Neighbours and Outsiders

It is often said that London is a series of villages. I’m not sure I buy that, but I would say it’s a series of neighbourhoods. Most people are very aware of and loyal to their neighbourhood. When I came to live in London people would talk about their manor. It’s not a term I’ve heard for a while, so I suspect that those a generation behind me would find it as quaint as I did expressions from the 1950s.

Celia, Octavia and I all live in the same neighbourhood. I couldn’t tell you exactly where our patch begins and ends, but two or three years ago Celia and I were walking in an adjoining neighbourhood when we spotted a notice for a book group. It was behind glass and the worse for wear from condensation. We peered at it, trying to decipher date, location and book. As we did so, a woman approached with a wide, friendly smile. Do join us, she said. We don’t live here, we answered, wary of trespassing on alien territory. We live up the road; we belong to a different tribe. Alright, we didn’t say the last bit, at least I don’t think we did, but I certainly thought it, despite knowing people from this other tribe. That doesn’t matter, said the woman, smile enhanced by a halo of blond curls. You’d be very welcome.

I don’t think we went straight away. The details are now hazy. But we did eventually go. Gosh I am glad we did. Charlie, aka Mr Celia, has now joined us, as has our neighbour Reinhild, so our tribe now has a certain presence. Last night Jane, late of this parish, now a Bermondsey resident, attended. I hope Cynthia will join us in time. The work under discussion on Thursday night was the Short stories of Katherine Mansfield. M, the woman with the blond curls and welcoming smile, we now know is a respected literary figure, a writer, and someone who definitely knows her stuff when it comes to literature. She is modest about that knowledge, and never ever makes you feel ignorant, even when you demonstrably are. M did an introduction. The short stories are now available in a doorstep volume. The sort of thing you can imagine Adam in Frederick Raphael’s The Glittering Prizes walking around with to make himself look intellectual.I read the four stories M advised plus one more. I borrowed my copy from the library. It wasn’t only the 800 or so pages that discouraged me from carrying it around, though that’s a consideration, I was also reading two other books, one of which was Mary Beard’s Women and Power: A Manifesto. Also a library book, but I think I shall shortly have my own copy.

M talked about how now we get the short stories in these huge volumes, a sort of job lot, whereas when the short story was at its most popular in C19 you would have read one in your weekly magazine, spent the week letting it percolate through, then you’d read another. That would allow the story to breathe like good wine (my purple prose, not hers) letting the reader savour its notes and flavours. Celia and I had both agreed earlier in the week we’d like our own volume – she had also borrowed a library copy – so that we could dip in to the collection and enjoy the individual pearls at leisure, so M’s words made a lot of sense.

It was a good turnout, around a dozen people gathered around the table. Carolyn and I polished off a bottle of red wine with very little help from any one else. Most people had brought nibbles, so we drank and munched through the evening. Katherine Mansfield came from New Zealand. The novel I’m reading now is by another New Zealander, Janet Frame, and I have my eye on a book by Rose Tremain that’s set in New Zealand. It seems like the stars are conjoined to make this my New Zealand year. Carolyn visited just before Christmas and says she fell in love with the country. I’ve heard that before. I have a feeling by the end of my holiday I am rather going to wish my parents had emigrated as they had planned and I would be a Kiwi. Maybe more of a Kiwi that Mansfield, as my parents would have had neither the money nor the inclination to send their daughters to London for their education as Mansfield’s parents did. Those were the days before air travel, the journey would have been long, home a long way away. Katherine Mansfield identified as other, an outsider, and that’s usually taken to be her outsider status as a New Zealander in the UK, but given her education on this side of the world, I imagine she was equally an outsider in her own land, probably an outsider everywhere, for how could you ever have a sense of belonging anywhere, or rather of having roots that went deep, in those circumstances? To which tribe would you feel you belonged?

