Afew weeks ago, a man appeared in my front garden as I was trimming the hedge. Slight in stature, in his early twenties with short dark hair, he was wearing a huge hold-all as though it were a rucksack. His unsmiling face radiated intensity as he began his spiel: name, from the North, recent discharge from the army, trying to get back on his feet. He even gave his service number, as if old habits die hard, or to prove bona fides. I guessed he was selling cleaning products; young men had been before and we’d bought their expensive dusters. Today I told him thanks but no thanks – and as the words left my mouth a change came about: I regretted refusing to help him (yet felt committed) and his eyes burned back. ‘But your neighbours bought something,’ he protested, pointing over the hedge, shifting from foot to foot. I faced him down, and he swept off to the next house, muttering. I went inside, not wanting to overhear him be refused again or, worse, be treated with the kindness I’d denied him.
Later I saw his visit to the village had been noticed on Nextdoor, a website and app that allows people to share local information. Founded in San Francisco in 2008, Nextdoor’s popularity in the US and UK has surged during lockdown. According to the published stats, 139 of my fellow villagers use it, out of a population of less than seven hundred – about one in five adults. Members ask to be recommended handymen and gardeners, plumbers and electricians, piano tuners and driving instructors; someone who can put up a TV aerial or take down a shed or sharpen a pair of shears. They post computer queries and compare broadband speeds. Recently a man was trying to find a ‘wart healer’; others seek holistic therapies – or just a friendly chiropodist. People offer free help, and donate everything from unwanted furniture and toys to pallets, bubble wrap and packing crates. They also share sightings of rare birds, toads and friendly creatures – ‘Hedgehog action!’ is a popular thread – and photos of wildflowers, weeds and giant vegetables. There is a steady traffic in cats, lost, found and enlarged (from dining at other people’s houses). Some members, often new to the area or the country, are looking for friendship: they are, in an old-fashioned yet newfangled way, simply introducing themselves to their neighbours. And the responses of generous spirits are touching. People like to be first to lean over the cyber-fence with local news, but they’re also gentle and they care. Through all the uncertainty about Covid restrictions and the logistics of vaccination, the pooled information has been comforting and helpful, especially to those living alone.
Nextdoor’s user-generated bulletins have a darker side, however. Warnings about loitering youths, drug dealers, noisy motorcyclists, vandals, car eggers, scammers and rogue traders – anyone who might harm the community – pop up regularly. The good citizen who posted about my caller claimed that when she declined his wares he simply asked for money. ‘My gut feeling was this isn’t right,’ she confessed, adding: ‘People canvassing in an area that isn’t their home or where they live makes me wonder about their motives.’ Someone else suggested that he was a ‘Nottingham knocker’, an affiliate of some ‘unauthorised society … scouting to see who is in, and what their homes etc look like’.
Vigilance is doubtless salutary, especially in causing vulnerable people to be wary. Even so I bridled at the curtain-twitching, and googled ‘Nottingham knockers’ only to find they are indeed a thing: typically ex-offenders ostensibly on rehabilitation schemes, who may legitimately sell door-to-door but can also be – I read in the Nottingham Post from September 2020 – joint-casing burglars or their abetters. Some, it’s alleged, even sniff banknotes they receive for hints of mustiness – a sign that more might be stashed under a customer’s bed. I spoke to a friend in Yorkshire, who said they too get these knockers. Does he buy their stuff? Sure, he replied, with charitable ease: they’re just young lads trying to get by, and if there is a scam the proper money isn’t going into their pockets. His partner also buys lace from an elderly woman calling herself ‘the Gypsy lady’, who drops by at regular intervals with a bundle and an unhappy story.
