy to create a greater likelihood of social integration across the country, and that is definitely an initiative I’d support.  And it fuels our resolution to live where we do and be persistently sociable.

I’d really recommend reading the reports (they’re eminently readable), and would also love to hear any ideas for how to encourage the world to meet their neighbours!

 

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The jumble sale that nobody came to

cake

Sunday was the big day.  Cakes and scones had been baked,  Someone had painted a banner on a sheet from primark.  We had decluttered and were pretty pumped at the prospect at making a little bit of pocket money from selling our wares.  Saturday’s sunshine had totally vanished, but we were undeterred.

Our first Tenants and Residents’ Association Jumble sale kicked off at 2pm.

FullSizeRenderThe stalls were run by a handful of the faithful core of the TRA and selected family members, but there were also a couple of new families I’d not met before who showed up to claim a table. We even offered people cups of tea, and Lourdes’ legendary Spanish tortilla.

And hardly anyone came.  I sold 3 items and used my full profits to buy a pair of shoes from the next stand along (which I will not wear until April because of the capsule wardrobe).  Most of the cake and the tortilla was eaten by the stall holders.  We had some great chats but hardly any actual customers.

So the clutter will be re-allocated to the charity shop and the TRA will scratch their heads a little and try not to get despondent.

Andy and I are no strangers to community gatherings that no-one comes to.  When we first moved in we invited lots of our neighbours to a housewarming and about 3 people came.  We have learnt a lot of lessons along the way, like why it’s intimidating to go to a social event with lots of neighbours you don’t know, especially when English is not your first language.  And how to build trust.  How there’s no substitute for time lived in a place and regular conversations on the staircases.

But when it comes to organising events for the whole estate rather than just our building, it seems like we still have a lot to learn.  I couldn’t tell you why people didn’t come.  Except for my neighbour Mark who explained that he got a great deal for all his stuff on eBay.  When we ran the Big Lunch last summer people loved it, and loads of them (like 150 people) showed up.  What’s more, they all spoke really positively about wanting to meet their neighbours and find a sense of community.  So maybe it’s just that nobody wanted a jumble sale?

There are many things in life that make me really impatient.  Things that seem to take an unnecessarily long time.  I can get really fixated on doing stuff, achieving stuff, ticking things off my to-do list.  Some of that is self-driven, sometimes it’s the pressure of external deadlines.  But weirdly, I feel ok about things going slowly in our neighbourhood. It’s unlikely we’re going to launch any great projects this year – if that’s even something we want to do – but we can find ways to get to know each other better, and listen to one another.  Maybe that means some kind of survey among our neighbours – an excuse to talk to people about why they live here, and what would help them feel part of a meaningful local community (if they even would like that).  Maybe someone else will have a better idea.  I’ll keep you posted.

Anyone have some more successful community ideas they’d like to tell me about?

 

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The great de-clutter

I am sure that you’ve all been on tenterhooks since the end of 2014 when I started talking up my plans to de-clutter.  You are going to be amazed at my progress.

So far I have taken a set of impressively cluttered “before” photos, collected up several bags of clutter most of which have gone to the charity shop and the remaining one of which has been repeatedly unpacked by Jesse.  And the result is almost imperceivable.

IMG_3358

Here we are “before” the de-clutter

 

And this, apparently, is "after"

And this, apparently, is “after”

Have things actually got worse?

I took a TON of stuff out of the bathroom (and donated it elsewhere), and these are the “before” and “after” shots, side by side.

The difference is hardly dramatic.

The difference is hardly dramatic.

It’s more than a little depressing. I feel like I have bounded forwards in determining how much I can do without.  I’m living my whole life in 28 items of clothes, for goodness sake.  And yet, our flat feels as cluttered and chaotic as ever.

I’ve been waiting for ages to have something to show for my increasing conviction that we need to simplify our living space.  Constant chaos just gets to me, and if we’re going to live in a small space then we need to hold back the tide.  But even the logistics defeat me.  I pull together a bag for the charity shop but then I can’t carry a huge bag and a small child down 3 flights of stairs (let alone down the street) so there’s no way to get it out of the flat until someone else is home.  It stays in the corner and is repeatedly unpacked by the little man who thinks he has a new set of toys.

But I am not losing heart, and I have two reasons.

The first is that we are having a COMMUNITY JUMBLE SALE in a week’s time, on a Sunday, so somebody else can hold Jesse while I carry piles and piles of beautiful clutter down the stairs in order to flog it all at bargain prices to my neighbours.  Farewell ice-cream maker. So long newborn nappies and terrible lamp shades.

