Sunday, August 14, 2011

living together apart

Stumbled across a series called The Outback House I can watch on the internet.
It’s one of those back-in-time series where a family volunteers to go and have their world turned inside out for 3 months, experiencing life in another era. This one is set on an 1861 sheep station.

It was made in 2005 and I must have missed it because I tend to avoid TV. I’ve seen two others previously, which I’d heard about and watched on DVD.
The first was The 1940s House, about a family in Britain reliving the Blitz period of World War II, dealing with rations and so on. The other was The Frontier House, a U.S. version of a pioneer life [there might have been more than one family in this one, can’t remember].

The thing that was most striking [apart from the time travel experience] about these series was the enormous personal growth of the people who took part in them.
The teenage American girls suffered tremendous culture shock, having to give up everything from talking to their friends on the phone, to toilet paper. After three months of living a frontier life, on top of each other in a poky little cabin, the whole family had gone from a collection of sniping, resentful self-absorbed individuals to a very strong, well bonded unit.

When the series was over, back they went to a giant, rambling mansion, and the girls suffered culture shock all over again. Suddenly each member of the family was isolated from the rest, living in different corners of the house with their paths barely crossing during the course of a day. They felt abandoned.
And it is this that I think of every time I see a McMansion. Apart from the ridiculous amounts of energy or money required to run these houses, it’s their anti-social nature that seems tragic. This is not to say they are necessarily antisocial, but I fear many of them might be.

When I was growing up in inner Melbourne in the early 1960s, it was quite common for Italians or Greeks to live, two families to a small house, until they got on their feet. Did they get on each other’s nerves? Well, it took me a while to get used to people all talking at once, but the kids at school told it was very normal because there were always so many conversations going on. And even if one kid was fighting with another, there was always still someone who’d talk to them.

It was a standard joke when I was growing up that Italians and Greeks built huge houses once they were established, because there was always a bricklayer or a concreter in the family.
A friend of mine used to say her father was crazy – no huge, ostentatious lions guarding their gate: Using plastic footballs as a mould, he had to be different and have Aussie Rules Footballs on the pillars along his fence line. In the end, he got sick of having them stolen so he made a set of concrete soccer balls which, surprise surprise, nobody ever knocked off.
But these big “wog” houses were designed for “living apart together”. The next generation could get married and have privacy without leaving home. They were not designed to be anti-social, and I doubt those who lived in them would know how to sit alone for long.
At a wedding last year, a fourth generation Greek Australian warned her new in-laws that even when they weren't talking to the bride, they would still reserve the right to interfere.

The McMansion suburbs of Melbourne sit in stark contrast to the almost claustrophobic scale of housing in many parts of London. I’m sure that even in London, 50 years ago, there must have been a feeling that a street was a community, where every parent knew and was free to keep an eye on or discipline everyone else’s children.
Even now, in a place with a reputation like Frankston’s I live in a court where everyone knows everybody else. We respect each others’ space, but ladders are borrowed, animals fed, help given with lifting and so on as a matter of course. If an ambulance pulls up in the street, there is always an unobtrusive “do you need anything?” or two. And I wonder, do our next-doors really grow the world’s best nectarines, or is there just something special about being handed a couple of buckets of fresh fruit over the fence?

So, what has changed? If it is not the amount of space we have that causes a disintegration of community, what is going wrong?
Playing loud music late at night can be a great source of annoyance for your neighbours.
Another good way to annoy them is to set fire to their dustbins.

Marty Feldman

1 comment:

  1. Cars, not big houses is the problem, they allow you to have friends that are physically far away and to have no friends next door. They also isolate you from your community as you travel, so you don't stop on your walk to see or talk or help as you pass by. There is one thing worse than cars of course, The Internet, now you don't even have to leave your house.