Chinese torture, as practised in London SW5

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The Independent Online
IT IS 10 past 10 in the evening. Not very late, I know, but I have to be up at 5 am to catch an eight o'clock flight. Just as I settle to sleep, a car alarm starts up. It has - as it is designed to have - a peculiarly grating, nerve-

racking, penetrating screech. It works on the Chinese torture principle. Instead of screaming for, say, 15 seconds a minute, it screams for 30 seconds at random intervals. These intervals are just long enough for hope to spring up - maybe it has stopped - and be crushed.

Our bedroom is on the corner of the street and, although we live on the fourth floor, that's no deterrent to a car alarm. Or to a street quarrel, for that matter, or returning football supporters or noisy farewells after

a late-night party. This is

urban life. In the country, people complain about the neighbour's cockerel. But while most noises, however maddening, settle down after 10 or 20 minutes, car alarms go on and on and . . . pause . . . on and on.

I give this one 15 minutes and then ring the local police station. I state my name, address, telephone number. I explain the problem and the location of the parked car. Its identity is obvious; just in case the owner

is deaf, when the alarm is triggered a rhythmic red light flashes. This, fortunately, does not reach the fourth floor. The police officer is courteous but wary. There is very little he can do, but he promises to investigate.

I go back to bed, switch on the bedside light and try to read. The car howls its hysterical electronic cry of panic. On and on and ON . . . We have been through all this before. Our flat is situated within 500 yards of at least half a dozen restaurants. People park and walk away and eat and come back, jolly and well-fed, at midnight. They unlock their cars, turn off the alarm and drive away guiltlessly, comparing notes on the roquette salad.

At 10.45 I telephone the local council and ask to be put through to the environmental officer. As I begin to state my case he interrupts me. He sounds tired. 'You're not the first person to complain,' he says. 'Before you go any further, may I read you a prepared statement?'

I know what the prepared statement is going to say. Taken from the Environmental Protection Act 1990, it says that car alarms may not give more than 30 seconds of continuous blast. No matter that the continuous 30-second blast may resume after a minute or less. The alarm is technically within the law.

I give the number of the car, thank the beleaguered council officer doing his unenviable night shift and return to bed. It is impossible to sleep through the noise, which is driving my adrenalin levels so high that even if the screaming alarm were to have its vocal cords cut, I might still be kept awake by rage.

I telephone the police station again. Repeating my name and address, I say through clenched teeth, 'I, personally, am about to go down with a hammer and break its window screen]'

'Oh, I wouldn't do that, madam. If the owner were to come back and catch you at it, he could bring a prosecution for criminal damage.'

'Then what the hell am I supposed . . . ?'

'I'm afraid, madam, if you use that sort of language, I shall have to end this conversation.'

I go into the room where Tony, my partner, is trying to work. Tony is a phlegmatic figure until really roused. 'Tony . . .' I say.

'I'm going down now.'

It is 11.15 and the alarm has been screeching maniacally for well over an hour. It must be keeping at least 500 people awake, yet I can see no one else anywhere near the car.

Down in the street, Tony fiddles about with a coat hanger until he gets the car door open; then spends a further 20 minutes searching for the spring lever that opens the bonnet. A woman from one of the flats opposite emerges in her dressing gown, supposing the car to be his, and inquires politely, patiently, when he plans to switch his car alarm off.

'As soon as I can,' he tells her, astonished yet again by the tolerance of the bourgeoisie. At 11.35pm the noise ceases. The denizens of SW5 can sleep at last.

The alarm has been completely useless. Nobody prevented Tony from breaking in, and the police came nowhere near it. Next morning, as I left for Heathrow at 6 am, the car was still parked there. It would have howled all night had Tony not been a dab hand with a coat hanger. He, of course, was breaking the law, not the car owner.

The only thing that I can do is heartily to wish its owner many a long and sleepless night courtesy of someone else's car alarm.