We are neighbours not numbers

Following the fascinating We Are Names Not Numbers conference organised by Editorial Intelligence at Port Meirion, participants were invited to contribute to a publication to be launched in July. Nothing fancy, just a few words. So here is what I have submitted - with thanks to my friend Abdul-Hakim Kadodia for checking out my understanding of Islamic teaching on being a good neighbour:


For a six month period my wife’s catholic church was blessed with a visiting Ghanaian priest who was plucked out of a sabbatical to fill a gap. Father Augustine had never been to England before, he did not drive, his command of English was faintly shaky. Suddenly he was on his own in a Hertfordshire commuter village. An absolutely wonderful human being whose spirituality shone out of him, we really enjoyed having him round for meals.

One day I asked him what most surprised him about Britain. The first thing was snow. But most shocking to him was that people did not greet one another on the street. He thought this was terrible. If we are serious about being names not numbers, we have to have a care for those we bump into in the normal course of life – everyone, whether we like them or not, whether they have done us harm or not. The fraternity strand of liberty, equality, fraternity is under-emphasised in political debate. I think the physicality of being neighbours is tremendously important.

It’s no good just retreating into on-line communities of like-minded people and Facebook friends – though you can have those too. Sometimes I ask people if they can name the people living in the three houses on either side of them. I am astonished at how few people can do it. In Islam the best person “is one who is good to his neighbours”. My muslim friends tell me that the Prophet explained the physical limits of neighbours: “Every forty houses are your neighbours: The ones in front of you, the ones from the back, the ones on the right and the ones on the left.” That may be ambitious for the uptight British. But try saying “good morning” to people in your block or street, and to those who are passing by – it is a simple human courtesy and it might just start something.

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