14 Dec 2012

The message in the basket: Talk to your neighbour!

I never heard the whistle. I did not even know there WAS a whistle. But as I was passing my local newsagent yesterday morning he was just coming out of the doorway of his shop armed with a copy of the Daily Mirror. “Here”, he said, “wait here and watch”. I looked up at the tall Victorian block of flats opposite in time to see a window opening on the first floor.

Very soon a little basket emerged as the lace curtain billowed in the breeze, I glimpsed an arm and a hand unravelling string as the basket descended to the waiting arms of my newsagent. He folded the Mirror and placed it into the basket, extracting a tiny package of something wrapped in tinfoil.

The string tightened and the basket ascended back to the open window. As it was taken in, a sweet looking elderly woman, with a winding of grey hair, a ribbon and pretty grey silk scarf emerged at the window and waved delicately to me. I waved back. The window closed, and my newsagent retreated, elated, to his shop.

Later I went back to see him, to ask who the lady at the window was, and how this sweet service worked. I have known him for years, he’s a Kenyan Asian and has battled to revive the Swahili I once knew when I did VSO in Uganda. “Jambo Bwana! She blows a whistle when she wants something”, my newsagent said.

He added: “She’s 94, Italian, and a lovely lady.” She wraps in tinfoil whatever she owes.

Just as he’d finished telling me, an evidently Italian man came in for stamps. I found myself telling him the story. He wasn’t surprised at all. “That’s the way it is in Italy”. I found myself musing about community and ethnicity and delighting in the possible. Is there anywhere else we could forge so lightly strung a relationship?

It was as I collected my Miso soup from further along the road that I had my second delight of the day. A family of three sitting at a table as I queued to pay. The father got up and said: “My wife and daughter are too shy to talk to you, but each time we have been to the Eastman Dental Hospital we have seen you somewhere around here”, he said. “I work round here”, I said.

Riskily I asked about their teeth. It turns out Mum and daughter have a rare condition in which they only have baby teeth – no second teeth. The baby teeth do last longer than ours, but eventually they have to have implants – painful and expensive, but in their rare condition, the NHS provides.

“My teeth are fine” said the father. They might not be, given his job. He’s an electrical engineer closing down Bradwell Nuclear Power Station on the east coast. I learned so much about teeth, radiation and heavy concrete in just five minutes of exchanges.

A paper in a basket, the infamy of television, our intriguing nuclear legacy, and talking to one’s neighbour. Perhaps we should all do a whole lot more of it before we retreat completely into our keyboards!

Tweets by @jonsnowC4

9 reader comments

  1. Carol Haughton says:

    Oh if only people would just stop and talk sometimes, instead of rushing around doing, quite often, very unimportant stuff. I feel Wordsworth coming on…

  2. Colin-Roy Hunter says:

    Lovely article and expressing the sentiments of the seasons.

    Whilst now bed-bound some 60% of the time and house-bound around 90% of the time, I have always made every effort to socialise with my neighbours. The pleasant result for me since my condition deteriorated is that the neighbours now keep an eye out on me, make meals for me, do shopping errands for me.

    In return I helped organise the street’s royal wedding, jubilee & bonfire night celebrations – amazing what can be done from a bed-cell with a laptop & WiFi. Since last year’s RW festivities, the local children now play out together (during fair weather).

    The community spirit I knew as a child can be rekindled with just a little effort. %)

  3. Matthew Timms says:

    … I’m going for false teeth… the dentist is just too painful and too expensive these days [and I never had great teeth any way]… and false teeth might encourage me to eat less !… thanks for your ”news presence”, I value it !

  4. Philip Edwards says:


    Just imagine – when the NHS is privatised we won’t have to pay for that teeth problem anymore. The sufferers can raise the money and pay for it themselves, the way they do in the USA.

    Roll on privatisation, hey?

    Then we can all become “good neighbours,” the way they do in the USA. Or something.

  5. Sue Jones says:

    Jon, what a magical story and such a nugget. You look at the world with true vision and truth. I was heartened.

  6. Matthew Trow says:

    Great stories.

    That’s one of the reasons I like living in a small rural village – people take the time to stop and chat. Nobody rushes about. Jokes are told in shop queues. People wave good day.

    Whilst it can be rather dull at times, there’s still a sense of community in many rural areas that’s almost entirely missing in big towns and cities.

    I’m making an assumption you live in a big town or city, by virtue of the fact you can buy Miso soup locally! – so it’s good to see this type of spirit is still alive and well where you’d expect it least.

  7. Meg Howarth says:

    Great, heart-warming stuff, Jon. A daily small act of kindness is something we should all carry out – as thousands already do. Loving our children is perhaps the most effective way of ensuring a better world. We must nail once and for all ‘the sins of the fathers…’.

    But Philip’s put his finger on a central point – our hearts alone won’t stop the dehumanising of society. That requires complementary action on a broader canvas.

  8. margaret brandreth-jones says:

    It depends which community you are in Jon and whether you have a large enough salary and are worth talking to.It is amazing how when I had my 5 bedroomed detached house a husband and 2 young children who went to private school how popular I was with many friends and cousins etc around. When all that I owned was stolen from me and I became single as a victim of crime, I was shouted at abused, ignored, put down ..you know the drift.Take off your rose tinted specs. No one would be pleasant to you if you were thrown out on your back without money. I will now go into my protective bubble where nasties don’t live.

  9. Etrangere Mubvakure says:

    I happen to live in a lovely corner of the Isle of Dogs, in a block of residential flats that resemble a South African compound (complete with security guard!). There are about 200 residents. Every year we have an Easter egg hunt for the children, a summer barbecue, a Christmas party and other events in between. With some of them who are closer, we invite each other to dinners in our homes. Some of the residents attend the Church of England down the road or the Baptist Church closer to the station. Depending on who you bump into on Sunday morning, you are likely to be invited to one of the two churches. There are different nationalities of people living here, which probably explains the uncharacteristic warmth for a neighbourhood in inner London.

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