I stumbled across a link to Jumble Trail on a street bank newsletter, in the midst of a list of ideas for bringing your neighbourhood together, and I thought it was just the thing to try on our street.  The ability to make some money off your neighbours and score some bargains is almost guaranteed to bring people out of their flats.  Hello community building. (Have any of you tried it?)

The challenge is not to come back with more stuff than you get rid of.

My second reason is that my convictions are growing rather than shrinking, even in the face of so much mess.  This is a long-term commitment, I am hollering internally. I have been reading (that revolutionary activity), and been inspired by the experiences of bloggers like Joshua Becker, Tsh Oxenreider and Andrea Dekker.  None of them live in a context anything like ours (or even this country), but that doesn’t matter at all.  Joshua Becker writes, in his ebook Simplify:

Minimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of anything that distracts us from it.

That discipline, or discovery, or pilgrimage of focusing on what is important and getting rid of what isn’t is a necessary and healthy one for me,  but it takes a whole lotta wading through accumulated clutter.  For weeks and months. I actually spluttered into my coffee when the same ebook suggested an order for going through and decluttering the rooms of your house.  There were 12 rooms mentioned, and one of them was “children’s bedrooms“!  At least that’s one advantage to a small flat – a much smaller list!

I am more convinced than ever that (responsibly) removing unnecessary possessions from our flat will do us good. If nothing else, it will make me happier and calmer which benefits everyone else indirectly.

I’m sorry there are no amazing photos of clear surfaces yet.  I dream that one day they will be mine to share with you.

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The light in my neighbourhood

welcome

I’d love to show you round.

I got the idea from a series of blogs I discovered which were inspired by the season of Epiphany – not a well-known holy day, or one I have ever knowingly celebrated.  The Epiphany (traditionally 6th Jan, but then Epiphanytide takes us up to Lent) is about God appearing, being revealed, about light emerging from darkness.  And in this series of blogs I stumbled across, the convenor invited writers to go for a walk in their own neighbourhoods and to record through photos and words where they see light appearing.

So my last blog was about escaping the city and today’s is about staying.

We’ve lived in this neighbourhood about six and a half years, and I’ve been in London for thirteen years.  It feels like home.  We’re near the centre and we have no views of mountains or oceans or rolling hills, but there are beautiful skylines.  We can see the London Eye and the Shard from our front door, and on a clear wintery day, we can see Big Ben.  Public transport makes it quick and easy to get into the centre of London (Southbank, Covent Garden, Oxford St, Trafalgar Square) in ten or fifteen minutes.  It’s tempting, but the best thing about our neighbourhood is not just that it’s close to somewhere more exciting.

Where I see the most light in our neighbourhood is in the interactions between neighbours – the ones who live in the big houses and the ones in the council flats, and everything in between.  It’s in hospitality and shared spaces, in committees and residents’ associations.  In neighbourly chats on balconies and street corners, and even in protests to the council about their policies. People make this community, and give it potential to be better.

crocuses

This is our local park.  And look what I only noticed this morning – crocuses! That means Spring, people!  And light, more light.

The park is our biggest shared space.  I walk across it, or around it, pretty much every day.  I have run around it hundreds of times, and I paced its perimeter daily in the last few days before Jesse was born. The trees are enormous and old and beautiful, and on summery days the world and his dog crowd in to sit and play and picnic on the grass.

kenpark

playpark

Jesse plays in the park, and spends hours exploring every corner of it.  In the summer you meet the same kids and families almost every day around the sandpit.  And the parents are organising!  There’s a crowd on a crusade to renovate the heavily used playpark, and everyone’s favourite red bus.

sally

This is my favourite place to stop for cake, Sally White’s on Kennington Road.

cable

And my favourite place for coffee and working-at-home – Cable on Brixton Road.

stmarks

On Saturdays there is a farmers market in the local churchyard (the photo does not show the market, only the churchyard!).  We are notorious scroungers and cruise for free samples.  Occasionally for a treat we buy something.

kenroad

I love anything that brings a flash of colour to the neighbourhood.  There is some guerrilla gardening afoot, and I love the tops of these buildings.  If I could get all our blocks of flats painted in different colours, I’d do it in a heartbeat.  I think we’d all be happier.

So, people, parks, crocuses, colour, markets, cakes and coffees.  Signs of light and hope in our community.  And that’s just if we walk towards Kennington.  Part two is brewing, taking a closer look at Walworth (where Mr Wemmick once grew rhubarb, if you like a bit of Dickens).

 

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Why we live where we live

This whole blog is about city living, or maybe more accurately ‘how we live in the city’, and while I’ve touched on the reasons we’ve chosen this neighbourhood as our home, I have never devoted a whole post to it.  Well, today is the day.  How and why did we end up on ‘the block’?

