Brian Viner: 'Accusations of racial abuse are the latest chapter of a refuse saga'

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Rubbish is the new Leylandii, the principal source of antagonism between neighbours in this green and pleasant, if increasingly litter-strewn, land. Take our friend Annabel (not her real name), as indeed two policemen did last week, after her (black) French neighbour had accused her of bellowing racist abuse from an upstairs window, the latest and most dramatic chapter of a refuse saga that has polluted their quiet, affluent cul-de-sac these last few months. Affluent, after all, is but a letter away from effluent.

But first let me describe Annabel, a woman for whom the adjectives "genteel" and "middle-class" might have been invented. Which is not to say that genteel, middle-class white women are incapable of racism, more's the pity, but I can say without the slightest equivocation that Annabel is the least bigoted of women, and would in my estimation no sooner use the N-word she had been accused of using than leave the house without make-up. Indeed, for as long as she has been telling her friends about the growing contretemps with her neighbour, she has never mentioned the woman's colour. It was irrelevant, at least until last week.

The source of the trouble is a communal bin area, in which binbags are habitually dumped days before the refuse lorry's weekly visit, by which time the contents have been scattered by foxes. The main miscreants are apparently the residents with young children, because the strewn rubbish usually includes soiled nappies. For months, Annabel has been fighting a lone battle to clean the area, and also to encourage the neighbours to keep their binbags in their wheelie-bins until the morning the binmen arrive. Her campaign has taken the form of several letters, which she has variously signed, in an attempt to lighten the tone, Mrs Victor Meldrew and Hyacinth Bucket.

Alas, these noms-de-plume appear to have antagonised her French neighbour, who had previously been a friend to the extent that the families had lunched at each other's houses, but who turned up on the doorstep one day seemingly spoiling for a fight, and at one point jabbing her in the nose with a finger, which Annabel, while declining to make an official complaint, reported to the community police officer. Obviously we at Home and Away only have one side of the story, but I have seen copies of the letters and they are irreproachably courteous.

Last Thursday morning, however, Annabel's doorbell rang. It was two policemen who arrested her, without fully explaining why. Upset and bewildered, but conscious even in such an anxious state of her grooming requirements, she asked if she could first have a shower and apply her eyeliner. They let her do so. She was then led from the house, wearing a pink dress with matching accessories, and driven to the local police station, where she was fingerprinted, DNA-sampled, and read her rights. She was told she would be taken to a holding cell, but asked them if they wouldn't mind awfully holding her elsewhere, having overheard that the cell had just been the scene of "a dirty protest". She was placed in the custody suite.

In relating the story, Annabel invokes another much-loved sitcom character. It was, she cheerfully concedes, like the arrest of Margot Leadbetter, especially when she was offered her one statutory phone call, and chose to phone her hairdresser, asking if she could put back her appointment that afternoon and, having not had time to do her nails, whether there was perchance a manicurist available. "Most people phone a solicitor," said the arresting officer. "My husband's a solicitor," Annabel replied. "I don't need another one."

When eventually she was interviewed she robustly denied calling her neighbour anything, and explained the rubbish imbroglio. The police duly decided that there was no case to answer. She was released without charge, but also without apology. How, she asked them, was she supposed to get home? That, they implied, was her problem. Nevertheless, a paragon of courtesy to the last, she shook their hands and thanked them for their time.

It is a tale with comic overtones but underlying seriousness, or perhaps serious overtones but underlying comedy. Either way, as a modern English morality tale it has almost everything: accusations of racism, a cul-de-sac, the Metropolitan Police, urban foxes, a hairdressing salon, DNA, and of course the essential ingredient, wheelie-bins.

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