As I take my barrow out into the street someone jokes with me, “Hackney is friendly, it’s just the people in it…” It’s that “real mix of people” that some visitors from Scotland comment on and I enjoy talking to.
Hackney is an area that holds extremes, “you walk along the road and in one direction there are expensive houses and the other way there’s an estate.” These economic polarities form the background for some of the personal situations that people who talk to me are dealing with. Someone struggling with the issue of the ‘bedroom’ tax said, “I thought about moving, but at least here people stop and talk.
I also met extremes of view, from the casual opinion thrown off-hand as someone passes, “Hackney’s crap,” a warning given to “Just be careful, Hackney’s not really that friendly, you might get stabbed,” to “It’s a lovely place,” said with conviction.
Someone who hasn’t been here for a while was surprised to discover that “Suddenly it’s humming. Hackney is the place to be.” Another recent convert said, “I do find it friendly. I used to live in West London, and it’s not better or worse, it’s just a very different experience.” Someone else told me, “Hackney is a very special place. Some talented people come from here.”
I am trying to offer a window onto that contradictory Hackney experience in this blog. Some teenagers enjoying the spectrum said, “There’s someone crazy down there, and then there’s this.” Another wry observer of the project said, “I walked up the street, and I thought, this is in the great English tradition of eccentrics.”
Underlying the conversations about Hackney is a more subtle enquiry into friendliness. I hear of a project carried out in a local school to learn about other countries, and to encourage everyone to mix together. We also discuss the permission that having a baby gives to talk to others.
I know from my own experience that walking with a dog also means you can speak to other ‘dog people’. My dog people form a wide network, and one comes today and tells me a tragic tale. It shocks me, and I recognise how deep these canine encounters connect me to the people and places where we walk our dogs.
As I talk to a woman well versed in friendliness, some Swedish visitors ask for directions to Chatham Place. She kindly offers to take them the scenic route through the church yard, and returned later to say, “they were really interesting people.”
Another champion of friendliness told me, “I shower people with happiness, even if they’re in a bad mood.”
Musing with someone else, they confirm the truth that I am discovering, “We really don’t know who the people around us are until we engage with them.” Someone whose history here spans over seven decades conjures up a “pet shop with horse, monkeys and a pot-bellied pig.” They recall, “Burtons in the Narrow Way, with dancing above. Hackney went down, but it’s come up again.”
I watch the skill of a lad weaving down the street on a double-ended twisting skateboard. His friend tells me “It’s a rip stick.” A friend of mine who has come to say hello sums it up, “As a community forms, friendliness oils the wheels.”
Just some of the people I met today: