Vendetta over the garden hedge: An anonymous campaign centred on a straggly shrub made Priscilla Waugh wonder about people's values

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Shortly after Easter, my ex-husband received a letter from a Mrs Jane Brown of Hastings. At least, he thinks she lives there since the envelope had a Hastings postmark, but it is impossible to tell.

Her missive was typewritten in capitals, unsigned, undated, and with no return address. I suppose the fact that her name was typed at the bottom means that strictly speaking, it was not an anonymous letter, but it may as well have been.

Mrs Brown's reason for writing was to apprise my ex of the fact that, during a visit to friends living in his street, her three-year-old son had run into his 'hedge' and damaged his eye. He had subsequently been taken to hospital for treatment. She was asking that he 'kindly cut the hedge back so that in future small children should be able to run safely' along his street.

One does not, needless to say, take the news of injury to a child lightly. My ex felt, however, that it would have been courteous to make personal contact and discuss the situation. Owing to the lack of an address on the letter, this was not possible. He examined the scene of the alleged accident. The so-called 'hedge' is a rather straggly forsythia, the main branches of which are less than a centimetre thick, with soft shoots growing out of them. It is mainly these green shoots that poke through the picket fence on to the street, and although some of the major (ie 1cm) branches were overhanging the fence by three or four inches, and would certainly cause some discomfort were one to run into them at full tilt, they were clearly not of a size or nature to pose any serious threat.

It seemed that Mrs Brown's concern bordered on hysteria, but, remembering how it was having small children, my ex felt a certain sympathy. After a while, he remembered, parents come to accept the fact that children have accidents. So, he concluded, would it be with Mrs Brown. Urgent action seemed unnecessary.

Mistake. A week later another typewritten letter came, again undated, unsigned and with no return address. The second letter purported to be from a Mr Rogers, and it read as follows:

'To the owner/resident of . . . Some time ago my wife wrote and asked if you would kindly trim your hedge . . . I should point out that my young son, aged four, injured himself on the hedge in question and was taken to hospital. He is still receiving hospital treatment. If you had children of your own you would not be so careless. My insurance company has been informed . . .'.

My ex was astounded, furious, appalled and concerned all at once. And extremely annoyed at the assumption that he had no children and therefore had a cavalier attitude towards the risks encountered by other people's. Then he was puzzled. He lives alone, but how did they know that? Perhaps these people were being egged on by someone in his street, but who? And why?

Did some neighbours feel that a somewhat shaggy shrub would have an adverse effect on the prices of their properties? Was someone annoyed that he had left a note on a windscreen asking that one of their several vehicles not be parked across his entrance? Was he the subject of some local dinner party chat? Could it all be explained by something as petty as this?

One hopes not, but it seems likely. A short time later, he surprised two small children who were pushing old cigarette packets through his letter box. Joining in the parents' vendetta? Again, one hopes not. But some people are like that.

My ex's nature, on the other hand, is to dig in his heels when he feels he is being pressured. He was becoming more and more reluctant to do anything at all about his 'hedge', but also reluctant to let the matter escalate further. Most of all, though, he felt embarrassed about being seen capitulating to bullying.

I offered moral support. We could take our secateurs and do the deed together, I suggested. So we did. So overgrown, entangled and dangerous was this vicious vegetation that it took us about five minutes. On the spur of the moment, I left him to tidy up and walked down the street to see how it compared with the neighbours' greenery.

It was an interesting walk. Not just because more than a dozen other gardens were more overgrown than his (which they were), but because a few houses along I was surprised to see a child running into her house with her arms raised and shaking her fists in a gesture of victory, her mother hovering at a half-open door, giggling and nervously urging the child inside.

I felt extraordinarily sad. I felt sorry for this child who felt that she had to support her adults in this pointless exercise of one-upmanship and I felt sorry for the adults who wasted their time and energy on such silliness. I wished they could get their minds around some useful concepts instead.

When our children were small we campaigned incessantly for lead-free petrol, an end to nuclear power, the abandonment of Cruise and all nuclear missiles . . . we tried so hard to make a better world for our children. But overgrown hedges? Is this what parental protest is about these days?

I felt sorry for my ex-husband, trapped in his street with these pretentious, small-minded and suburban people.

The names in this story have been changed.

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