Down the Narrow Way flows a river of humanity. I join it, aware of some of the currents that pull beneath the surface. Traders watch from the bank and fish for customers.
I am greeted by familiar faces, and we laugh together. Sometimes people are playful with me, others dive deeper into conversation. One interaction that started with a jocular question, “How friendly is too friendly?” was followed by a suggestion that rather than offering being friendly, “compassionate” would be a better word.
Although I meet lots of really actively friendly people, there are many who see the project “as an excuse” to be friendly in a society that doesn’t make connecting easy. “I agree with that”, one person says in answer to the sign on the barrow that reads, “Can small friendly connections make a difference?”
“We need more of that”, (friendliness) someone says, “too many people are miserable”. Someone points out that, “There’s an unwritten rule that says you shouldn’t talk to people on buses or in a public place. Everyone’s in their own bubble”. Someone else says, “If you talk to people at the bus stop, they think you’re mad”.
How can we reclaim public space for our community? Someone I met today said, “We need lots of organisations where women can go and talk to women, with kids, to socialise and do art activities, or a book club.”
Someone tells me, “I do feel like a dinosaur”. I hear in many people’s words a sense of lost opportunity, not just for times gone by, or poor planning decisions, but for the collective failure of our society and government to hear and act in the interest of the greater good.
Someone who sees the injustice of funding cuts in the NHS, the fire service, the police and the Bedroom Tax said, “They’re not listening. Although you don’t understand what it is like (to go through a particular difficulty) until you go through it, we need to come together and stand together!”
“Do you know that with your hand in your pocket, it says ‘hell’?” someone points out (when the ‘o’ is obscured on my apron). For some it may be, for others Hackney is heaven. “I’ve lived all over London, but this is the friendliest place to be. People are more down to earth, more real.”
People returning from other places discuss their relative merits. I agree with someone that Calcutta is very friendly. Long ago from elsewhere, someone says, “They tolerate me, but I don’t think I am really considered local by those born and bred here, although my children are.”
Although the map calls this street ‘Mare St’, it has long been known as the ‘Narrow Way’, and one conversation describes the appropriation of local places, such as ‘Hackney Baths’, and estate agents’ naming of ‘Clapton Village’.
One intention of the ‘Hackney is Friendly’ project was that it would become somewhere to gather at the centre of Hackney, a village meeting point. I did not anticipate that the grapevine of gossip would affect me. Today, I was shocked to hear from different sources a rumour about the ‘Hackney is Friendly’ project (that is not true).
In the majority of conversations I find people willing to look for our shared humanity, not the differences between us. “It’s the person, not the colour of their skin”, said someone today. “Have a couple of pints of beer there,” someone suggests, as a lubricant for friendly exchanges. I offer someone bubbles to blow, and they are glad to, “I usually take bubbles out with me”, they reply.
Someone suggests that you “get back what you put out. If you expect the street to be hostile, that is probably the experience you will have”. Someone else says, “if you carry on your life living in fear, it robs you of your life.”
“Is there a need?” someone asks, pointing at the barrow, “because it is friendly.” “It’s about having conversations with people,” I reply. “It works,” they say.
These are some of the people I met today: