According to the colourful Antipodean soap, everybody needs good neighbours, but how many people actually get on with the ‘next doors’? The English are well known for their keenness for privacy: gripped by a mixture of embarrassment and the need for social rules, they are often on no more than nodding terms with the neighbours. Unless there’s been a transgression of the rules, they may spend years living next to people they don’t even know the names of, especially if they live anywhere larger than a village. The Bulgarians, for example, would find this a peculiar way to behave, where a traditional proverb dictates that ‘A good neighbour is more important than a brother’. They are exhorted not to buy a house, but to buy a neighbour.
Top of the complaints would seem to be noise. Richard, 39, has a man living above him who taps pins into the wall in a therapeutic effort to get himself to sleep. ‘This man has also managed to flood my flat on three occasions, one of which he totally denied, even when shown the proof. “I’ve only flooded your flat on two occasions,” he pleaded, as if that were a good thing.’ Another neighbour used to have some sort of obsessive-compulsive disorder, leaving for work in the morning by slamming the front door and pushing it to check that it was secure before going, only to return seconds later, re-open the door, slam it shut again and so on. Richard reports; ‘She seems to have improved somewhat of late, and now only checks the door is secure once before leaving, but when at her worst she often returns back to the flat half a dozen times or more.’
My father also has noise pollution, not what you would expect living in rural France. He told of his horror when the neighbour started building on the land above their house that they didn’t even know was for sale. The second shock was discovering the man was going to build the house himself. At the weekends his mates arrived. As the day progressed and the empty beer bottles piled up they grew louder. Then the work stopped because the man ran out of money. It remained a building site for five years. The man has no normal voice for talking, he can only shout.
‘We speak to a teenage girl and ask how many children are in the family’, my father tells me. ‘Eight, she says, or maybe nine. She doesn’t know for sure. Her father has had five wives or partners and number three is back in favour. But for how long? They shout at each other and she drives off in a drunken fury, hitting a wall on the way. What does he do for a living? We encourage the mayor to speak because in France a village mayor knows everything. It seems our neighbour drives a school bus sometimes. And the state pays for a handicapped daughter. And a son is not quite right in the head and has stoned to death some chickens in the village. And our neighbour has been to prison for dealing in drugs. Also for controlling prostitutes, including one of his wives.’
My encounters with my own neighbours have revolved around their fears that the outside world is encroaching on their precious four walls. They don’t own the road outside their house, but they think they do. So firm is their conviction they have laid a two foot ridge of concrete in front of their non existent drive which pitifully attempts to raise the height of the road to that of the pavement. Whenever they leave the property, a traffic cone is solemnly placed outside to reserve the spot. Both these things are illegal, so I’m told. If a vehicle dares to park too close to the holy grail, they will receive a badly scrawled note on their windscreen, which says something like, ‘Keep off my frontage (sic), otherwise I will have your vehicle removed.’ I’ve had several notes myself.
We might have regarded them as mere eccentrics, except we made the mistake of applying for planning permission for a two storey rear extension. Seeing as they have not one, but two extensions themselves, you would think this wouldn’t pose too much of a problem. Sadly not. They enlisted the help of the local MP to object to our application. We changed tack to a single storey which didn’t need permission. Throughout the works, they constantly badgered the Council, Health and Safety Inspectors and our builders. Chalked messages used to appear on the pavement outside our gate. They read, ‘Cursed’, ‘Pigs’ and, my personal favourite, ‘Filthy Towers.’ One night I was woken by someone in the garden hovering by the cement mixer. We couldn’t be sure it was them, but the next morning a fence panel was broken between the properties and a pair of footprints in a pile of earth seemed to indicate the direction the intruders had come from.
Cultural differences can cause tensions. Tara, a 35 year old American, lived for a while in Teddington. Her neighbour stuck an air freshener in the hallway the day a young Asian couple moved in. My Italian friend Paola spoke about growing up in England. ‘We had a young cockney couple living next door. Hairy Gordon with lots of tattoos and Lynn, long haired, quiet type. He always yelled out “Watcha mate!” and my Mum never understood what she was supposed to be watching…. a typical Italian/English slang misunderstanding. They were very poor, so my parents gave them some things from our house…. which we found them selling at the next car boot sale!’
Damage to property or possessions can also fuel tempers. Some years back I lived in a place with a shared garden, which tended to be neglected by all the flats. One summer weekend, fed up with the jungle, my downstairs neighbour and I purged the garden. Later we enjoyed a convivial drink or several. A couple of days later we had a visit from a woman who lived next door, declaring her plants had been killed. We solemnly accompanied her to her own jungle of weeds at the bottom of the garden, trying to establish where exactly the plants were. There had been noise late at night, perhaps ‘boys’ had snuck in then, she said. We realised that the roots to these ‘plants’ must be on our side, so would have died in our purge. I must confess we let the nameless ‘boys’ take the blame.
It can get more unpleasant. Kay, 59, told of how the builder living down the road accused them of poisoning his dog, claiming the animal had eaten something in their front garden. Kay pointed out that they owned a cat so would hardly be putting poison down in their garden. The builder went away unsatisfied. A day or two later, the assigned neighbourhood watch policeman rang the door and repeated the accusation from the neighbour. At school, their children were taunted by other kids saying their dad was a dog poisoner and a group of local children shouted the same at them in the street. The dog recovered and the taunts stopped but the man never apologised.
It’s not all bad. A call for help can lead to a real bond being formed. Claire, 26, described the old lady she used to live next to. Their relationship was initially passing nods. As her health and mobility started to deteriorate the woman would scream ‘Help!’ over and over again when the doorbell rang. ‘At first I was rushing to find out what was the matter’, said Claire, ‘then I started realising that she was ok and had developed the habit of screaming when she couldn’t get quickly enough to the door. However, one day a bang followed her scream. I went in and she was on the floor, in her underwear – the postman had knocked on the wrong door for a parcel delivery and she panicked and fell. I carried her frail body back to her bed and started visiting her now and again until she was taken to hospital where she stayed as she no longer could be by herself.’
Some good, some bad it would seem and a great deal of the unknown about our nearest but not dearest. Perhaps we prefer to watch it rather than getting involved. At the height of its popularity in the late 80s, Neighbours attracted more viewers in the UK than made up the entire population of Australia at the time.