So I went back to feeling that the law-and-order posts mainly feed prejudices and spread fear: homegrown anxiety straight from the sociology of moral panics and folk devils. In recent years, Nextdoor has been criticised as a platform for discrimination by race and class, and for the dissemination of conspiracy theories. At the very least, it encourages a depressingly paranoid outlook on life. As Hugo Rifkind has observed, ‘“Hey, look out your window, most things are fine!” is a message that almost nobody ever sends or sees.’ It also sharpens the atavistic urge to shame, as well as a taste for outrage. There’s not much tonal restraint. The other day a man posted: ‘To the bottom-feeding scum who have taken to dumping their building waste on the edge of the wood at the bridle-path between Whittlesford and Little Shelford: you disgust me.’ Accompanying photos of a carpet-fitter’s discarded offcuts and gripper rods spoke for themselves. Fly-tippers are despicable, but righteous anger is no less scary for being righteous; historically, it’s frequently been dangerous. And the spleen gets aimed even at invisible enemies. Recently a pensioner in our village was seized by the notion that books were being stolen from the mini-library housed in an old telephone box. The thieves were denounced and we were reassured that the police had been notified.
Nextdoor works like a neighbourhood watch scheme, but laced with all the toxic gossip once exchanged at the village pump, or by the fireside as women span and their menfolk brooded, puffing on clay pipes. A technological innovation has exposed – and, since the pandemic, encouraged – old habits of mind, specifically those related to the regulation of communal life. Local custom was once a touchstone of order; prior to the advent of policing it was more important than written law. Rumours about fornicating maidservants, cuckolded husbands, drunks, scolds and ‘sowers of discord’ could develop into campaigns against misfits who threatened communal harmony and security.
In Faith, Hope and Charity: English Neighbourhoods, 1500-1640 (Cambridge, 2020), Andy Wood paints an essentially rosy picture of the dynamic bonds between pre-modern neighbours – a fond desire to help, to share food and fuel, and enjoy one another’s company in the alehouse. But he also exposes the flipside of this culture, where the definition of parochial inclusion depended on exclusion. Belonging required others not to belong, and sharing pet-hates unified more people than merry discourse about what everyone loved. Indeed, the expression of ideals – from the pulpit, say – most often took the form of a chiding reminder, a restatement of values observed mostly in the breach. Once admonished, one could project failings onto others. The word ‘toward’, used to describe conformist conduct, was once paired with ‘froward’, which meant against the grain or literally ‘untoward’. And, like Nextdoor’s reports and reprimands, counter-measures – for instance, composing satirical ballads about profiteers – served a purpose. But much of it was just hateful scapegoating and ostracism, spilling over into abuse, humiliation and violence.
Elizabeth Busher, a 17th-century Somerset woman reported to magistrates as ‘a continual disturber of her neighbours’ quietness’, represents for Wood ‘the antithesis of the values of neighbourliness, charity and common interest that many Tudor and Stuart people saw as the basis for the endurance of a Christian commonwealth’. She was also accused of witchcraft, and of causing ‘the untimely deaths of men, women and children which she hath hated, threatened and handled’. Busher, a single mother of several illegitimate children, was poor and apparently homeless, living in the woods and other ‘obscure places’, and so beyond the pale of village respectability. She must have scavenged and scrounged – the same pleading for alms door-to-door that triggered so many other English witchcraft accusations. Again and again, the needy mumbled imprecations as doors slammed in their faces. Indoors, meanwhile, guilt began eating away at the stingy householder’s self-justification, which, if followed by misfortune, might be expiated by the conviction that he or she was the victim of magical vengeance. Even today, my Yorkshire friend’s robustly rational partner admits that her kindness towards their travelling visitor is tinged with superstition.
I’m struck by the timeless nature of this unease, and the similarities between what historians of witchcraft call the ‘charity refused’ scenario and my encounter with the young man from the North, with his fierce eyes and his demand to be heard. In a sense, the impossibility of a viable curse in modern times only underscores that what really mattered about those doorstep confrontations in pre-modern communities – and what endures for us – were the attendant feelings: hope, yearning, intolerance, fear, denial, frustration, indignation, fury, alienation, remorse. Emotion turned a vague supernatural threat – the global demonic conspiracy of witches – into something specific and personal, an in-your-face curdling of a good relationship, devoutly desired yet difficult to attain. Another time, then, I might try to summon more empathy and compassion. I’ll keep an eye on my Nextdoor email alerts, which are bound to report any sightings of strangers drifting into the village.