Not today, thank you

Forget being neighbourly, says Chris Middleton. Englishmen are becoming more protective of their castles
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The Independent Online

During the war, we fought them on the beaches. Today, we fight them on our front doorsteps. And who are "they"? Why, the forces of evil, of course: the scammers, the scumbags, the faceless monsters out there in the dark, who are plotting without cease to get across our thresholds and strip us of everything that is ours.

During the war, we fought them on the beaches. Today, we fight them on our front doorsteps. And who are "they"? Why, the forces of evil, of course: the scammers, the scumbags, the faceless monsters out there in the dark, who are plotting without cease to get across our thresholds and strip us of everything that is ours.

Yes, an Englishman's home has always been his castle, but today - thanks to a mixture of our own middle-of-the-night fears, plus the amplified anxieties that come blaring out of newspapers and televisions - an Englishman's home is also his round-the-clock siege headquarters.

From next week, an eight-part BBC documentary series called War at the Door will report on the great battle that we little home-loving hobbits are fighting against the massed orc-ish ranks that are hammering on our front doors (from nightmarish neighbours to rule-obsessed council officials, from leather-gloved bailiffs to light-fingered confidence tricksters). All right, so "war" might be putting it a bit strong, but ask yourself this: when was the last time you saw a "Welcome" mat outside someone's house?

The fact is, callers at the average UK front door today are liable to be met not with open arms, but with clenched fists; the standard reaction to a ring on the doorbell is no longer, "Ooh, I wonder who that can be?", but, "Who the hell is that?" As for popping round on the spur of the moment, forget it. In our street, we phone the next-door neighbours in advance when we want to borrow a cup of sugar - that way, we don't get their backs up with an unexpected knock on the door during Countdown or the news bulletin.

So, why is it that we all now snap and snarl like guard dogs whenever someone rings our bell? And how has this horrible gnarling and hardening of our souls come about? As a small boy growing up beside the A40, I remember how we used to welcome the bearded old "gentlemen of the road" (ie tramps, but we didn't like to hurt their feelings), when they knocked politely at the door and requested water for their camp-fire kettles.

There again, water really was all that they wanted - and the same cannot be said for the most recent unscheduled callers to our house in suburban south-west London. The list reads as follows:

Man claiming that his car had broken down on the A3 (a mile away), and wanting £5 for a taxi home in order to pick up his mechanic brother so that he could repair said vehicle. Woman insisting that she had just moved in down the road, and wanting £10 to buy electricity credit at the Post Office because she'd left her purse at her mum's and had come home to find the meter was empty and the baby's milk needed heating; Same woman (six months later) collecting for a new playground for "handicapped kiddies". Numerous surly youths brandishing "I Am Unemployed" notices and getting all you-tight-fisted-git-in-your-comfortable-home-ish when we didn't buy their egg shampoo and kitchen towels.

You get the idea, I'm sure. The sheer shiftiness quotient of these callers has drained any warmth out of the welcome that we might otherwise have extended to the odd genuine charity-collector. In short, the doorbell no longer announces the arrival of a guest - it alerts us to the possibility of attack.

Even the milkman doesn't call in person any more; he just leaves his bill in the milk cooler and we leave our payment in there like we were spies communicating through a dead-letter box. As for the gas and electricity people, they seem to have lost all appetite for human contact; all we ever see of them these days are the little fill-in-your-own-readings cards that get left behind by the meter fairies.

As a result, we have become like our own one-house gated community - and the less people that call, the more we start to view our home not just as somewhere to live, but as Fortress Family. Mind you, we're not so paranoid that we've got security equipment on every wall. Some friends are so exercised about intruders that they've installed closed-circuit monitoring cameras at their home in London and at their cottage in France. What this has added to their lives is the opportunity to sit watching in helpless trepidation as, 400 miles away, an unidentified man walks up their garden path, reaches into his bag... and posts a letter through their front door.

They've even gone to the ludicrous length of marking their property with DNA (not their own, but a hard-to-reproduce synthetic substance). Plus, they're toying with installing something called Smokecoat, whereby thick clouds of fog start billowing into the room the minute the intruder alarm is triggered.

Compared with them, the rest of us seem relatively relaxed. All right, so we may have been a bit offish with those canvassers who called during the general election ("Fancy disturbing us at teatime/lunchtime/during the football"), but at least we're not rigging up defence systems that will unleash mayhem every time there's a tap on the window. For the moment, then, the BBC may be a bit premature in calling its series War at the Door. But if trouble comes knocking, make no mistake: homeowners may not want conflict, but we're ready for it.

War at the Door begins on BBC1 tomorrow at 8.30pm.

On the defensive

Small wonder that we're all getting more proprietorial - just look at the growth in owner occupation:

* In 1981, 12 million homes were in owner-occupation.

* In 2004 ,18 million homes were in owner-occupation.

* In 1971, 49 per cent of all households were owner-occupied.

* In 2004, 70 per cent of all households were owner-occupied.

Source: Office for National Statistics

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