Wednesday, 21 July 2010

A legend in its lunchtime

I did this piece on street parties for the Guardian at the weekend:

This Sunday sees the second annual Big Lunch, a national network of street parties that last year attracted nearly a million participants. Across the land, thousands of miles of asphalt will be cleared of cars, covered with furniture and surrendered to a transient community of amateur musicians, facepainters and unicyclists.

The Big Lunch website claims the street party as a long British tradition. In fact, it is quite a recent one. There were street parties to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887, but many police forces banned them at the end of the First World War, for obstructing rights of way and encouraging general rowdiness. Street parties were granted official sanction for George VI’s coronation in May 1937. But by the early 1950s they were already being nostalgically evoked as a dying ritual, and the suburbs never embraced them. “In poorer areas, the streets are thick with bunting and there is much enthusiasm for street parties,” a Mass Observation author reported from Burnley during the Queen’s coronation in 1953. But “out of town, there are rows of undecorated semis”.

In his recent book Family Britain, David Kynaston suggests that the organisation of street parties in 1953 was often a fraught, ill-tempered business. Rather than emerging organically out of an existing feeling of esprit de corps, they arose more out of an expectation, a sense that they were the “emblematic celebration, the one closest to most people’s sense of what was fit and proper”.

The street party, it seems, was never what it used to be. It was always a romantic ideal rather than an expression of a neighbourliness that was already there. Every age conjures up its own idea of the street party in response to its own particular concerns. In 1953 it was meant to celebrate the end of postwar austerity and honour the working-class solidarity that had helped to win the war. For the newly formed Institute of Community Studies, based in Bethnal Green, the Coronation street parties symbolised the neighbourliness of the tightly knit East End streets, in contrast with the newer, out-of-town estates, where neighbours peered at each other warily through net curtains.

Now we are entering rather than leaving an age of austerity, the Big Lunch is appropriately designed as a lesson in sustainable living. The brainchild of Tim Smit, founder of the Eden Project, it urges lunchers to grow their own food and make bunting from recycled clothes. Its search for a lost sense of community comes in response to new anxieties about work-life imbalance, the virtual relationships conducted through social networking sites and the growing number of single person households.

In a society fragmented by free market globalisation but still suspicious of state solutions, a lot is being invested in this idea of the street as a model of a vibrant civic life – what used to be called, in an election campaign long ago, the “Big Society”. According to its organisers, the Big Lunch is “the start of a journey into rebuilding our communities”, an exercise in “human warming”. It might seem a lot to expect from a bit of shared quiche and a few games of pavement Twister. But then the history of the street party suggests that a sense of community is rarely a naturally occurring phenomenon; it has to be continually created by these acts of faith.

It is heartening to observe at close quarters all this feverish and largely thankless activity, most of it done by women, to hire ice-cream vans or hang home-made decorations from lampposts. And then, on Sunday evening, it will all have to be cleared away – leaving, perhaps, a more convivial neighbourhood, but with no guarantees or firm evidence. There is something touching about so much time and effort being spent in search of the ephemeral and the intangible: a moment of togetherness which, like an incantation, hopes to become true by announcing itself.

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