I mean, as neighbours go, I've had the lot - the madman in the front garden, crashing about in the undergrowth, who lurched up to the front door and bellowed alarmingly through the letterbox: 'It's alright, it's only the vicar. . .' and the strange swishing noises coming from next door which turned out to be a chap deadheading his roses with a machete (some weeks later, covered in blood, he was led away by police, insisting the greenfly were coming to get him), and the DIY freak who told me to 'fuck off and find a more genteel neighbourhood' when I asked him if he really needed to dismantle his car then weld it together again at 2am outside my bedroom window.
Then there was the bearded six-footer, known as Mrs Colquhoun, who became a serial shopper at Next Directory and had boxes of cocktail frocks delivered to our door, and the. . . But all these pale into insignificance compared to the tenants of No 121. From the minute they shut their curtains, these people were Trouble. It wasn't only their brace of tellies, one for each sitting room and bedroom, both loud enough to be heard from kitchen, bath or loo, or their hi-fi which throbbed 24 hours a day ; it was the crashing utensils in the kitchen, the burning smells accompanied by the incomprehensible oaths, the slammed doors and top-of-the-voice phone calls at four in the morning.
Short of borrowing the mad gardener's machete, what is one to do? Requests for peace were met with hostility or blank stares. I tried the 24-hour Noisy Neighbour Service set up by Lambeth Council 'to crack down on noise that disturbs you on Friday and Saturday nights'. 'What is your neighbour doing now?' they asked. 'He's talking to his cousin on the phone,' I said, having become an unwilling third party to his lengthy conversations. But the service was unimpressed.
In despair, I turned to the Lambeth mediation centre set up, in their own words, to 'help neighbours who are not getting on very well with each other'. A noise abatement officer arrived, accompanied by a charming girl assistant. We sat on the sofa while Mr Flower drew up a chair. Then he drew his chair closer. 'Could you speak up' he said confidingly, 'I'm afraid I'm rather deaf.'
His assistant agreed that there was indeed a noise, she could hear it plainly, but Mr Flower remained unconvinced. 'This is clearly a culture clash,' he boomed. 'You are a single woman living upstairs and a family has moved in below. It's obviously to do with the fact that there are children involved.' I explained that I also had children and none of them had ever made the sort of noise now emanating from my neighbours.
Mr Flower left, shaking his head, but Lambeth Council rolled battily on. Soon I was attending a noise mediation meeting. Or at least, trying to. The mediation officer, an elderly lady with long white hair tied in a ponytail and wearing a DayGlo pink hand-knitted poncho and matching trousers, had forgotten to bring a key. We waited in a nearby Methodist chapel and were joined an hour later by a second mediator who had got lost on the Tube and an observer who sat slumped and silent in a corner. Before any conclusion could be reached, my neighbour left, saying she had to go and burn the dinner.
The next salvo fired by Lambeth came in the form of an environmental health officer. He arrived to do a sound test. 'I'm afraid this machine's a bit old and cronky,' he muttered apologetically, as we gazed at it. 'I wonder if you would mind holding tightly to this plug while I go and see if I can hear anything. Don't let go whatever you do. . .'
The outcome of his visit was a letter saying that the flats failed to meet the standards laid down by the Building Regulations of 1991. As they are council flats, this puts the ball firmly in Lambeth's court; either they must renovate the building or evict the tenants and hope for a quieter lot next time.
In the meantime, however, a dreadful silence has fallen on the council. Until this morning, that is, when I received a hand-written unsigned letter demanding that I attend an urgent meeting at 1pm. Date and place remain a mystery. Pass me that machete please. . .Reuse content