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How well do you know the neighbours?

by Pete Clark, 20th December 2005

It seems that Londoners need each other more than ever to keep themselves and their homes safe. But can the overcrowded inhabitants of one of Europe’s largest mega-cities get over their extreme irritation at each other’s quirks to put any good will into practice? This group of Londoners say ‘yes’…and ‘no’. Pete Clark of the Evening Standard knows all about it, having been burgled four times (ouch).

Posted in: MediaMedia archive
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May 2004

Your best chance of catching a burglar is to befriend the people next door, says a new report

THE inescapable fact of living in London – unless you are so fantastically rich as to be able to wallow in space and privacy – is that you will have to find a way of living in harmony with your neighbours. The people who live next door, upstairs or downstairs from you are uniquely placed to influence the quality of your life. As, it must be added, you are theirs.

I must declare right now that I have tremendous neighbours, and for this I am profoundly grateful.

As I shall relate in a moment, there are friends of mine who do not enjoy the same degree of good fortune. Nevertheless, I am bound to challenge the recent survey which reveals that more than half of us would not call on their neighbours in an emergency.

My experience of living in London, which is extensive, since you ask, has taught me the value of neighbours. I have been burgled four times in the past 25 years, and two of these burglaries were aborted because of the prompt actions of the people upstairs or next door. There can be no better endorsement of neighbours than that.

The fact is that we do not choose our neighbours. They tend to come with the territory. If we allowed snap judgments about the people next door to influence our decision on where to live, the housing market would be in a state of utter chaos. Dry rot and rising damp are transitory afflictions.

Neighbours are for ever. The single most essential skill that a Londoner must possess is the ability to get on with people who are living a matter of inches away.

Sometimes it can seem as if every breath you take is being monitored, especially if that breath happens to be a strenuous one. When I hear some unwelcome noise coming through the wall, I instantly think of how it works the other way round.

There is no use denying the fact that, occasionally, but always in the later hours of the allotted 24, the urge to hear Led Zeppelin at extreme volume overcomes me.

There is no excuse for this, save for high spirits. Strange to relate, the only noise-related complaint I have ever received was at four o’clock in the afternoon when I was quietly installed at my office desk.

An irate neighbour – who was not strictly speaking a proper neighbour – phoned me to say that my dogs were barking up the wrong tree in the garden.

As the dogs have never done this before or since, I decided that the fault was probably his. To be fair, it might be true that as an occasional neighbour, he was disturbed by a noise that had ceased to worry the permanent fraternity.

On one side of my terraced house in Shepherd’s Bush is a single man who keeps a pair of cats, and has no taste for Led Zeppelin. My dogs would cheerfully eviscerate his cats if given the opportunity, but the wall that separates our gardens is secure. On the other side of the house lives a family with a bevy of charming daughters. They adore my dogs, but have so far shown no enthusiasm for the recorded works of Led Zeppelin. We have tacitly agreed to live and let live.

Both neighbours watch out for our house when we are away, and we return the favour. When the frontdoor key was once left in the front door, another neighbour from two doors away came to the rescue.

Friends have not been so lucky.

Three streets away from our house, a family of dear friends were somewhat disturbed to find a crack house had set up for business across the road.

Double parking can be a bore in narrow London streets, but triple parking, with the engines left on and the stereo delivering bass notes of volume that has become physical, is a hard urban pill to swallow.

Better by far the experience of another friend. He is a monster of the volume control, his nearest neighbours are mice in comparison.

When they are going to be at home over the weekend, they discreetly announce the fact. When they are not, he is at liberty to shake the brickwork. That is neighbourliness in action.

LONDON VOICE

Sophie Brierley, 25, fashion buyer, lives in Hackney with her boyfriend. I’ve lived in my house for nearly a year and I don’t know my neighbours. Even though they live next door to me, I don’t ask them to come and water the plants when I go away – I get a friend who lives nearby to come in instead.

In the 10 years I’ve lived in London, I’ve never known my neighbours and I’ve never needed to.

Nirpal Dhaliwal, 30, writer, lives in Hackney with his wife. I work from home so I see the neighbours more than my wife, who works long hours. I know I could rely on them for anything. One of our cats has been missing for just over a week and I have put leaflets through the doors of about 200 houses near us. I have got to know more of our neighbours because of that.

Helen Ivison, 24, sociology student and accessories designer, lives in a flat in Acton. My parents live near me and I grew up in the area so I know quite a few people. There are two elderly ladies who live either side of me and I know them quite well.

But I have to say, I don’t think it’s that important to know your neighbours. I keep myself to myself.

Derek Kersey, 61, retired airline pilot, lives in a house in Kensington with his partner. It’s very important to get to know your neighbours. We have swapped house-sitting duties, gardening, and looking after pets. A few years ago, I went away and my house was burgled. My neighbours arranged to have my locks changed and replaced the glass in a window the thieves had broken. That was really good of them.

Abigail Sekwalor, 23, has just finished university, lives with her parents in Brentford. I’ve lived in my house since I was born so I know the neighbours really well. Everyone on my street knows each other because all the families have been there for years. I’m going to move to central London soon to get a job but I’m sure there won’t be the same sense of community I’m used to now.

James Umoren, 21, record producer, lives in a flat in a block with his parents in Battersea. Living in a block, the neighbours often come round if I’m playing my music too loud – not to complain, though: they really like it. Last year, I heard a woman being attacked outside her flat and I ran out to help. I chased after the man and I got a black eye for it but I had to help. That’s what neighbours are for.

copyright Evening Standard (London) 2004

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About the author: Pete Clark

Pete Clark loves his neighbours - past and present - in London's inner-western suburb of Shepherds Bush. He write for the Evening Standard (London).