I have as little time for the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, as for the rest of this crumbling Labour government – actually maybe even a little less, since she is in charge of the terrifying erosion of our liberties that is going on under the watchful gaze of six million CCTV cameras. I did, however, feel a little sorry for her last week.
It seems that she has some of the nosiest, nastiest bunch of neighbours (or her sister does) that it’s possible to think of. Clearly, the whole second-home allowance system for MPs is a farce, and if she is fiddling the books she should resign. What’s extraordinary is how all this information about her seemed to come out.
First, there was the ludicrously posh neighbour who started appearing on news programmes standing in this shoddy-looking street, and telling us what rubbish it was that she claimed to spend more time in her sister’s spare bedroom than her family home. She is “barely ever there”, he brayed.
Then he announced how he’d contacted David Cameron’s office, which had told him to go to a newspaper (how helpful of them). Listening to this guy speak I had a little bet with Stacey that he probably had Cameron’s mobile number on speed dial. How did he know what housing expenses the Home Secretary was claiming? It’s not exactly the kind of information that everybody is familiar with.
As the news crews descended on the street, more neighbours were asked about their opinions on how often she stayed there? Everyone was keen to chip in. There was none of that usual neighbourly reticence that one sees on the news: everyone was suddenly an expert. Then, to cap it all, some guy in the audience on BBC1’s Question Time announces that he is also a neighbour and starts giving his views on the matter. Whatever the outcome of the inquiry, I bet she can’t wait to pay another visit to that street – they’re such a welcoming bunch.
It is, however, gloriously ironic that she’s been dobbed in by the very sort of surveillance society that she seems so keen to promote. I’ve always been suspicious of neighbours. They hear your rows, see you stumbling back into your home with a mistress after a heavy night or staggering off to work with a hangover. These are people who know too much about the parts of your life you’d like to keep hidden.
When I lived in London, I had extraordinary neighbour situations. The gorgeous flat opposite me seemed to have some permanent 24-hour party going on in it. I’d constantly see people like Mick Jagger and Stella McCartney carousing in the windows. It was like the fun train/dull train scene in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories. It gave me a hideous sense of social inadequacy.
Then there was the weird guy who lived below me. He was something in the City and seemed perfectly normal – until one evening the doorbell rang and I answered it to find him in full drag, leaning on my doorframe wondering if he could come in for a little nightcap.
Then there was the time that I witnessed a shooting right outside my window. Not just me: everyone in the street was at their window watching. So it was a bit odd when I gave my statement to the police to find that I was the only witness. Nobody had told me that I had appeared to have moved to Naples and that omertà was the code of my street.
That’s why I love the country: you can keep neighbours at a reasonable distance unless you actually want them to be part of your life. Mind you, one of my neighbours is Liz Hurley and she does some extraordinary things, I can tell you.