A few months ago, we joined with other neighbourhoods around Australia to celebrate Neighbour Day. The gathering made me realise how seldom nowadays I get the opportunity to socialise with the people in my local community.
Most of us are busy in our day-to-day lives. We live in houses with tinted windows, high fences and garages with roller doors that lock us in as soon as we arrive home. From the car, we step inside our residence and there seems to be little opportunity to venture out to see the people living next door or down the road.
It was very different in the Baby Boomers’ younger years. The neighbourhood in which I grew up mainly comprised of working-class families. Some fathers were employed in an office or ran a small local business, while others toiled with their hands in a factory, as a tradesman or a labourer. Most mothers stayed at home to look after the children, to shop, cook, clean and do the washing and ironing. They were simple, less complicated times.
The streets were filled with kids. It was pre- birth control, and families with four or five children were the norm. We were surrounded by young children, all around the same ages, so best friends were always in plentiful supply.
The streets and backyards were the kids’ territory and our parents never seemed to care where we were or who we were with. We were away from home for long periods, exploring, riding bikes, playing games, making dams in gutters on rainy days and at times getting into fights with the kids from the next street over. There was just one rule: “be home in time for tea.”
Whenever there was a birthday to be celebrated, it was a party for all the local kids, with raspberry cordial, little patty cakes, chocolate crackles, and fairy bread with hundreds and thousands — all standard party food for the era. The decorations were always handmade from crepe paper, including the party hats and paper trumpets.
The backyard was the kids’ domain, except at the Smalls, who were very yard and house proud. Their own children were not permitted to play on the perfectly manicured lawn and never allowed inside when the floors had been waxed and polished.
My best friend Jimmy lived across the road. Both his mum and dad worked, so they were a bit better off than most other families. His mother bought him an Eagle comic every Friday, and all the boys in the neighbourhood would gather on Saturday morning to discuss the latest adventures of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future. It was general gossip that Jimmy’s father also ran a sly grog business through his work as the manager of a local trading company.
There was always lots of gossip to be traded. My mother and Mrs Neagle next door would spend hours talking over the back fence about such things as the ‘quality’ of what was hanging on Mrs West’s clothesline, how Mr Cooney, who lived by himself, was a little ‘bit funny’ and how Mrs Howlett, the widow further up the road, had a new boyfriend and he was Polish (fancy that)!
Very few people had a phone then, so news would also be shared by neighbours. I still remember the night King George VI died in 1952, and how my mother and father discussed it with the other adults in the street until quite late, while we kids continued to run around and play outside in the dark (something we were not normally allowed to do).
Gossip was not the only thing traded over the back fence though. Excess fruit and vegies from backyard gardens were shared, as were jams and relishes. Mr Jacobs, a few doors down, used to catch and smoke fish, which was traded for some of our hen’s freshly laid eggs. Mr Scott was an electrician and would repair electrical appliances after work, which was also paid in bartered goods.
Very few families had the convenience of a car, and those in the neighbourhood who owned one were called on in times of emergency to offer transport if required. It was almost an unwritten rule that if you had the good fortune to have a car, you were expected to help if the need arose. It may have been one of the reasons why neighbourhoods worked so closely back then, as they were dependant on each other in times of need.
It seems strange that now there’s a special day just to remind people how to be good neighbours, when it seemed such a normal thing in the 1950s/’60s and ’70s. I’m sure there are still great neighbourhoods and good neighbours today though. People just lead much busier lives now, are more mobile and are therefore able to make friends with people from a much wider area.
Neighbour Day is celebrated each year on the last Sunday in March.
About Bob Byrne: Bob had a long career in commercial radio spanning more than 40 years before becoming a columnist and blogger at the Adelaide Advertiser. His first book Australia Remember When was published in 2014 and since then he has written four more books all based around the nostalgia theme. Book number six is to be published later this year. Bob’s books are available online at rememberwhenshop.com.au.