Deborah Orr: Let the neighbours think what they want and just get on with your lives

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The Independent Online

We have become used to occasional stories charting the discovery of elderly people who have died and rotted in their homes without a soul realising that they had gone. But there is something even more disturbing about the case of Joyce Vincent, whose body lay undiscovered in her home for more than two years, surrounded by Christmas gifts she had bought for her family and friends.

Vincent was a youngish woman - just 40 - whose family lived not far from her and who seemed to have been aware that she had recently escaped from a violent relationship. Officials involved in the case say that they are a decent family. It appears that they had just assumed that Vincent didn't want to be in touch, and had respected her privacy.

She lived in a small flat in a block, the kind that has a main room, a little kitchen and a bathroom - one that you can assess quite easily through the letter box. Yet even though the television remained on through winter and summer, as did the heating, no visitor or neighbour or caretaker ever became suspicious enough to question the stench, let alone why a huge pile of mail might be accumulating at Vincent's door. Neither did those sending the mail - even though it must have included all manner of demands for the rent and the electricity bill to be paid.

Yet if Vincent's family, friends and neighbours seem alienated - victims of the individualistic, anti-community society we hear so much about - then the ghastly truth is that they are by no means the most atomised or disconnected of people.

It was also reported this week that a young woman - Lorraine Robins, 39 - had died in hospital after being lifted out of her home by five paramedics. Weighing 20 stone, and depressed, she had not moved from the sofa for four months. Bed sores and wounds had developed resulting in her becoming melded to the sofa cushions. Eventually she had fallen unconscious.

The big surprise here is that this woman lived with her 76-year-old mother (who had served her eggs on toast and supplied her with US wrestling videos), and her 46-year-old brother (who had taken to eating his meals upstairs because his sister smelled so bad). Neither of them had called a doctor because they had been "embarrassed". As her daughter was taken into the ambulance, her mother was heard asking rhetorically: "What will the neighbours think?"

The answer, of course, is that the neighbours are likely to think absolutely nothing. What's particularly notable in both of these cases - the first by implication, the second very extremely - is that far from being caused by individualistic people, they were caused by people only too worried about what others might be thinking.

No one in Robins' family, nor in Vincent's circle, had the courage to stick their neck out and marshall others in an attempt to tackle the problem. They preferred to keep themselves to themselves not out of selfishness but out of fear of making a fuss about nothing and looking stupid.

One of the saddest things about modern Western society is not so much that it is selfish, but that it is so profoundly self-conscious, fearful and conformist as well.

If this qualifies as 'big'...

After the thinning of Winslet and the fading of Dahl, we women were desperate for a new icon of the spare tyre to tell us that they didn't care, and that neither should we. And lo, such a creature has emerged, just in time for summer, and with a new bikini range to flog.

The pneumatic Kelly Brook was amazed to learn she had headed Grazia magazine's best celebrity body survey, and immediately started making the kind of liberating pronouncements that we'd got so used to her cuddly predecessors firing off. "That really does deserve celebrating," she declared. "Women have finally realised that a bit more flesh is best. Yippee!"

The only trouble is that at five foot eight and weighing eight stone five, Kelly has a body mass index of 17.8, which makes her considerably too underweight to be within the healthy range.

When people talk about how "big" she is, they mean instead she has large breasts and buttocks. Since body-dysmorphic women have been flocking to surgeons for years to acquire expensive and ugly approximations of these to replace their real ones, Kelly's not quite the hero she's made out to be.

* The other day, "Roxanne" by the Police came on the radio, and Sting began growling about how "you doan-hafta sell your body to the night". This prompted me to remark that it was difficult to imagine the multimillionaire Sting being so keen nowadays on scraping a girlfriend up from the gutter.

On the contrary, I was informed, the star is thinking of investing in a New York lap-dancing club. It turns out he is most enthusiastic about such places, as is his wife, Trudie Styler - our picture shows the radiant couple - who accompanies him on evenings out ogling sex-workers.

"No one could call me a reactionary or dull," Sting has boasted. "I've never met a whore I didn't like." So there you have it. Sting subscribes to the tart-with-the-heart school of thought. Nothing dull or reactionary about that. How he must regret his misspent youth, when he thought that prostitution was something you gallantly might want to protect a woman from.

* My first reaction on hearing of Ruth Kelly's enthusiasm for random drug testing in schools was horror. Reading further, I found little to change my mind. Until, that is, I was informed of what had happened in the pilot, from the pupils' point of view. Apparently, what with peer-group pressure being so influential, children were grateful to have a really good reason for saying no to drugs. It makes perfect sense, of course, and brings back only too painfully the hell of adolescence.

Ann Widdecombe appears to believe that her powers of persuasion got the men from Real Fathers for Justice off Westminster Abbey in a matter of 20 minutes, after others had failed to talk them down all night. Silly woman. Doesn't she realise that a 20-minute chat with her is the closest these guys have come to a meaningful long-term relationship with a woman?

Doesn't she realise that children are embarrassed by fathers who say "cool" and ask their friends to dance at weddings? If these guys had any conception of their children's needs, they'd know that climbing up Westminster Abbey, on telly, and dangling a home-made crucified Christ over the side is not going to improve their relationships with their children.

By calling themselves Real Fathers for Justice, in an echo of the IRA, these men conjure memories of dreadful atrocities against innocent people. It is a measure of their lack of sensitivity that that they consider such references to be appropriate. There is an urgent need to address the troubles men and women face in working out the best way to raise their children. These fools are the enemy of such a debate.

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