Earlier this year Rachel and The Boreas Wind Quintet played at a concert in the small Lancashire town of Pilling. We stayed in a farmhouse B&B on the outskirts of the town, run by a wonderfully down-to-earth, nothing-is-too-much-trouble lady called Beryl. We were late arriving, having been delayed on the motorway, but Beryl immediately provided copious quantities of tea and cake, and then after the concert a vast platter of late-night cheese and crackers. Wonderful, unpretentious, spontaneous unconditional hospitality.
Pilling and the surrounding countryside is pancake flat, so that church spires are visible for miles, it reminded me of The Low Countries. When we were chatting with Beryl about the area and that Pilling seemed like a lovely and lively community, she commented that
We’ve got the river on one side, the sea on t’other, and the moors on t’other, so it used to be that people didn’t go too far…
Local communities are more fragile than ever. Greater access to information and the world beyond our immediate neighbourhoods, plus the mobility to explore and experience that world means that more and more people aspire elsewhere from the town in which they grow up.
To some extent virtual communities are creating new alternatives to The Old Ways, connecting people and opening up communication and opportunity. These shared interest groups bring individuals together across geographical and social divides, and can be the source of terrific forces for positive change and personal fulfilment.
However, I can’t and don’t want to see them as a replacement for real communities. For me a real community has bigger stakes than those beyond the chatroom thread or online poker hand. There are shared vested interests, a common sense of purpose, of being and a shared trust borne out of personal contact. There are all sorts of communal benefits beyond the immediate self-interests of each member.
In 1987 Margaret Thatcher declared on Woman’s Hour that ‘There is no such thing as society.’ In the context of her interview, she meant that it should be the responsibility of each individual to look after themselves, rather than expect the Government to provide. Now while I’ve got some pretty fundamental concerns with that in itself, my bigger lament is that this soundbite has become the permission for individualistic isolation and blinkered self-interest through every level of the Western capitalist world.
There is such a thing as society. It’s really really important. It’s the feeling that other people near you would look out for you in a crisis, that (like you) they want to live in a safe, happy community with things like pubs and markets and churches and schools and sports teams and so on.
I’m not saying that online communities are selfish or trivial or irrelevant – far from it. But in our headlong rush towards virtual worlds and networks, I fear we are neglecting the rewards and depths of personal real-world contact.