Remember those days – perhaps in your childhood – when you could play in the street? Before the days of rat-runs and road rage, when you could kick a ball around with your mates, a garden fence or wall serving as the goal, or cruise around on your bike? We think of those days with nostalgia, but believe it or not, these streets still exist, even here in London.
One of my sisters, who lives in Greenwich, lives in a road that is actually designated as a play street, with an official notice to warn unwary motorists. My street, although not officially a play street, is quiet. It has a 20mph limit, and a T-junction halfway along with an even quieter street, so it is the ideal space for neighbours' children to congregate.
Not teenagers – as the children get older, they tend to drift away to more sophisticated pursuits. But the younger ones – the primary school age kids – play football or ride round on their bikes in time-honoured fashion.
For children, playing in the street provides the perfect balance between independence and familial shelter. You're out from under a beady parental eye, but not so far that you can't nip home if you suddenly feel the urge for a biscuit or a packet of crisps.
So far, so suburban idyll. But a small serpent has crept into this paradise. In the past three months, three houses in our street have gone on the market. This is unusual – I don't think there's been a house sale since 2004. Two have already sold, at the sort of eye-watering prices that inspire cries of disbelief from neighbours. (We're not talking telephone numbers here so much as international calls.)
The third, at an even higher price, is currently being marketed, and according to feedback from people viewing the house, apparently the children playing in the street are seen as something that would deter buyers. Out of solidarity to a fellow property owner, neighbours feel obliged not to let their children out to play while the house is being viewed and indeed, there's even a rumour going round that playing in the street is illegal.
This is tosh, of course. A spokesman for Wandsworth Borough Council confirms that he is unaware of any legislation or council by-laws that prohibited street play and that in any case, if the children were primary-school age, they were under the age of criminal responsibility.
He points out that if children were causing damage or a serious nuisance, action could be taken against them, perhaps in the form of an anti-social behaviour order, but from what I had described, he didn't think that was appropriate in this case.
What puzzles me is why the sight of children playing would put off a potential buyer. Most people I know would love to live in a street safe enough for their children to play outside. The house for sale is a big, family house, which is most likely to be bought by a couple who, if they don't have children already, are planning to produce some offspring.
There are disadvantages of course – the odd football might hit your car, or perhaps land in your front garden. The endless thump of ball against fence by a budding Cristiano Ronaldo or Didier Drogba can be wearing if you have a hangover. And the shrieks and yells of normal childish communication can quickly pall on those who do not possess a pair of doting parental ears.
In any London property transaction, there is usually some compromise to be made. You like the house, but you'd like a bigger garden. You like the garden, but the house needs lots of work. You like the area (good school or convenient station nearby, perhaps) but you're not crazy about a 1920s house when all around there are elegant early Victorian cottages. And so on.
Here we have a large house, in excellent nick, with off-street parking, new rear extension with the current must-have foldaway glass doors, neat yet spacious garden (by London standards), in a quiet road, and yet someone's going to be put off because kids play in the street outside? I don't think so.
But a hard-nosed buyer might use it as an excuse to negotiate that eye-watering price down a bit, in which case my neighbours' poor kids are being confined to barracks so someone can save themselves a few extra shekels. I'm tempted to go outside and kick a few balls myself.
Matches: a flaming pity
One of the more obscure side-effects of the new smoking ban is that those rather smart boxes of matches that you get in restaurants, bearing the name and livery of the establishment, are becoming a thing of the past.
Yes, I know you can buy perfectly good matches at newsagents and supermarkets, but for me Waitrose Safety Matches just don't make my heart beat faster like a matchbook from, say, the Savoy Grill or Le Caprice. I have friends who collect matchboxes, piling them in glass bowls and positioning the swankiest on top to impress visitors. Challenged on why they keep these incendiary devices, they will murmur that it's handy to have the number but they are really just showing off.
It is ironic that the more decorative versions are dying out just when one needs matches more than ever – for scented candles, barbecues, joss sticks and so on. Why can't someone bring out a line of matches in a smart box with pretty pictures on it? Come on, baby, light my fire.