If living cheek by jowl in lockdown has taught us much about those we live with, it has arguably revealed even more about those we don’t. Across the land, we are making daily discoveries about the people on the other side of the party wall.
Come Thursday evening when we engage in our weekly demonstration of doorstep solidarity with the NHS, we are, of course, a nation united. Last week, the Office of National Statistics revealed it had started measuring the way in which people are adapting to the biggest change to lifestyles in living memory – and its first set of findings were cheering. Three weeks into the lockdown, Britons had developed a newfound neighbourliness: more than half of those surveyed said they had checked on their neighbours at least once, while almost a third had done a task for someone who lived nearby, such as shopping or walking a dog.
On a wider level, more than half the population said they felt a sense of belonging to their community, and more than two thirds said they thought people “are doing more to help others since the coronavirus outbreak”. A similar proportion thought they could rely on community support.
However, as we enter week five of lockdown, are those feelings of goodwill to all men – and in particular Mr Smith at number 53 – starting to wane? Will an ONS survey at, say, the end of the second month in quarantine be quite so encouraging? Certainly, it seems that, anecdotally at least, that feelgood glow is already subsiding, with the nation increasingly divided between those who are appreciating their neighbours like never before, and those who are being driven to distraction by them.
See the case in point of Gordon Ramsay, who last week had both the experience of kindly neighbours leaving freshly-picked asparagus on his doorstep to make him and his family feel welcome on lockdown in their second home – and abuse from others who took against a London interloper in their midst.
Whether you feel blessed by a neighbour’s benevolence or cursed by their curtain-twitching right now, there’s literally no getting away from them.
Barely a week goes by without some exhausted medic, nurse or key worker returning home to a snippy note on their car, or a nasty letter stuffed through the letterbox, unfairly castigating them for “non-essential travel”. One particular name-and-shame notice – spilling the beans on an unknown perpetrator – was first taped inside a window in one block of flats, then posted on social media.
“My neighbour Ann [...] lives above, she keeps on having a friend round. No social distancing, no protecting the NHS. We asked her to stop, she will not. Shame on you, Ann. You are a disgrace, shame on you, shame on you.”
This seems, on the face of it, to be a clear-cut case of grassing your neighbour for the general good – but without Ann’s input, we shall never know. And in this climate she’d be a brave woman to speak up.
Neighbourly tensions are perhaps inevitable now that previously casual relationships based on comings and goings, an occasional wave or inconsequential chit-chat about the weather has abruptly morphed into something a lot more intense.
For Sian, an author and editor, friction with her neighbours has become a source of distress for other reasons: she feels under siege.
“I have had to start wearing earplugs during the day, because the horrible couple in the flat above me are working from home, and I can hear them frantically tap-tapping away on their keyboards,” she says. “It’s so loud and aggressive, it sounds like a volley of gunfire. I swear they do it deliberately because I own the garden and they’re jealous of my outside space, even though their living area is far bigger.”
And after a month in lockdown, mother-of-three Antonia has simply had enough: “My neighbours are making my life a nightmare. It’s a houseshare with young professionals who have been furloughed, and they are smoking so much weed in their garden, the stench is overwhelming. I have to keep the children inside. For the first time, I am seeing them for the nightmares they are.”
Thus far, Antonia has confined herself to loud tutting and theatrical sighs, which have fallen on deaf ears; she worries if she takes it further it will simply make things worse.
Now the sun has put in an appearance and spring is here, these fierce internal and sometimes external battles are being fought across fences the length of the land.
“Our neighbours’ kids are shrieking away outside on the trampoline for hours every day, and even after dark,” reports Phil, a retired civil servant. “They have a right to play, but must that be at the expense of my right to relax?”
A brief “discussion” with the parents proved fruitless and came perilously close to an argument, so Phil and his wife withdrew, rather than become embroiled in a shouting match. But they both admit to feeling permanently on edge. Another mother reports how she was berated by a neighbour for letting her children wave sparklers around for the weekly clapathon. Inappropriate, they said. Fun-killers, she replied.
“There’s been a Disneyfication of the whole concept of neighbours,” says Marc Hekster, consultant clinical psychologist at The Summit Clinic in London. “Showing solidarity, shopping for each other, clapping together on the doorstep, and so on.
“But the truth is that we’re living through unprecedented times, and everyone is carrying a huge amount of anxiety without perhaps even being aware of it. It’s not surprising that there are flashpoints of anger and high emotion when people around us are behaving in ways that make us tense.”
According to a 2018 Danish study, published in the European Journal of Public Health, noisy neighbours lead to low mood. Researchers found rates of depression were twice as high among homeowners who felt bombarded by music or raised voices.
Here in the UK, a 2016 study revealed as many as two-thirds of homeowners felt their lives were “blighted” by neighbours. The number now, when anxiety levels have rocketed because of lockdown, can only be guessed at.
Barbecues are proving to be another bone of contention as they can give rise to the suspicion that extra people have arrived, breaking social isolation guidelines.
“I am definitely not the sort of person who spies on her neighbours,” says Lynn, 51. “But these are worrying times; my teenage son has underlying health conditions that make him vulnerable, and every new car on the road or unfamiliar face in the adjoining gardens makes me really uneasy and quite cross, too.”
Lynn has taken a decision to speak out, with the same carefully-worded, deliberately non-confrontation address to others, politely pointing out that her child is at risk and requesting the individual consider whether they need to be away from home. So far, at least, she has been met with civility.
In doing so, she is following police advice. Having been overwhelmed by too many reports of lockdown breaches, police have advised householders to challenge neighbours themselves in the first instance.
But if a one-off breach becomes a pattern, they have been asked to lodge a complaint online, on the local council’s website, rather than call 999. According to Professor Cary Cooper head of Organisational Psychology and Health at Manchester Business School, you need to take things slowly.
“If you have barely spoken a word to your neighbour for years, then suddenly demand he turns his music down or parks his van elsewhere, you’re not going to get a friendly reception,” says Prof Cooper.
“You need to build a relationship over a couple of weeks by engaging in small talk, asking him how he’s coping and telling him how things are for you. This establishes a bond and a personal connection.”
If are going shopping and offer to bring the neighbours milk or bread, so much the better. It’s against that backdrop that you should flag up your request; and if they refuse, simply redouble the charm offensive until they feel obliged to comply.
It might not be easy, but in these fractious times, happiness is less about keeping up with the Joneses than keeping in with them.
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