Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Enjoying the Neigh–buzz

As the relieved Antonio enthusiastically remarked in “The Merchant of Venice,” as the last of his ships sailed blithely into port, “Neighbours, everybody loves good neighbours.”
These words of wisdom were brought home very forcibly to me recently when a sign went up one evening in a neighbour’s front garden announcing that their property was indeed up for sale. (My son maintained that it was merely the pole holding up the sign that was for sale, but a quick crash-course in the business of selling property convinced him otherwise.)
Joe and Ann – I will call them Joe and Ann to protect their anonymity, although that in fact is their real names – had moved into the newly-built estate at around the same time as ourselves five years previously. Like all of us along that strip of road, we experienced the same problems of moving into an unfinished estate, the dust, the access, the geography, the flat tyres caused by carelessly discarded nails, the building blocks buried one centimetre below the surface of the lawn, the excitement of discovering the best pubs in the locality. Thus it was that, sharing the same experiences, a sort of bond developed between us, an unwritten camaraderie that stated, “Look, we’re all in this together. Let’s all get on.”
So when one neighbour suddenly decides to up and leave, it’s not quite a bereavement or an amputation, but there is a definite sense of regret. You realise, in the words of the heavy metal classic, that “good neighbours become good friends.” You’ve got used to seeing them, having a chat, a wave, a nod. They are a part of your daily life and not unnaturally you’re sorry to see them go. And obviously, you are somewhat apprehensive in case the Addams Family move in two days later.
Those of us who are more paranoid than normal naturally fret a little, lest the reason for their leaving is something you have said or done. Did the wife see me sunning myself in my shorts? Do I sleepwalk? The worst scenario would be if three or four houses on either side all put up ‘For Sale’ signs. I’ve seen this occasionally in different estates, and idly wondered, probably unjustifiably, what was so terrible about the non-transient family in the middle.
My mother-in-law, a very perceptive lady, once remarked to me that you don’t need to be in and out of other people’s houses all the time borrowing sugar or lawnmowers to be classed as a good neighbour. Some of the best neighbours I’ve had have been the ones I only exchanged a few pleasantries with occasionally about the current meteorological situation. Some of them I didn’t even know by their name, but referred to them merely as Number 26, though not of course to their face.
Of course, it’s the classic syndrome of never missing your water till your well runs dry, or, as with Tyrellstown residents, until your reservoir becomes contaminated. It has often been said that you only notice the performance of a referee if he is performing particularly appallingly (99% of the time). In a similar vein, Harold Wilson maintained you never noticed good government. And you will usually take good neighbours for granted too, provided of course they aren’t inept politicians or hapless referees.
For, quite simply, it’s not hard being a good neighbour. As with all aspects of life, if you treat other people with respect in the way that you would like to be treated yourself, then you can’t really go far wrong. We are really fortunate that all our neighbours have the same broad outlook on life as ourselves and do not feel the need to play Black Sabbath (or Boyzone) at full volume at three o’clock in the morning. They keep an eye on our place when we go on holidays, and we keep an eye on theirs.
“Location, location, location,” runs the estate agents’ mantra. It should read “neighbours, neighbours, neighbours.” Sure, you could pick up a lovely little chalet on the shores of Lake St. Moritz with a Jacuzzi and a private indoor heated swimming pool nestling in the foothills of the Engadine, but if the Doberman pinscher next door spends every night barking at imaginary alpine intruders, then it would soon be time to pack up and move on.
Very few, if any, estate agents’ literature, though, gives an indication of the neighbours you could potentially acquire. They don’t tend to advertise a “Des. res. 4bd. Sfch. Number 35 is a bit of a nosey parker.” A dream house can very quickly turn into a home from Hell if your new neighbour turns out to be a maniacal axe-murderer “trying to go straight,” or a skunk-breeder.
Sadly though, many estate agents refuse to give details of the neighbours for fear of litigation, which is a shame. Imagine spending hundreds of thousands on a house only to discover that you are living next door to an Arsenal supporter! It doesn’t bear thinking about. Even worse, at the other end of the spectrum would be a Ned Flanders Okeley-dokeley-neighbour type of individual who would cause you to spend whole evenings in the pub until you felt it safe to come home undetected.
Similarly, the charming “not overlooked” property you purchased would soon lose its appeal if the neighbour next door decided to build Liberty Hall in their back garden and block out all your natural light. I once, as a small boy, lived next to a compulsive curtain twitcher. Every time I came home or went out, the curtains would be partially withdrawn. I had no idea what the woman looked like, but I imagined her to be a hideously deformed hag like the witch in the Hansel and Gretel story, just waiting for her opportunity to snatch me up and stuff me into a cauldron. Forty years later, I concede that probably she wasn’t, and my imagination did her a great disservice.
The other week, we arrived home one evening to find Joe and Ann’s sign down. This was it, we thought. They’d been Sale Agreed for weeks, and we’d been on a promise to have a night out in the local to see them on their way. Obviously time constraints had meant that we’d lost our opportunity to say goodbye to them in time-honoured fashion.
Just as we were about to enter our house, we saw Joe on his drive. They’d changed their mind, he said. They weren’t leaving after all. I bit my lip, and commiserated with him that things hadn’t worked out as hoped, whilst restraining an impulse to leap up and punch the air with delight. That evening I was in such good form that I didn’t even complain when my daughter turned on “Big Brother.”

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