Philip Hensher: It's not just the noise – it's the people

Neighbourly behaviour was once routine. These days, if people do something, they insist on their right to do it

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The builders next door started drilling at 8am precisely. It coincided with the BBC pips.

They must have been poised on their scaffolding with the drill against the brickwork, waiting for the exact moment when they could begin work. They've been warned once this week by the authorities, and this morning they were going to stick to the letter of the law, and make the absolute most of it.

In part because of the gloomy housing market, people don't seem to be moving up and out any more. They are staying put, converting attics, reconstructing gardens, digging basements. They are knocking through and poshing up in ways not seen since the 1980s. All across our cities, builders are hammering and drilling and making perfect nuisances of themselves.

It began quite innocuously at the end of last year, when my neighbours downstairs started some building work. They were doing the garden up, and some work inside. No trouble: it was a lengthy project, but they warned me when the work was going to become noisy, worked within sensible hours, and were generally very polite and neighbourly about the whole thing.

But almost immediately afterwards, the flat next door was sold. A note came from the new owner, inviting me to a "tea party" to explain the Reconstruction that was going to be undertaken. Quickly, another note arrived from other neighbours asking me to object formally to the massive alterations being proposed. Lazily, I thought it was none of my business. We did nothing.

One Monday morning, around 7.20, we were woken up by an unbelievable explosion of noise – drilling, sledgehammers, Radio 1, the works. It was, clearly, the overture to the Reconstruction. I went next door. "What is this?" I said to the builder. "This really isn't reasonable." "It's eight o'clock," he said. "We're allowed to work." "It isn't eight o'clock," I said, showing him my watch. "And in any case, no one has spoken to us to warn that the work was beginning today."

A lengthy conversation ensued. I telephoned the owner to suggest that it might have been polite to give us some warning, and wondering if work was often going to start at 7.20. A telephone message got no response, and text messages were similarly ignored. Since my flat was obviously going to be utterly uninhabitable, I packed a bag and went to Switzerland.

The gay couple below the Reconstruction didn't have that option, and decided to embark on a state of war. No, they didn't see why they should allow the bloody builders into their garden with a ladder. There was talk of injunction and counter-injunction. The council arrived; the police arrived; accusations of violence and homophobic abuse were made. It turned out that the bolshy complainants were tenants, not owners of their flat. I don't know what happened, but when I got back from Switzerland the Reconstruction was in triumphant progress, and the bolshy complainants had been evicted.

One weekend, the hammering went on all Saturday afternoon. It was like a Havergal Brian symphony – interminable, deafening and an unappealing way to fill your leisure time. Out for dinner with an architect friend, he let slip the information that builders have to stop at 1pm on a Saturday, and can't work on Sunday at all. The next morning was a Sunday. They began hammering at 9am. For the first time in my life, I telephoned the council to complain.

Like most writers who work at home, noise is the bane and dread of my life – sustained, obnoxious noise from a hostile source. Once, in the early 1990s, some devotees of dance music moved in next door – the next three months were the most miserable of my life. I am sorry to say the day when, off their faces, they incinerated the house in a forgotten-baked-beans incident was a very happy one.

By now, as we were giving way to evil fantasies about the neighbours, the builders underneath and the builders next door had been joined, in happy coincidence, by Wandsworth council's workers. They were putting down new paving stones outside. With the windows open, it was like trying to write prose on the floor of a steel foundry. A personal encounter led to an agreement that it wouldn't happen again, but it was all of six days later that we were woken up, at 7.26 in the morning, by the noise of an electric drill.

The ordinary, routine behaviour between neighbours seems to be on the decline as we all inhabit our bubbles, and the universal assumption that we should rely on each other for support and apologise for our occasionally tiresome behaviour is disappearing. Perhaps we no longer invite our neighbours to a party, or even alert them when we might be noisy. We used to accept parcels on their behalf without a second thought. We probably would leave a set of keys with them without thinking. Our motto, these days, is I Know My Rights, and we hardly think of suspending our rights for the sake of another's inconvenience or discomfort.

We haven't quite reached the point when any of this long experience could be described as "interesting", but plenty of friends have said, "Well, what do you expect? That's how people are nowadays." It's not so very long since neighbourly behaviour, between strangers, neighbours, acquaintances, was routine. I am old enough to remember when people smoked in restaurants, but only when their neighbours weren't eating, and usually asking permission first. These days, in any number of areas, if people may do something, they will often insist on their right to do so, without consultation or polite request.

One set of neighbours told me when the work was going to start, how long it was going to last, apologised for the noise at its worst and kept within reasonable working limits. The other started work without specific notice, ignored all reasonable concerns and real suffering and regularly broke the council's code of working hours. "We haven't broken the law!" the Reconstructor told me when I asked why they were still starting work shortly after seven in the morning. "It's only a code!" Well, that's all right then. She should have a T-shirt made, saying I'm Within My Rights. It would save time.

The truly irritating thing is that some people are neighbourly, and some people are not. We have a fantasy of holding a 15-hour overnight festival of the Ring Cycle on the first Sunday the ghastly Reconstructor moves in. But of course we won't. We will restrict ourselves to the traditional English recourse: snubbing her on the street, rude remarks about her clothes in private, and the occasional, very un-neighbourly, tut.

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