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THE LOSS OF COMMUNITY

I am planning to do something I have not done before with this Blog: to write about the same subject over two or three weeks: about different aspects of the loss of community, and what we can do about it.

We have lost something important, and it has disappeared so gradually that we may not even have noticed that we have lost it. It was called community.

It used to exist in both town and country, even in my life-time. In the old industrial towns and cities it existed in those streets of terraced houses where the women washed the steps of their front doors, the children played together in the road, and the men worked together down the mine or in the factory. In the country it existed in the villages, where the men worked together in the fields, the children went together to the village school, and the women met together at the WI. Even in the suburbs the men talked together over the hedges as they did the gardening, the women met each other at the shops, and the children played together at the swings down on the playing field. But only tatters of such communities remain. By and large we have lost that old sense and experience of community. Why?

Laurie Lee in Cider with Rosie put his finger on the moment when the old community of the country village began to disappear: it was the moment "the brass-lamped motor-car came coughing up the road, followed by the clamorous charabanc, and the solid-tyred bus". It is the increase of mobility that has destroyed our communities: above all the car and the aeroplane. Even a generation ago, when you left the house you left it on foot. You walked down the street; you saw and you met your neighbours. You stopped and talked to them. Today, you step out of your house, step into your car, and whizz off. Even a generation ago, your children would go to school somewhere near where you lived; they would get a job nearby; they would marry a local boy or girl, and live within walking distance of their parents and grandparents. Today, your children go off to university; get a job in London; travel, and maybe settle all over the world; and you may not see your grandchildren from one year's end to the next. The result is divided families, fragmented lives, and communities that have evaporated around us. We may have circles of friends, at work, at the pub, or on the golf course, but there is no wider community.

Community implies and means that we have things in common. It means a place: we all live together in the same place, whether surrounded by hills and fields, or by streets and market-places. It means a history: we share a common story, both the story of our nation and our country, and the story of our locality. In a community we take for granted certain customs and values; it might be celebrating certain festivals; it might be our attitude to the police and the law. Alongside our own personal activities, we have shared communal events: national ones like Guy Fawkes bonfires, local ones like Whit Walks or the Vicarage Garden Party. Interwoven with all these things there are family bonds, linking us with other families in the community as well as beyond. The key to it all is stability, many in the community living and dying in the same place, shared memories going back generations. Community was the place where you were at home. It was the place and the people you knew and where you were known. All gone.

Some people would say that this community was a prison, a place that people longed to escape. Many have embraced the new mobility of the 20th century as a release. They glory in the diversity of experiences that are to be had through travelling, living and working in different parts of the country and the world: the new sights and sounds, the contrasts of people and customs, the opportunities to do new things and enjoy new pleasures and foods. Some look back at the confines and limitations of the old communities and boast, "I am a citizen of the world." But there is a cost to it all: the loss of community.

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