PhotoWizardCreatedI moved to London straight out of university because I wanted to act, and London is pretty much the centre of the theatrical universe this side of the Atlantic.  It’s not the only place things happen (AT ALL) but it’s where things are most concentrated.  I started drama school and moved into a flat nearby with a friend.  And then for the next five years I moved around London according to where my friends were and where I could afford.  I lived west, I lived north and I lived central.

By that time I had stumbled into working for Tearfund and been hit like a ton of bricks by the cruel injustice and brokenness of the world.  That makes it sound like a really, really terrible job.  It wasn’t the job itself, or the sharp turn my life had taken away from my dreams (although that was a bit of a downer), but more that I suddenly came face to face with a lot of awful truths about how people in the world lived and how unjust it all was.  What was more, all these people who shared my faith (Tearfund is full of Christians) believed some quite radical things about how we should respond.  And I felt compelled to stick around and work out life all over again in light of all this new information.  I was reading books about poverty and justice and development and simplicity and climate change – everything I had studiously avoided for many years beforehand.  And I felt like the ground I was standing on was shifting.

A couple of years into work at Tearfund, freshly inspired by one particular scary and beautiful book – The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne – I decided that I needed to rethink where I was living.  The author, a Christian and a crazy hippy who weaves his own clothes, makes a compelling case for living in struggling neighbourhoods on purpose.  I became convinced that I needed to move with some friends onto a specific housing estate near our church.  It wasn’t that I thought the housing estate needed me, or us, or that all Christians should live there, but more that it was the best chance I had of living alongside people who weren’t exactly like me (white, middle-class, well-educated young professionals…), and maybe even becoming friends.  And in a world, a country and a city where inequality is growing at terrifying rate and there is less and less interaction between the different ends of the spectrum, it seems like living in a mixed community is a healthy step towards more cohesion and therefore happier communities.

My friend Wendy and I moved onto the estate we had chosen after a few months of waiting for a flat to come up.  We were *very* excited, even though our church thought we were a bit weird for wanting to live there.  But then I kept working full time, and had a busy social life, and almost all of our neighbours were quite strict Muslims who didn’t seem to come out much…and so I never really met any of my neighbours.  I’m not sure I tried very hard.  Apart from our choice of location, there was nothing very unusual about our life.  People would sometimes say ‘Oh, I could never live there like you”, but really, it was just a flat like any other.

After 18 months I decided to make some big changes.  I reduced my hours at Tearfund to part-time so that I could be more present in my neighbourhood and make space to think about acting again.  This meant I couldn’t afford to stay in our current flat.  A good friend owned a flat on an estate in south London, and had bought it because she wanted to know and love her neighbours, however different they were to her.  She’d got quite a lot further into the terrain of actual relationships than I had, and so I was excited to move in with her.  (Then she moved out).

I should also make clear that said flat was extremely close to the flat of my (then) boyfriend (now husband), which also persuaded me down.

So that, practically, it how I got to living in the neighbourhood.  Andy moved in when we got married and then we bought it from our friend a couple of years later (that’s another story). But I probably need to say more, because it’s impossible to separate out the place we have chosen to live from my (our) faith.  At the heart of the Christian faith is a belief in a God who “moved into the neighbourhood” – that is, was born as a man into a poor Jewish family in what is now Palestine.  We have a record of his significant utterances and activities, but there were also just 33(ish) years of living in the neighbourhood, trying to make a living, being part of a family and community.  And he could have chosen any family and community in the world, but he chose to make his life among an occupied and oppressed people, not amongst the power brokers, or the movers and shakers.  And from that we understand there is dignity and beauty in the small and familiar, and that our God is drawn most of all to people who have the odds stacked against them in this world (he has to be because we’re not).  It’s not that we think we’re there to make everything better.  We just want to be near to where God is. (I’m sure he’s in plenty of other places too).

There are days when I wonder why we live in such a small, cluttered flat (especially when most of our other friends live in places that are BIGGER and HAVE STORAGE), why we are making our life in the biggest city in Europe (there are already MORE THAN ENOUGH people here – although please don’t misunderstand that as a statement on immigration); why we don’t make easier choices and make things nicer for ourselves.  Sometimes I get resentful; but then I remember that no-one is making us live where we do.  We have sensed an invitation, and we’ve taken it up.  We get to live alongside these brilliant people from all around the world, and hopefully we will shape and change each other and make our neighbourhood better.

Footnote: We go into this in much more detail in our book which will, allegedly, finally be published this year!

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Our Big Lunch

Doddington Grove Big LunchYes, it’s another foray into the world-beyond-the-baby, in which I catch you up with some local community happenings.

