Susie Rushton: A lesson needed in lightening up


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Do you keep your curtains closed, even on a sunny, late-summer afternoon? Insist on pulling the blinds shut to stop your neighbours looking in? Does your dream home have a long drive, boundary walls and perhaps even a ha-ha to keep the deer out too? Then the tale of David Alvand's 10m-high hedge – a colossal, cottage loaf-shaped mass of leylandii cypress trees that completely obscure his modest semi-detached house in a Plymouth suburb – may elicit some sympathy. Mr Alvand really, really doesn't want people looking into his house; that much was clear when he erected a 3.6m-high breeze-block wall around his property.

After a long legal battle with his neighbours and the council, Mr Alvand agreed to reduce the height of the concrete barrier known locally as the "Berlin Wall". His revenge is Megahedge, a stupendous specimen that demonstrates the growing powers of the leylandii, a plant that can soar to heights of 35 metres if left unchecked. It is also part of a parable about where the very British desire for privacy can end up, if it is left unchecked. Mr Alvand wants to avoid observation at all costs. He doesn't even care if it's as black as pitch inside his house, the windows presumably smeared with the gluey residue of cypress branches. He couldn't give a fig that the rest of us think that, to go to such extreme lengths, he really must be hiding something downright mad inside there. Neither does he consider the effect of Megahedge on his neighbours living on either side, who no doubt feel unnerved by the situation.

High hedges are the cause of neighbourly battles across the country, and the disputes are not always easy to fix. The major complaint about a towering wall of greenery is that it robs others of precious light. Contrary to common belief, there is no legal "right to light" in Britain. A huge plant that blots out the sun – but doesn't actually overhang into your property – is untouchable. I'm glad I don't live next to him, but have to admire Mr Alvand, who is a civil engineer, for his ingenuity.

But if I were his neighbour, I would sensibly take up the only legal recourse possible, mediation. A compromise might be that he trims the hedge back, keeping it dense enough to cover his windows, but not so freakishly large that it dwarfs the entire street, attracting BBC TV film crews and threatening low-flying aircraft.

There are other options, of course. I couldn't possibly endorse her actions, but an acquaintance of mine admits to once secretively leaning over the fence of her front garden to inject poison into the trunk of the offending growth, leaving her neighbour to discover, some weeks later, that it was completely dead.

How did 'The Slap' even get on to the Booker long list?

Neither of the early Booker favourites, David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet and Christos Tsiolkas's The Slap, made it on to the shortlist. The only two Booker-nominated novels I read this summer, I can accept the exclusion of the first if only out of sheer relief that the second didn't make it.

Mitchell's fairy-tale styling of Japanese history isn't to everybody's taste. Jokes about the difficulties of translating Japanese into Western languages are probably only appreciated by irritating Japanophiles (like me). But how Tsiolkas's book – a circle-of-friends novel set in Melbourne – even made the long list of our most prestigious literary prize is a mystery; comparisons with Don DeLillo and use of the word "unflinching", twice, on the back-page blurb were an early warning sign. Several hundred pages later, I realised I had been the victim of a literary mugging.

This wasn't a forensic examination of prejudice and culture, or whatever marketing line I'd swallowed. Several of the characters were barely sketched cartoons, ghosts who were painfully conspicuous for their thinness in a novel that aimed for naturalistic portrayal of everyday life.

Just as unconvincing were the sex scenes, plotted out every 50 pages or so with a careful regularity that would make Jilly Cooper blush. The Slap is a beach read, no more. My faith in the Booker judges, if not the publishing industry, is briefly restored.

Angelina would be ashamed by my lack of heroism

A real-life mugging is of course the sort of situation for which my silly, prancing, middle-class martial arts skills are supposed to equip me. On a run by the Thames early one evening this week I turn a corner to see a group of six teenage girls, all about 13 or 14, holding up a much younger girl by her legs and arms, tossing her up in the air like a doll. They're laughing. She's not laughing.

I stop and take my headphones off and advance. Seeing me, the teenagers let the girl down. "She's fine, she's fine," they say, but the smaller girl doesn't look fine. "I'm going to call the police if you don't let her go," I say, because it's the first thing that comes into my head. (What would Angelina Jolie say? She wouldn't say that).

Then, feeling as though I should at least appear to act on my threat, I turn around in the direction of the street: and right away see the complementary group of teenage boys, sitting on a row on a wall. Witnesses to the confrontation I've just had with the girls, the boys grin at me, malevolently. "I'm going to steal your iPod," says one of them, simply. "Yeah, go on, do it," says the boy sitting next to him, calm as you like.

Do I walk over to them, tell them to grow up, and why don't they stop the girls bullying a child while they're at it? Do I head-butt and high-kick each scowling brat in turn (my preferred option)? I do not. Utterly unheroically, I leg it.

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