Why everybody needs good neighbours...

Why everybody needs good neighbours...

Sssh! Listen. Are your neighbours in? Maybe you cannot hear them, but is that liver and onions you can smell cooking? Their car is outside. You piece together the evidence like James Stewart in Rear Window.

I live on a terraced street. Our neighbours on both sides are quiet. I think one side is in now, the other not. My kids are hurtling around, so the neighbours will know we are in.

The construction and layout of some properties has prevented aural privacy. In 1688 a lodger in a house in London’s Chichester Rents remarked that "by reason of the narrowness of the said building which whatsoever is spoken at … any of the neighbours may be heard by the rest of them especially by them that are opposite on both sides". Similar comments were recorded from tower block dwellers in the 20th century. "Things were bad for our neighbours upstairs", writes Barty Phillips, remembering a day when her mother was pressing sheets and they heard a voice from above say "That’s funny, can you hear somebody ironing?".

Both the layout of housing and the infrastructure that services neighbourhoods can affect neighbourly relationships. The significance of the physical arrangement of housing can be illustrated by a disconcerting thought-experiment. Imagine a terraced street with each dividing wall transformed into glass. How would we act differently? We may, for instance, become suddenly aware that our heads, when resting on the pillow, are a mere two-brick thickness away from our neighbours. The construction of our walls has a direct influence on our experiences. Detached houses give their inhabitants the freedom to be noisy without intruding on the lives of others. Terraced houses and flats usually require more consideration for relations to remain cordial.

Each dwelling type (except the bungalow) has taken its turn to be the most prevalent, characterising its era. The Georgians built terraces, Victorians threw up back-to-backs and the semi-detached house proliferated in the 1930s. Houses eventually became directly connected to systems of water and sewerage, which saw less need for communal facilities like water pumps, toilet blocks and waste containers, where people met. Life became increasingly self-contained.

Walls do not simply separate interior spaces; gardens and land can be walled or fenced. In Mending Wall, the American poet Robert Frost dared to question the point of walls for neighbours without livestock. He wonders why we cannot demarcate symbolically. Wanting to know what was being "walled in" or walled out, Frost warns that erecting a wall might even cause offence. Frost’s neighbour twice reminds him that "Good fences make good neighbours". The neighbour had proverbial wisdom on his side. One tells us that "a wall between doth best preserve friendship". Another starts with warmth – "love your neighbour", but ends with caution, "yet pull not downe your hedge".

A long-standing love of territorial markers is clear. We should bear in mind that the etymological root of the word "fence" is in "defence".

Cheek by Jowl: A History of Neighbours by Emily Cockayne is published by The Bodley Head.