I heard the word that is the title of this post for the first time this morning, and took an instant shine to it. It was part of a definition of the word neighbour, proposed by Emily Cockayne, the author of a book called ‘Cheek by Jowl: A History of Neighbours’. Emily coined the term after one of her neighbours visited her one day in his slippers and told her that the fact that he could visit her, shod as he was, meant that they must be neighbours, since – in his mind – your neighbours were those close enough to visit in your slippers, those who were, in other words, slipperable – hence the term slipperability. Besides appealing to my inner (outer?) word geek though, it also got me thinking about the slipperable houses in my own new neighbourhood.
You see, we have recently bought a house (which makes us pretty growed up, in my opinion), and one in which we intend to live for a good while, and so, more than ever before, I’ve been wanting to make an effort to know who my neighbours are, and to be a good neighbour to them. As it turns out, this has been made easier than I anticipated by the fact that we are blessed with some very friendly types in our street: a woman across the road (who has a two year old of her own) came over to say hi the day we moved in, the family next door have also made a real effort to be neighbourly (their boys even made and delivered a Christmas card for Tilly), and a couple of older women in other nearby houses have chatted to us in the street about our girls and their own grandchildren.
Yet there remains something a bit tentative about these relationships, and I wonder if it is perhaps because we all know- even if not consciously – how high the stakes are if you get too close to those who live close to you. It is so hard to control (let alone end) a friendship, when the friend in question lives next door. And friendship with your neighbours is also a threat to the middle-class Anglo-Australian’s most prized possession, his or her privacy.
In an amusing review of ‘Cheek by Jowl’ in the Guardian, the reviewer, Rosemary Hill, quotes the Prussian architect and diplomat, Hermann Muthesius, who visited England at the turn of the 20th Century and noted that England was “the only advanced country in which the majority of the population still live in houses” (he had obviously never visited Australia, or perhaps didn’t consider it an advanced country). Hill goes on to say that when visiting London Muthesius was also struck by ‘the prevalence of hedges and fences, and the tendency to inhabit back rooms, which led him to conclude the English had a desire for privacy bordering on the fanatical’. It all sounds just like contemporary suburban Australia to me, except that we now have massive tellies and high-speed internet access that give us even fewer reasons than ever to leave our back rooms. In the age of Facebook, when we can have such incredible control over the image of ourselves that we project to the world, why would we embrace the lack of ‘creative’ control that is involved in having close relationships with those who might see us sprinting after the garbage truck, wheelie bin in tow, sporting bed hair and pastel underwear: to do so would take greater courage, humility and grace than most of us possess.
Some, however, do possess such qualities – my neighbour with the two year old, for example. She and her partner put up a swing on a tree outside their front fence for their son to use, and said we should feel free to use it any time, which we have done on a few occasions. On one such occasion Tilly was asking about the little boy whose swing it was, which led to her asking whether we could ‘go and see him’. This, of course, would involve knocking on their door without a prior invitation to do so: a prospect which made my Anglo heart quake. She was insistent, however, and so I decided to act out of character and knock.
The door was opened by mother and son, both in pajamas, and as the toddlers had a stare off from behind parental legs, I apologetically explained the reason for our visit. As a man who tidies up obsessively before letting anyone into my house, even my closest friends, I was astonished when our neighbour proceeded to invite Tilly and I, almost complete strangers, into her house, a house that she had had no prior opportunity to tidy in any way. This was the kind of courageous, humble and gracious act of cultural subversion that we so desperately need. And what made it even more impressive was that her house was in the kind of disarray that one only finds with those who are either psychologically ill, or extremely psychologically healthy. But my awe of the woman didn’t end there. The icing on the cake was the fact that she only mentioned the state of the house once, and that was in the form of a joke, not an apology. I wish I was half the woman she is.
And just in case you’re wondering, the irony of me blogging about all this is not lost on me. Here I am in my own back room, making myself vulnerable to my massive readership in Yemen, while many of the people who live within a hundred metres of my home don’t even know my name (let alone my many neuroses). I am trying to be more neighbourly though, believe me – ably assisted, I must admit, by Tilly’s blunt friendliness and the magnetic pull of Kitty’s piercing blue eyes and chubby milk fed cheeks. Now all I need is to buy myself a pair of slippers.