Over-tidy neighbours and backward-walking Lords

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The Independent Online
There are two kinds of neighbour, in my experience. One is the meek and elderly Mrs Gogentlyintothatgoodnight, whose husband died 16 years ago of asbestosis, who now smells faintly of dead mouse, and who devotes her twilight years to reading OK! magazine, eating custard creams and greeting you on the doorstep with the words: "'Allo dear. Off to business?"

The other kind is a horrible bald man called something like Mike Hole, who crams his family of tiny delinquents into a purple Honda Civic, wears Ben Sherman shirts while plying his Black & Decker sanding device in the garden on Sunday afternoons and plays old Blue Oyster Cult records through your wall at such a volume that the Shaker figurines on your mantelpiece come crashing down on the head of the sleeping dog. Neighbours-wise, those are your two basic models, the musty and the nasty. But reading about Mr Kevin Pleece this week gave me a jolt of recognition. With neighbours, as with close encounters, there's a Third Kind.

Mr Pleece is the Welsh chap who became so obsessed with tidiness he took to threatening people living beside his bijou Cardiff home. Before he was put on 12 months' probation, the court heard how he kept his flat spotless, then started to pick up litter outside his front door, graduated to clearing away the leaves in the courtyard at Cathays Terrace, spent five hours a day sweeping the street and, by a logical but alarming progression, began checking through windows to see that his neighbours were keeping the insides of their homes up to scratch.

The last straw came when he stood in the street yelling at a woman undergraduate that, if she didn't tidy up her room, he'd blow up her car. It has been suggested that Mr Pleece may be "suffering from a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder". I wonder where they got that idea.

The thing is, I'm sure I know Mr Pleece. I'm convinced that, before he departed for Wales, he used to live upstairs from me in Putney, south London. He was an unusual Neighbour From Hell in being neither noisy or nosy, just ludicrously punctilious.

He once, without a by-your-leave, removed from the communal doorbell the card on which my name was messily inscribed and replaced it with a typed version. He bought one of those devices with a moveable arrow to tell the milkman how many pints you require, although it was, sadly, stuck on "One" all year. He arranged the letters in the hallway into a neat pile each day with the tax demands at the bottom and the postcard from Goa at the top.

His fastidiousness was linguistic. He talked like a brochure or a police report. He fretted that the opening of a Chinese takeaway nearby would attract "youths". Once he sent me a note saying: "There is a quantity of refuse emanating from the vicinity of your kitchen which is unsightly and unhygenic. Could you therefore ...?" (I went to check. An empty, economy- size pack of Doritos corn chips had fallen out of the wheelie-bin). I could happily have strangled him with his own vacuum flex. The feckless slobs of Cathays Terrace have all my sympathy.

I cannot agree with the recent directive from Buckingham Palace that the Lord Chancellor will no longer be required to walk backwards in front of the Queen at the State Opening of Parliament. Some prosaic chef de protocol has decided that, because the legal panjandrum has to descend some steps during the procession, it would be "more comfortable and safer" if he did it frontwards rather than risk plummeting onto his ermined posterior.

Okay, it'll be better for Lord Irvine. But what about the rest of us? Many taxpayers who have followed the saga of his Lordship's expensive home furnishings would prefer to get more value for money out of him. Personally, I would insist that he not only walks backwards in front of the Queen but keeps her amused with feats of juggling and card tricks, serenades her with "Oh Dem Golden Slippers" on the banjo, and attempts to perform that old Marcel Marceau mime of a man feeling his way across an invisible wall. I'm sure this vaudevillian routine would make a lot of people "more comfortable".

Many executives from television companies have looked through Hello! magazine, clocked the gurning faces of the rich and sort-of-famous in their delightful homes, and wondered: could there be a television version? A series of opulent, candid encounters to camera, guided by a presenter with a gift for putting celebrities at their ease. Many producers tried, but the magazine (which celebrates its 10th birthday this week - see Louise Levene on page 15) has always replied with the Spanish equivalent of "Eff off".

Only once did they agree to talk to a TV company about such a plan, and that was because of the calibre of the presenter they were offering. Who was it? Why, Charles Spencer, the heir of Althorp and scourge of journalists everywhere.

He was happy, it seems, to become the televisual equivalent of the Marquesa; in fact, he only pulled out because his father died and he reasoned, sensibly, that it wouldn't do for an Earl to welcome the telly-watching masses into the homes of their betters. It is one of the revelations in Earl Spencer: Saint or Sinner?, Richard Barber's splendidly gossipy, if unauthorised, biography of the great man, published next Thursday.

To bolster his researches, Mr Barber called on the opinions of a score of commentators, some well-disposed to the subject, some positively toxic. Among them is David Starkey, the atrabilious historian, who calls the Earl every name under the sun: his funeral speech was, says Starkey, "utterly tasteless and repugnant", "ludicrously overblown", "antagonistic" and "preposterous", and the man himself "a self-delusionist" who is destined to become merely "a steady source of increasingly sordid stories for increasingly sordid newspapers".

Whew. Starkey's final words in the book are: "Charles Spencer has had his six and a half minutes of fame. But that's it." According to Mr Barber, what Starkey actually said was, "If I were him, I'd top myself." The publishers left it out. Grounds of taste, apparently.

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