Kathrine Butler: One woman's net-curtain nightmare

No house party, no matter how low key, was complete without a visit from the police

I rejoiced when I heard Blair and Blunkett were going to bring back rules. It was an odd reaction because when I moved to the UK five years ago, it was a liberation to discover how, in day to day life, there were so few petty regulations to observe.

For all the years I had lived in continental Europe, the yoke of rule and regulation was like a dull ache. Everything from buying a postage stamp for a birthday card to paying a bill involved an obligation of some sort, and it was advisable to read the fine print.

Moving house meant reporting your presence to the municipal police and sticking your name clearly on the doorbell. (Taxi drivers, postmen and sundry delivery people would berate you for failing to honour this practice).

It was forbidden to put your bins out for collection except at the designated times for your street, which in my case was between 5 pm and 7 pm on a Friday evening. To do otherwise was regarded as a gross act of incivility. Disobey and you ran the risk of heavy fines. I know. One transgression had me named and shamed (and fined) after scenes involving bin police rummaging through my discarded chocolate wrappers until they found an incriminating envelope. Chastened, I took to jumping into taxis to rush back from the office to catch the garbage men.

Receiving Christmas cards from abroad was fraught. Too big or too small and you would be taxed for your wellwisher's failure to know about the permitted standard "format". The Post Office would write warning of severe consequences if the thoughtless correspondent (your grandmother for example) ever again placed such an intolerable burden on the post office sorters.

Putting on your washing machine after 10 pm meant you were falling foul of another by law on noise pollution. It wasn't quite Switzerland where flushing the toilet after 10 pm is an offence if you live in an apartment. But it wasn't far off. No house party, no matter how low key, was complete without a visit from the police.

One of the oddest rules, to my thinking, was that your street-facing windows had to have net curtains to safeguard public decency. And it went beyond the laws and by-laws. The culture of restraining the excesses of the individual infused the collective mindset. So, private tenancy agreements would set out in detail when you had to have your boiler serviced, sweep the communal areas, how many people you could have to stay over at any one time. Stiff penalties accompanied any behaviour deemed damaging to the property or good name of your landlord. No wonder people went around quietly with an air of submission.

Britain was a breath of fresh air. You went shopping and the customer was not automatically wrong. Apart from some minor red tape about opening a bank account, everything else - applying for a national insurance number, renting a flat, buying a flat - was a doddle. The only spoilsport national house rule was that bars and cafes had to close so early.

But a few years on, I yearn for rules. The red tape has been deregulated away in my absence, but so too is any sense that observance of rules has a function in reining in personal selfishness and making society work.

My neighbours in north London are mostly youngish professionals, city types. Some of them drive sportscars. Last summer, when the weather was hot, it was a common practice of the people in the garden flat to hold noisy drunken barbecues into the early hours. And that was on week nights.

Playing music at ear splitting volume between the hours of 3am and 6am, or bellowing on a mobile phone while standing on your terrace, slamming hall doors, parking in somebody else's space, or screeching around the corridors after a night of binge drinking, all seem perfectly acceptable.

The inhabitants of a row of Georgian houses across the way routinely abandon their refuse at the street corner. (I wonder sometimes if they don't open the windows and empty their chamber pots into the street as well). The local council seem powerless to stop them.

Communal living - and that involves all of us unless we live in detached splendour in the country - requires clear rules because we cannot, it seems, be trusted to respect others.

The trouble is, once you start down that road where do you stop? Who defines anti-social behaviour and at what point does it become appropriate to regulate? Does eating garlic or failing to wash and then boarding a crowded bus on a hot day count as anti-social behaviour? Should there be a rule against blowing one's nose like a trumpet in front of others? Personally, I would like to see some measures to prevent men spreading their legs to occupy three quarters of the seat on public transport? Anti-social soon becomes anything you do that irritates me.

We already have laws to deal with vandalism and crimes of public disorder. All the rest is about respect, and if Blair can instil that in the nation then good luck to him. In the meantime, I will have to accept that the order I seek is utopian. One man's yob culture is another man's freedom. One woman's public decency is another's net-curtain nightmare.

k.butler@independent.co.uk

Comments