On the day that we completed the purchase of our new house – not the flat in which we live, but a house, also in Plaistow, currently in the hands of builders – I went to take possession of the keys and, as is always the case when you buy a new house, to reassure myself that I had not just made a colossal mistake. I went in. It looked solid, as it is. It felt enormously welcoming, as it still does. When I emerged various new neighbours came to greet me. I remember two in particular.
One was a West Indian woman. She grasped me to her bosom.
‘We’re all friends in this street,’ she said, and, surrounded, I felt as if I had come home.
The other was a man who told me, similarly, “We are a community. We look out for each other. Any issues, you come to me.”
I said that I was a little concerned that the house might be open to break-ins while the builders were there.
“No one will harm anything,” he said. “I will be watching.”
That was five months ago. No doubt the building work has put the occasional strain on things. There was a short period that involved quite loud noises and a longer period when it got a bit dusty. On the other hand the builders have I think been sensitive and when neighbours have come to them with their own problems (“I have a cracked wall;” “I have a dripping tap;” “My car is covered with your dust;” “I have a cousin who works for the health and safety”) they have given freely of their time and expertise, and in the case of the dusty car £5 for a car wash.
So recent developments have been a worry.
A month or so ago the builders reported that a van had arrived and several men had jumped out. They apparently said that they were the ‘Enforcement Team’. Whose enforcement team and enforcement of what, the builders had asked but without getting any answer. The ‘Enforcement Team’ had then required all the builders and the builders’ men to come in to the street to be photographed.
‘So we can eliminate you,’ they said, disturbingly.
‘You’ll be hearing from us tomorrow,’ they said as they roared away; but we didn’t.
A few days later a young lady is said to have arrived from the Council. She told the builders, ‘We have information that you are building an illegal extension.”
She looked at our extension, refulgent in its compliance with building and planning regulations, its conformity with plans prepared by duly qualified building engineers, its general signed-off-ness and she went away happy – or so she said. Or so they say she said.
So we have some intriguing questions. Are the builders making it all up? If not, who is ringing up the Council and telling stories about us? And if so, why?
The builders are in no doubt. It is, they say, the second person who greeted me, the man who said that he would look out for us.
“But he is our side,” I said.
“Yes,” they said, ”but sometimes he runs up and down the street shouting, with his mobile phone in one hand and a camera in the other, so that he can place uncomfortable information before the Council.”
“The Council must be pleased at all the attention,” I said.
“He’s a nice man, but he’s quite mad,” they said.
It’s as good a theory as any.
In the nature of things when I muse on these mysteries I always start singing:
Neighbours, Everybody needs good neighbours
With a little understanding
You can find the perfect blend
Neighbours…should be there for one another
That’s when good neighbours become good friends
I have nothing against Neighbours. I almost never saw the programme because in the manic and acquisitive 1980s I rarely got home in time from work. But the theme tune got lodged by osmosis, particularly when Paul McCartney like the good sport that he is recorded a cover version. Or was that Crossroads? What does bother me however is that after a measure or two trundling around my head it invariably turns into Ray Davies’ Autumn Almanac, a much grimmer prospect.