11 thoughts on “Neighbours and Outsiders

  1. enjoyed reading this! i haven’t read any Katherine Mansfield since high school, it seems. longer ago than i can almost imagine 🙂 i feel inspired to consider looking at her writings again.
    insiders and outsiders. what an interesting concept. my parents were immigrants to Canada along with my older brother who was just a few months old at the time. i was born here a few years later. when my parents took up Canadian citizenship a few years later, they were required to know the answers to questions that were never required of me, since I was automatically a Canadian by virtue of being born here.
    whenever i visited Germany, relatives and friends always referred to me as being Canadian which i could wholeheartedly affirm and yet they considered me German too, since i spoke the language and was part of their extended family.
    and here in Canada, some people thought of me as being German which i could not quite deny even though i always felt was not wholeheartedly the case. so in some ways i was an outsider in both places.
    it seems that it largely it depends on how you define yourself. i have always been comfortable being at home here in Canada and seeing myself as a Canadian, and at the same time appreciated the culture of the ‘old country’ whenever i have visited there. so regardless of the labels of others, i would say i am Canadian.
    i guess you can’t always convince others of who you really are, and in Katherine Mansfield’s day that was likely even more challenging.
    these days there might not even be a point to do so. i have never noticed any of my cats trying to make any judgement calls about it. they have always been welcoming and invitational and treated me as an insider, and it’s a good purrspective to acquire. people have no control over where they have come from, and yet they all have value and as we get to know them, and the world increasingly becomes a village.
    it’s like that cliche saying about how much nicer everything is when people build bridges rather than put up walls. every outsider i rub shoulders with is a potential insider if i take the risk and build a bridge. and while that may have some political connotations, none are intended. i just think it does feel rather nice to know you belong somewhere and we are all the richer for it. 🙂
    oops, not my blog! guess i have made up for my lack of visits in this one post, lol. cheers and blessings and thanks for sharing.

    • I think most of us have this duality of belonging and being from elsewhere. That elsewhere doesn’t need to be distant. I grew up in a town where neither of my parents were born, Mother came from Northern Ireland and had a deep sense of belonging there, but inevitably developed strong roots here too. My father was always a Londoner, and though I don’t think he wanted to return to live in the city, he loved having a chat with locals when he visited me. When I go to stay at Cousin’s there is always at least one person who talks about me being at home. But like you and your relationship with Germany, I have never lived there. I rather enjoy having a sense of other. I come from a long line of immigrants – I have a French surname, and my grandmother’s family came from Germany. I think that makes me English, for whatever the EDL say, this is a country made up of immigrants.

      My ex-neighbours moved to Lincoln and now have a cat whose pictures you can see on Instagram @Aeftheld but at some point they are going to move back to Austria. Will Pippin be able to communicate with the cats in his new neighbourhood! I rather think he will!

  2. Very interesting post. The “belonging” to a neighborhood is very strong I think wherever one lives. What might start as real estate marketing can evolve into an identity, for good or bad, for a community.

    And Pix above has done a wonderful response.

    But I want to know what Janet Frame you are reading. I fell upon her books by accident (I had the accident and was laid up for a bit decades ago) and both her fiction and her biography are excellent

    • I’m reading Owls Do Cry.
      My friend Nadine who moved back to NZ a few years ago, is a huge admirer of Janet Frame. She has also written a novel based on her childhood. I’m looking forward to reading it when she eventually lets a publisher see it.

  3. I enjoyed this post, Isobel. I haven’t felt a sense of belonging for a very long time. Out here in rural Missouri we were never accepted. This is a tight group pf farmers and people that went to a little school and have stayed friends. They don’t accept city people moving to the country. It has been an isolating experience in many ways. We have taken a few steps to change this and I am looking forward to the change, albeit with a little concern.

  4. You are such a good writer, Isobel. I love reading your posts, even if it is only about what you are fixing for supper. My interest in the topic of other, although somewhat tangential, is how privilege is communicated by those who have money and power. Especially how privilege teaches people a sense of belonging (or maybe the right to be) in public areas, that people of lesser means don’t display. When I was a young adult I preferred to look undisturbed when I was in department stores. Thus, when I went to any of the hoity-toity department stores I would dress rather sloppy – like jeans and tee. Sales people never bothered me because they perceived that I didn’t belong there because I didn’t have any money to spend (which was probably true most of the time).

    • Oh thank-you Pat, that’s such a kind comment. I went To West Norwood cemetery today and became fascinated by some of the tombs. Every one had a story, a history, but of course it was easy to see how class, money and privilege is also reflected in death! Monumental mausoleums that demand attention, then swathes of smaller headstones that seem like the crowd scenes. Re your comment about shopping, I remember as a scruffy teenager wandering into a very smart antique shop in South Kensington. I spotted a knee desk and was looking at it. An assistant – though he was probably called by a grander title, approached me asking with barely concealed contempt if he could help. I told him I was looking at the knee desk as I had one at home, but bigger and in better condition (this was true). His manner changed immediately in a way that was quite comical.

      • Funny story. I have also had the feeling that sales people were following me not to be of help but to make sure I wasn’t touching things or stealing.

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