A young man points at the banner, which reads ‘Hackney is friendly?’ “That’s a lie. Take it down!” he says with force. For him, it did not provide an opening gambit to conversation.
Someone else, distracted by the barrow, chuckled, “it made me laugh, made me feel good, made me forget what I was doing.” For many people, the barrow does provide a starting point for communication. “That’s a good idea, because some people are lonely. I’m not lonely, I’m just nosey,” said one woman. Some of the people who chat to me may be lonely, but I have the sense that people talk to me or approach the cart for all sorts of different reasons.
The kind of interactions and the subjects that people raise vary hugely. I try to follow the flow, to pay attention, to meet each person. I am moved when someone said, “you are looking at me with love.” Multi-person conversations happen, which can create a more complex dynamic. After one of these, someone observed, “I wouldn’t have heard that woman’s opinion without this.”
Chance encounters with strangers can be wonderful and surprising. I am greeted with “Kupla” (Klingon for hello), by someone sporting a ‘Klingon disrupter’ and Starship Enterprise shirt. After speaking for some time, we part with the appropriate hand gesture and salutation, “Live long and prosper”.
Although I meet many who find Hackney friendly, there is a feeling, often voiced by very friendly people, that it isn’t easy to be friendly here. One theme that continues to be explored in different conversations is the tension that exists between different people. The financial pressures on those who were “born in Hackney, grew up in Hackney, but can’t afford to live here”, is a recurring lament. Those who own their house may be winning, but rising rents are forcing out their kids, and the people who are not in a position to buy.
Someone who has recently left cited, “too many children are going the wrong way – drugs and all that.” Crime is also a part of the picture. Someone looking at the banner says, “That’s ironic, I’ve just had my phone nicked.”
I meet parents, grandparents, and kids. Being a parent is not an easy job in our “i-culture”, where kids use technology, but may miss out on learning “social consciousness”. I meet a father in search of justice who wants to be more involved in his daughter’s life, and finds that the legal system seems to be stacked in favour of mothers.
For many who have lived in other parts of London or the South East, it does seem that Hackney’s rich diversity offers a friendly welcome, but for those from further afield I hear that it seems to be less so. A visitor from Canada admits that so far she finds “London is not friendly”, and we discussed why this might be. “British reserve” certainly plays its part. Perhaps those she chatted to gave her reason to change her mind.
“I’m from the Caribbean, and everyone there greets everyone on the bus or in a shop whether they know each other or not,” someone says. While big place/small place, and rural or city are factors, there are cities out there that I hear are more friendly than London.
I ask people about friendliness, and they ask me about my experiences too. I try to explain how hearing so many points of view has changed my own. “Were you a generaliser, or narrow-minded before?” someone asks me, “Didn’t you know everyone is different? That’s just common sense.” I thought I knew, but hearing personal experiences is very powerful, and I feel that I understand something of the differences I see in a more meaningful way than I did before.
Every day on the Narrow Way I meet people who are busy in small, often unseen ways, knitting our community together. I meet mentors and those actively doing things to bring positive engagement, communication and skills. I ask them how we can improve things. “It’s got to start with education, and it’s got to start young,” said one, who told me about the potential in and around schools where children and parents meet people from other cultures. Another talked of the many small projects all working independently in different ways, and the possibility of them gradually coming together.
One man tells me about his experience of falling victim to bad luck in New York, followed by finding extraordinary unexpected generosity. He shares stories and rhymes with me, and others at the cart. “How can we make our community better?” I ask, “More of this free stuff, do something for love”, he replies.
These are just some of the people I met today: