I was brought up in the Scottish countryside. Home was a house with a field and a wood, an old stables building and a walled garden. It was a late 18th century manse, elegant though not grand. In earlier times, the minister and his family would have been almost self-sufficient there. To me it felt like an island.
A mile down the road was the village. There lived shopkeepers and tradesmen, the doctor and bank manager, and other people we saw on Sunday at church. We knew many of them by name, though that was all we knew of them. The village was somewhere other, a place to which we were only connected in any real sense by Maggie, who bicycled up the road five days a week, in all seasons and all weathers, to cook and clean for us.
My brother and I used to have elevenses with her in the kitchen. We ate chocolate biscuits and drank sweet, milky coffee and soaked up the village gossip. Maggie told a good story and we hung on her tales of intrigues and fallings-out. There was something in those glimpses of other people’s lives, unexceptional as they were, that was real and reassuring. They offered a sense of community which, although I didn’t realise it at the time, was absent from my rarefied boarding-school-attending, country-house-dwelling existence.
Today, half a century on, community has become one of the richest and most insistent themes in my life. Last night I watched the Imagine documentary about Maya Angelou. She describes how when life in New York became too much she longed for the South where she had been raised, where there was real community, where people stopped and said ‘Good day’ and ‘How are you?’.
It took me many decades to arrive at this most simple form of community, where relationships are fostered through propinquity. But now I too live in a village, where people no longer say ‘Good day’, but they do say ‘Hello’ and they do enquire how you are. The other morning I walked home from the arts centre where I had spent a couple of hours working and drinking coffee. It’s a distance of perhaps three hundred yards, in the course of which I greeted half-a-dozen people by name. It was a beautiful morning, cold and clear, and I felt my heart had been played like a harp by the time I reached my front door.
A few days previously I had been editing the first video interview we have made for The Stories We Tell. Lesley, the subject, who has now become both a friend and a neighbour, talks of how she had lived for many years believing in her own self-sufficiency, latterly in isolation with her partner in a house in a field on a hill. She explains how the first weekend she spent with us ignited her sense of community, and goes on to describe the changes in her personal and professional life that have ensued from that moment of fellow feeling.
I relate very much to this. My own Damascene moment, when I realised it was possible for me to become someone different, an expanded version of the person I had previously thought I was, came neither through solitary introspection nor intimate conversation, but in a large gathering of people—where other hearts helped to open mine.
The simple but profound truth is that we need one another. It’s through human connection and interaction that we can become the most complete version of ourselves. We can’t do it alone.