The astonished speaker was 34-year-old Mark Girling. The irrelevant word was had with his neighbour the Hon Hugh Donovan, and it concerned parking in the haut-bourgeois enclave of Felden Street, Fulham.
As a consequence of this brief encounter Mr Girling's Porsche and Mr Girling's Range Rover were scratched or dented on many occasions over 13 months. Mystified as to who could be behind these attacks, Mr Girling eventually prevailed upon the local plod to mount a surveillance operation.
One night a video-camera caught the 63-year-old Hon barrister sneaking out under cover of darkness and vandalising his neighbour's expensive vehicles.
I call Mr Girling's surprise "naive", because it is all too obvious to me why one cross word might lead to someone assaulting his motors. In fact, many of us underachievers would need no cross words at all to want to express our dismay that a 34-year-old should be able to afford both a Porsche and a Range Rover.
Furthermore, a photograph of the Range Rover shows that Mr Girling has retained the infamous bull bars, increasing the likelihood that any accident involving a child (God forbid!) might be fatal. Frankly, most of us have some motive for running our Yales down Mr Girling's bodywork.
Mr Girling - doubtless a good and innocent man - may not have understood how his vehicular statements affect others. Surely, though, he must comprehend that to have a dispute with one's neighbours about parking - be it ne'er so minor - spells big, big trouble.
In my little London street we have historically been blessed with great parking. Many fellow residents are Liberal Democrats, and have tended to travel everywhere by bicycle. Others are young, and have had little need for a car. But just recently this has begun to change. Babies have been born in extraordinary numbers, and behind the stork comes the car. Those with none, get one. Those with one, get another for the nanny. A street in which each of us has grown accustomed to parking outside our very own doors has become one in which such an outcome is statistically most unlikely.
None of this has broken out into feud - yet. True, we recently reported an old, dumped Honda with an out-of-date licence disc to the council, and made the mistake of boasting about our Straw-style communitarianism to our next-door neighbours. "It was ours", they confessed gloomily, "and we got a pounds 40 fine." Oh, how we laughed!
Having discussed this with friends, I feel sure that this is the coming issue - in towns, at any rate. We all have the same symptoms: feelings of anger that people without children should park outside the houses of those with them; a tendency to repark one's car in a more favourable spot whenever the opportunity presents itself (I wait by the window for the sound of an engine); fury at being frozen out of the residents' parking areas of Chelsea, while no similar interdict applies to those few Chelsea motorists seeking to park in Kentish Town; the occasional foray to leave a tart, anonymous note on the windscreen of any car left parked across one's house for a whole weekend. Etcetera.
But where does this lead? Returning to Felden Street for a moment, one elderly resident was quoted as saying that the car-scratcher had "brought in the tactics of the council estate". Little did this woman know that a dispute about parking in a housing estate in Kemsley, Kent, recently climaxed in a pitched battle involving a shotgun and a baseball bat.
There is, of course, no legal entitlement to park outside - or in any proximity to - one's own home. The regulation of such social relations depends entirely on voluntary agreement between private citizens. In other words, there are no rules. What I may consider to be antisocial behaviour - forcing me to drag pounds 150-worth of Safeway shopping plus three screaming kids across a dog-turd-decorated street - may seem utterly reasonable to my hard-working neighbour.
It is in precisely these circumstances that respectable lawyers (or journalists for that matter) haunt the streets at night, screw-driver or paint-stripper in hand.Reuse content