First person

Published in the Daily Telegraph, 17Mar2007

Here we come and oops, there goes the neighbourhood. By James Trollope

"If only we had a place like yours," I remember saying to a friend at a dinner party just after the birth of our second child. The lucky blighter had settled his tribe into a voluminous Edwardian semi while we were bursting out of a two-up, two-down.

"Funny you should say that," he replied, "because the house next door has just come up for sale." It seemed like a heaven-sent opportunity. Neighbours who were already friends and a home where I could unwind my lanky frame without trampling on children or inadvertently whacking their mother's ear (demonstrating my hook shot in the kitchen had been a near-fatal error).

But the more I warmed to the idea, the cooler my friend became. "Just think of it," I enthused, "these gardens are big enough for cricket in the summer and, as long as I bowl off my shorter run, the hall will be fine out of season." When he told me the asking price, it became clear that we would never be sharing a boundary. Nevertheless, his ill-concealed relief was hurtful.

There was no sympathy from my partner, even though her hearing was almost fully restored.

"Of course he didn't want you there. Moving next door to friends is the quickest way of becoming enemies. Just look at Tony Blair and Gordon Brown!" And Tony and Gordon are not alone. According to an organisation called Neighbours from Hell in Britain, up to one in seven of us would describe those who reside next door as a "nuisance". And a lot of us find our neighbours intolerable. A survey commissioned by the environmental charity NSCA (National Society for Clean Air) suggested that about half a million people move each year because of neighbourhood noise.

Despite the Government's recent "Respect" campaign, it's clear that many relationships can't survive daily contact. Reflecting on some of our friendships, we concluded that meeting infrequently is often the key to their longevity.

"Imagine Hugh and Celia moving next door," continued my partner provocatively.

"Perish the thought." "Mind you, every time they had a party, we would wonder why we hadn't been invited." "But think about Celia popping her head over the garden fence. That woman is incapable of shutting up." "And you would have to buy new underwear." "I'll never throw out my grandfather's stuff. They're family heirlooms." "The only reason I let you hang them on the line is that we barely know the neighbours." We finally agreed that while we have high expectations of friends, we generally seek negative qualities in neighbours. We want them to be silent and uncomplaining. Invisible would be perfect.

Except, of course, when we run out of milk or need someone to mind the cat or keep an eye on the house.

The ideal, we reckoned, was a distant but cordial rapport based on mutual need and trust.

When it comes to keeping neighbours at bay, the French can teach us a thing or two. Although I have owned a small house in southern France for more than a decade, I seldom cross my neighbours' thresholds.

If you want a chat, you go outside and nine times out 10 someone will emerge. If you want to borrow an egg, you wait at the door. Denying entry to casual visitors isn't considered rude - you talk on the doorstep. And when people want total privacy, they simply close their shutters.

Of course, the climate helps this exterior sort of neighbourliness but shutters are a stroke of social genius. They say politely but firmly: "I may be here but I definitely don't want to be disturbed." That's not to say that I haven't had some run-ins with my French neighbours.

I got very fed up with the old boy next door leaning over the fence and sniggering at my inexpert wood-chopping. He also had a habit of lighting a bonfire seconds after I had hung out my washing.

As for the man on the other side, he occasionally had such violent arguments with his daughter that I fully expected them to end with a gunshot.

But, all in all, we rubbed along well and you could always retreat into your sanctuary.

Occasionally, whether in England or France, neighbours can become good friends. But move next to existing friends and the relationship can flounder.