The bore next door
We used to feed their cats and talk them through our latest brush with the NHS. Now, says Max Davidson, neighbours are best avoided. What happened?
Television, obviously, could not survive without them. Never mind the eponymous Australian soap, neighbours popping in for a gossip over a friendly cuppa have been the staple of every suburban drama series every written. If Mrs Smith at No 46 is going to have a hysterectomy, the fi rst person she tells is Mrs Jones at No 48. If Mr Brown at No 73 wants to borrow a spanner, he asks Mr Robinson at No 75.
From The Good Life to Desperate Housewifes, neighbourliness has been a theme that scriptwriters have found hard to resist. It not only saves money on sets, it makes viewers think that they are living in a benevolent, joined-up world, in which no man is an island and every door is always open.
But in real life, it would seem, the neighbour-as- friend is getting close to extinction. What other conclusion can one draw from this week’s survey by a housebuilding fi rm which suggests that a mere six out of 10 Britons even know the names of their neighbours? And that a thumping 56 per cent of those questioned would begrudge handing over so much as a cup of sugar to a neighbour caught short?
That’s not all: 29 per cent cheerfully admitted that, if t passed their neighbours in t street, they would try to avoi saying hello, while only 21 p cent said they would be prepared to leave a spare set of keys with their neighbours. It is a far cry from the 1950s, the decade of my birth, when the wartime spirit was still alive and every street, every housing estate, every apartment block was a community.
In the small Surrey village where I grew up, our neighbours loomed so large in our lives that I can see their faces still: Colonel Goddard, who kept bees; Mrs Thornton, always handing out toffees to children; the fun-loving Palmers, their peals of laughter echoing through the night. Not everyone got on with everybody else: there were some epic rows, mainly involving bonfires or dog excrement. But everybody tried, because… well, because they were neighbours.
Now, I live in an Oxford street of some 100-odd houses and, despite having been resident more than 10 years, could probably tell There is Edna, the one with the adorable Dalmatian. Well, you can’t not talk to her. There is Nick, who once gave a novel of mine a favourable review in a Sunday paper and obviously has to be acknowledged for old times’ sake. There is Jerry, a fellow Manchester United fan, who always has something thoughtful to say about Wayne Rooney. And, er, that’s about it, street, there is a sixtysomething man, on his own, to whom we have never spoken. He rarely leaves the house, preferring to potter about the garden in a flat cap and green car-jacket, as worn by the late, great Victor Meldrew. We have nicknamed him Victor — with affection, I hasten to add — but feel no closer to the real man than to his small-screen counterpart. It is a shame.
Elsewhere, good neighbourliness is in short supply, particularly among the young. If I could speak German, I could tell you a lot about the student in the next-door basement flat, who emerges on to the street only to have booming conversations with his folks back home. On the other side, equally vociferous, are a house-load of postgrad students who pour lemming-like into the garden and cannot say “ Anyone got a cigarette?” without the noise carrying to Cambridge.
s it my fault? Am I being too
standoffish? Too judgmental?
There must be dozens of people living within half a mile of me — and you could say the same of anyone living in an urban environment — with whom I could become bosom friends, if I could only make that fi rst neighbour-to- neighbour overture. But the times are not
cive to such overtures.
ps we are all in too much of
perhaps, without being too
l, the reality is that in an
nt society, neighbours have
ly become redundant. If
can buy a burglar alarm for
s than £ 100, and pay hardstudents to feed your cat
nd water your geraniums
when you are on holiday,
why go to the hassle of
who might turn out to be
prize bores? Self-reliance,
not chumminess for the
sake of it, is the name of
Loving thy neighbour
is all very well, but not,
thank you very much, if
there is any effort
Loved or loathed? Victor Meldrew and below, those Desperate Housewives
Friend or foe? Attitudes have changed since the 1950s when neighbourliness was taken for granted