The street where I live is like many suburban streets throughout Britain. Rows of1)Victorian and 2)Edwardian red-brick villas hug a long, tree-lined road. Neighbours go to work, come back, keep to themselves. Most of them—like me—strangers to each other.
I have lived in my street for 14 years and I have long suspected that, behind every one of the 116 doors lining the road, there are fascinating stories to be told. So, driven by curiosity—perhaps better described as 3)nosiness—I decided to make a film about my neighbours. What I found turned out to be a 4)revelation—a rich 5)mosaic of human life.
As I walked up and down meeting people, I was most struck by the way my neighbours coped with adversity. I found a family who appeared to be successful, happy and untroubled. Ali and Keith were authors, with one son, Jay, at university and another, Louis, still at school. In 2005, Keith, who is in his fifties, was diagnosed with 6)mesothelioma, an incurable cancer caused by exposure to 7)asbestos, in his case possibly from a school building.
He is an amazingly 8)dignified man, always looking to the positive. Illness had 9)decluttered their lives, he told me. “The inessentials drop away and you are left with the essentials, which you can treasure.” Keith had opted for 10)radical surgery followed by 11)radiotherapy and 12)chemotherapy. So far he has 13)defied all the 14)odds in surviving for 18 months. Ali told me: “I’m scared to think ahead. I prefer to think of the future as a ‘don’t know’, whereas before we thought there was no chance at all. Now at least ‘don’t know’ is quite a good place to be.”
What moved me about Keith’s story was the way in which it 15)confounded my assumption that we were all strangers on this street. When Keith fell ill, the neighbours 16)rallied round 17)magnificently. They drew up a 18)rota to take him to hospital for his daily radiotherapy when Ali had to be at work. Ali was reflective about how their lives have changed: “We used to be a bit private before. Now we realize that people can be really 19)great if you just let them in.” Perhaps something for us all to 20)mull over as we increasingly live our lives in anonymous isolation.
Every door that opened to us revealed another extraordinary story—but there was one doorbell we didn’t rush to ring. Even in increasingly 21)gentrified neighbourhoods, there is always one house like this: almost 22)derelict and with pigeons 23)roosting in its 24)eaves. But inside, we found Alek, a 25)captivating 91-year-old who still has a twinkle in his eye. He is a 26)Pole who arrived here in 1948 and retired from his bank 25 years ago. Alek lives in the house alone now, since his wife died in 2000, and he spends most of his time in the kitchen. Did he feel lonely, I asked? “It doesn’t hurt me. I miss people, yes. I miss talking to people,” he said.
After several months of research, we had been round most of the houses but there were still a few withholding their 27)tantalizing secrets. Eventually Joseph answered the door of his housing association property and we climbed to the top floor and his 28)spartan 29)bedsit.
Joseph told us his story—how he’d been having fun in Thailand, run out of money and been recruited to a drug-smuggling 30)ring. He was arrested in Japan carrying around 70 31)pellets of 32)cannabis in his stomach. He was sentenced to three and a half years in prison, most of it in solitary confinement, and after he came home he “33)lost it”. Bit by bit, though, Joseph in his quiet way was slowly putting his life back together…
So have all these extraordinary and34)appalling stories changed my attitude to my street? To some extent they have. I can no longer walk along the road with my head down ignoring people. I now recognize faces and stop to speak to at least six or seven new people.
The film has made me more aware of the life about me. Houses that were once blank and anonymous now contain stories I know. I feel a connection and obligation to some of the people I met. I 35)pop in and say hello to Alek. Joseph has his family, but I phone him or visit every now and then to see how he’s getting on. I speak to Ali and Keith and, if they ever asked me to help, I’d be there in a shot. If something dreadful happened to me a year ago, I would have sought help far away from my own street. Now there are a couple of people I feel I could tell. And some who might support me if I was 36)burgled or sick. I feel safer and less fearful of crime.
My street is a 37)microcosm of big city life. All these people had their own 38)networks and clung to those they knew elsewhere, rather than making friends with their neighbours. A feeling of community can be 39)suffocating and we all need privacy sometimes. But closeness has advantages. Now I value the support and friendship of my neighbours. I feel a warmth towards the area I didn’t have before. My street really is my street now.