This last week, we finally got organised enough to put on a BIG LUNCH (if you don’t know about the annual BIG LUNCH set up by the Eden project, it’s a cracking idea designed to help us Brits throw an annual street party and get to know our neighbours).

It actually fell on Jesse’s 6 month birthday, so we told him it was kind of a party for him.  We’re just hoping it doesn’t raise too many expectations for future birthdays.

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If you’ve been reading this blog a while you might remember that towards the end of last year we were trying to set up the Tenants and Residents’ Association on our estate.  There once was a TRA but it wound down, and no-one had ever bothered to get it going again.  So the dynamo that is my husband set about marshalling some troops and battling the prevailing cynicism to kickstart a new TRA.

Our building is the only building on the estate on our side of the road.  All the other buildings are across the unusually-wide street and before this year we didn’t actually ever meet anyone from there. We were a world unto ourselves.  But then after a few weeks of flyering and door-knocking and postering, 30 people turned up to the relaunch meeting.  And most of them came not to gripe about leaky roofs (although heaven knows, we all could go there…) but because they wanted to get to know people and build a sense of community around the estate.

The frustrating part is that up until the launch meeting the family Flan were all in it together, but then Jesse suddenly started going to bed at 7 and giving us back our evenings…which meant we couldn’t both go out of an evening.  And given Andy was voted in as the chair of the TRA, it was more important for him to be there.

So Jesse and I missed a lot of the planning.  We did some flyering.  But we still got to go the party!  And what a day it was.

There were loads of people, piles of homemade food, a furnace of a barbecue, a packed bouncy castle, a long queue for face-painting and a whole lot of chatter.  There was even sunshine!  And a friend from uni turned up, who I hadn’t seen in about a decade! What are the chances?

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I loved that there were so many kids there (there were a lot of rounds to the tug-of-war) and that everyone just wanted to hang around and keep  nattering.  It took a lot of legwork to make it happen – the new TRA committee had a lot on their plate – but it was just a great day.  All kinds of people came out of the woodwork, wanting to get more involved.

And possibly the highlight of the day was the incredible Spanish tortilla cooked by Lourdes, one of our legendary neighbours who is loved by people across the whole estate.

Just that morning in church we’d been thinking about what it means to reweave the broken threads of relationships in all the different spheres of our lives, and how we can put into practise a love which restores people and communities.  That afternoon we got to practice.  There’s a new, fragile expression of community starting to emerge in the neighbourhood, and we are loving being part of it.

 

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People Power

In between the napping, the viewings of The Newsroom and Anne of Green Gables, the half-hearted attempts to make meals with some nutritional value, and the coffees with friends, we somehow managed this week to organise a meeting of the local residents on our estate and talk about setting up a tenants’ association.

And some people actually showed up – like, ten of us.  Result! (Apparently the last time the council tried to kickstart something, only one person came).

Here we all are minus one man who left early and Andy who took the photo.

Here we all are minus one man who left early and Andy who took the photo.  Plus the Doritos.

This has always been something that seemed like a good kind of a thing to be involved with, and I’ve been thinking about it more and more this year, partly inspired by the excellent Ruth Valerio.  It was filed under my mental list of good intentions.  But there wasn’t any official Tenants and Residents Association in existence, and it seemed like it might be complicated and time-consuming to set one up.  Plus, our building kind of feels like its own little world, sitting on the opposite side of the road to the rest of the estate.  I didn’t even know anyone from across the road.

But then mainly through Andy’s connections with the local Labour councillors and our Southwark housing officer, and our sudden realisation that we were about to run out of time pre-baby, a date got fixed.

Our local community group from church came over on Sunday and helped with the inviting/door-knocking and poster-making.  Which made us feel much less like we were out on a limb on our own.  And we got signatures for the bike shed petition!

Then, shortly before 6pm yesterday, I waddled over the road with our neighbour, Frank, to open up the hall.  It turns out there’s a great little community hall right on our doorstep that used to house a playgroup and homework club, but which no-one ever uses any more.

My role for the rest of the evening involved providing Doritos and giving Spanish directions over the phone to the lost Latino residents. Well, ok, the one lost Latina.

But hurray for people showing up and wanting to do something!  The main two topics of conversation were wanting to get our voice heard by the council on issues like the perpetual leaks, and getting bike sheds installed.  My Irving House application for bike shed funding is suddenly to be expanded to cover the whole estate and I now have partners in other blocks standing by, ready to fill more petitions.  It’s not glamorous, but it’s still a bit exciting.

The next step is probably some official kind of re-launch, working out how often we’ll meet, and getting on with something practical that will make a difference locally and give everyone a bit of confidence in the whole thing.  If you’ve got any wisdom and experience to offer, please get in touch!

(But I’ll probably have a baby first).

 

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