Dinah Hall

My eight-year-old came home from school with the news that her classmate Robert was going 'to sex' Emma at the school disco
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The Independent Online
As someone grappling with the problems of urban life, I felt sneakily pleased when I read a story in The Independent about people in the Orkneys having neighbour trouble. Clearly it is no easy thing to get away from. You would have thought by now that estate agents would have taken account of this particular modern angst and issued details on the neighbours along with other particulars: "Joan and Bill, WI and Rotary Club members, bi- annual visit from two well-behaved grandchildren. Taste in music: Songs of Praise at high volume on Sundays ..."

At my last book-club meeting (gossip session masquerading as literary soiree) one of the members regaled us with horror stories of her new neighbours: like a "family from Pulp Fiction" we were told; a hallway full of "killer dogs". Wide-eyed we lapped up the details, outwardly sympathising and inwardly relishing a Nimbyish feeling of relief that it wasn't us, until it suddenly became clear that she was talking about the family of one my daughter's best friends. And if they're neighbours from hell, maybe we are, too. The nice old Polish man next door does keep asking us why we don't move to the country, but I've always presumed he was thinking it would be nice for us, rather than him.

I hope my children will telephone me as much as I do my mother when they're grown up. If you need help with a literary reference, she runs a sort of dial-a-quote service. Like the rest of her generation, she can spout huge chunks of Shakespeare, Keats and Wordsworth, while, shamefully, the only verses I know by heart from my youth are advertising jingles such as "1001 cleans a big, big carpet for less than half a crown".

On this occasion, however, my mother could not give me the origin of "the hardest knife ill-used" and couldn't go and look it up because she was just on her way in to the drawing-room with a bucket of water. Max had been indulging in self-abuse (actually, she used a rather more robust verb) on the cushions. The bucket of water was not to throw over him but to clean up the mess. "What, you mean he actually...?" I ejaculated. "He did look very embarrassed," Mum said protectively.

Max can do no wrong in my parents' eyes - I think they are practising liberal parenthood on him, and maybe I'm just suffering from sibling rivalry because my brothers and sisters and I did not get the same treatment (not that we ever ... . ). But honestly, how can a dog look embarrassed?

We have stoically resisted pets ourselves for 12 years, but constant pestering finally weakened our resistance. But I fear Dennis and Napoleon may prove more difficult than most pets to billet for the summer holidays, for they are rats, the mere mention of which sends a shudder of repulsion through every adult female of our acquaintance.

It's the hairless pink tails that seem to upset them, though I find what's underneath the hairless pink tails far more traumatic. They have unfeasibly large gonads, which I quite understandably misdiagnosed as prolapsed rectums (I grew up on the Dictionary of Symptoms), which I thought might be a life-threatening condition. I was grappling with the dilemma of whether to sling them by their hairless pink tails from a motorway bridge or pay the vet, when I was put out of my misery by someone with a working knowledge of rat anatomy who explained that they were just implausibly large gonads.

Actually I can highly recommend rats as pets. They are like New Labour dogs - they are incredibly intelligent and you can take them for walks, but they don't leave huge unsociable heaps on the pavement.

In fact, I feel we are scoring quite highly as a New Labour family. I find myself nodding energetically to Radio 4 every time Jack Straw comes on and talks about cutting the hands off 10-year-olds found wandering the streets after Neighbours has finished, which is very strange because if Michael Howard was saying the same things I would be foaming at the mouth with venom and fury.

Only my husband is letting the side down. The bathroom has started to fill up with What Car? magazines. He says that he just enjoys the laxative effect of perusing those charts with comparisons of horse power and 0- 60 speed times, and he is shamelessly using John Prescott's transport policy to validate his desire for the next Renault Espace. Prices are bound to go up, he reasons, so now is the time to buy. I wouldn't mind but I do think women look awful in Espaces: it's something about being so high up, which makes them look so smug and I'm-just-fetching-my-children- from-private-school-ish. And I think Prescott ought to consider banning the use of people-movers by anyone who has fewer than three children. It really annoys me to see women posing as heroic mothers of four like me when they've only got two.

I wonder which minister will be responsible for bringing British pubescence back into line with the rest of Europe. I was terribly shocked when my eight-year-old came home from school with the news that her classmate Robert was going "to sex" Emma at the school disco. Not half as shocked as Robert's bluestocking mother when she came round for one of her education anxiety sessions, though. As I prepared to sympathetically recommend incarceration for the sex-crazed little monster she started lamenting his use of transitive verbs. Our generation may not know our Keats, nor much about the back end of rats, but we're pretty hot on grammarn

Bridget Jones is on holiday.

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