According to a new survey from the researchers in Science, my streets are the happiest place in Britain. There is plenty of happiness to go around: there are more shops, restaurants and cafes than ever, and the city, more generally, is perceived as a better place to live. This poll includes 3,804 people, from 18 to 84, from across the country. It’s a decent cross-section of the population, but just a snapshot of the time. For a sample of just 3,804 people, that’s just 2% to 3% of the population.
But this doesn’t matter. This isn’t the person in row 12, who has no time for the job and works in a cash machine. It’s not even the constituent who is out at 7am every day, long before the employers have started their day. Everyone has a story. The random interaction of time on a busy street is silent, complete and accurate evidence of the emotions being felt by all the people on the street. It tells us things we’d never get any other way.
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These are the numbers, pulled from a clipboard. These are the true representatives of the whole lot of us. But when our governments make decisions about these issues, they look to the people who are in charge of them, whether it’s the health minister or the economy secretary. It is they who make decisions about which or how many pubs will stay open in some town, which shops will remain open, whether the streets will be cleaner, and whether the dustbin lorries are getting out earlier.
I take some of these things for granted as a first-timer living in London for the first time. I get attacked by dust bins from time to time. I pay for the lorries; I’ve even been caught trying to be a cleaner, and had my door beaten into a bloody mess. I am no longer young, but my neighbourhood has changed over the last few years. What happens in Croydon, where I work, isn’t irrelevant to me. I’m not the person I was a few years ago. The character of the neighbourhood has changed. And these changes aren’t made in isolation, like a story that happens in a single sentence, on the face of it: on the face of it, these could just be random street encounters. But take them together, in the long run, and they tell us something else: a neighbourhood has changed. People don’t just pull out their smartphones to try to feel better when they’re feeling bad. A neighbourhood changes.
• Margaret Drabble is the author of many books, including The Transparent City