Love thy whinger

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The Independent Online
Stop! Restrain yourself. Bottle it up. If thy neighbour offends thee, forget it. Should he nick your dustbin, offer him your compost heap. Otherwise you risk becoming one of those whose minor irritations turn inexorably into savage hatreds, whose lives are devoted to petty acts of aggrandisement and revenge.

Almost every day we read of neighbours who fall out because of the noise made by pet rabbits or, in one famous case, the intolerable racket made by next door's breeding hamsters (was there, perhaps, a bewhiskered Meg Ryan equivalent, given to crying out "Eeeee, eeee, eeeee" at the point of rodentine climax?).

This week we have had the latest instalment in a 16-year hedge battle between pensioners Charles Stanton and Michael Jones. Back in 1971, when Edward Heath was Prime Minister and T. Rex were in the charts, Mr Stanton planted a row of fast-growing conifers at the bottom of his garden. Mr Jones watched as, over the years, the plants grew to 25ft, blotting out the sun's rays and casting his own garden into Stygian gloom.

In 1979, friendly discussion having failed, Mr J took action and solicitor's letters were exchanged. Meanwhile the cypresses shot above the 30ft mark. Eventually, Mr S grudgingly consented to the trees being reduced to 22ft, thus safeguarding his privacy against all but the lankiest of giraffes.

But six years ago, the dispute took a new twist. Mr J decided that 15ft was a better height, took the saw into his own hands, and lopped off a further 60 inches. And then another 48 inches.

Maggie went, the Gulf war was fought, Yugoslavia imploded. Over in Bournville, injunctions were being granted and courts were giving rulings. Peace broke out in Ulster and finally, on Thursday, Mr Stanton lost his last case. He now faces a bill for pounds 50,000 in costs.

If Mr Jones has shown remarkable persistence, Mr Stanton's behaviour represents one of the Psychological Wonders of the modern world. It is obstinacy taken to religious extremes - a life and a fortune spent preserving a few ridiculously tall plants from a much-needed cutting. Why on earth did he do it?

The answer is no doubt logical in its own terms, however hard it may be to sympathise with. Mr S may have believed in the inalienable rights of shrubs to grow, and regarded tampering with them as interfering with nature.

Or perhaps he reasoned that Mr Jones's secret pruning broke a solemn compact; proving that the former teacher was one of those who, given an inch, would take a mile. A man who can surreptitiously take an axe to his neighbour's hedge will think nothing of encroaching on his boundaries and invading his garden. Sooner or later there would have been elderly orgies among the Stanton peonies and wrinkled rumbles between the ramblers.

But Mr Stanton also almost certainly engaged in this dispute because he enjoyed it. The hedge row gave social shape and context to his life, where otherwise it might have been empty. Deprived by retirement of his power and influence, the hedge has been the focus of his considerable emotional and organisational energy. Bluntly, he had nothing better to do.

If so, the obvious remedy is displacement therapy: give the likes of Mr Stanton something else to worry about. Judges and magistrates should, for instance, have the power secretly to add such people to the panels of listeners and viewers employed by the BBC to provide feedback on programmes. This would give most of them enough to whinge about until the Grim Reaper comes a'calling.

If this fails, they should be compelled to host their own late-night chat show on local talk radio, where they can give vent to their feelings about the world - about horn-tooting cabbies, illicit conifer cutters, horny hamsters and all the other thousand natural shocks that English flesh is heir to.

Not only will this keep them out of the courts, it might also entertain the rest of us at the same time.