Thursday, 11 June 2009
A few years ago our neighbours of fifteen years decided it was "job done" on the family thing, and resolved to sell up and move somewhere smaller and a little more upmarket. People's idea of the perfect neighbour vary (I've often wondered whether or not I'd enjoy living next door to myself), but we liked these ones a lot. For a start, they had been quiet. Indeed, once their kids had grown up and left home they were so quiet we sometimes speculated whether they'd died or been abducted by aliens.
It was the height of the UK property boom, and they made a good price -- nearly three times what we'd paid to move in next door at the peak of the previous boom. The sad thing was, it turned out that the new owner had no interest in living in the house: it was a case of "buy to let." Even sadder (for us) was the inexorable logic of buy-to-let. Even though the government has given tax breaks to people buying property with the intention of renting it out (presumably as a fig leaf for its failure to restart a programme of building affordable, rentable council housing), it makes no financial sense for an amateur landlord -- seeking to recover the cost of a mortgage and also make some profit on top -- to let a property to a single family. After all, if they could afford to pay that much as rent, why wouldn't they buy their own house? Inevitably, such houses become "multiple occupancy" residences, which means transient neighbours, which means the character of a neighbourhood starts to change. And change quicker than you might think possible; once people see which way the wind is blowing, the "for sale" boards soon start to appear.
At first things weren't too bad. We live very near a major hospital, and the first tenants were an agreeable collection of nurses recently arrived from the Philippines. True, they kept odd hours, returning from shift at 3:00 a.m. and would sometimes let off a little steam. It might wake me up, but I would think fondly of the contribution they were making to our national well-being, and go back to sleep.
Now, if you have never lived in the UK, you might be slightly shocked at the shoddiness and meanness of our housing stock, particularly the ranks of "semi-detached" houses thrown up in the 1930s. As one builder said to me, "We Brits like to build a perfectly decent family house, then split it down the middle." Size apart, the problem (at least for those, like me, who are hypersensitive to noise) is the absolute lack of sound insulation: you can literally hear your neighbour cough in an adjacent room, never mind their TV or ground-shaking sound system.
When the Philippinos moved out, there was a period of uneasy silence while the house stood empty with a "To Let" board outside. Then a group of Poles and Lithuanians arrived. Between nine and twelve of them, all under 30, packed into every room in the house, and with three elderly Ford Transit vans parked outside. It started quite well, with hellos, handshaking, "Welcome to our country, hope you settle in, the bins are emptied on Wednesday, etc." But it seemed the house was being used as a dormitory for youngsters working on some semi-legal rag-picking scam, so the turnover was high, and after a few months none of the original faces were still in residence.
Now, although I speak a bit of Russian, I've never actually ventured east of the old Iron Curtain, so the manners and customs of Eastern Europe were an unknown to me. And, clearly, the manners and customs of southern England were an unknown to them. I'm aware the English have a reputation for liking their drink, but the drinking habits of our new neighbours were a revelation. I had never before seen anyone habitually kick off a weekend breakfast by opening a can of beer, and then drink beer and spirits steadily through the day until the small hours. I had never encountered anyone already swaying and glaze-eyed drunk at lunchtime on a Sunday, nor had I ever witnessed anyone in such an inebriated state attempt to drive or fail -- repeatedly, and to the hilarity of his housemates -- to reverse a large van onto a front drive. Perhaps I need to get out of the house more.
But it wasn't the drinking that alienated me. It was the noise. One of the several subtle ways in which Eastern Europe lags behind the West is in their belief that smoking is a mandatory activity for adults, particularly when drinking (or is the other way round? Hard to tell). Now you may think that smoking is not an inherently noisy practice. But landlords are obliged by their insurance companies to ban their tenants from smoking inside the premises. So, where do they smoke? Outside. In the back garden, around a communal table, drinking, smoking and shouting until the early hours on weekdays, all night at weekends, right under my bedroom window.
Oh, and listening to music. Not Chopin nocturnes, either, but the worst kind of Euro-porno-disco-pop, a kind of bastard child of house music and the Eurovision Song Contest. Boom crash Boom crash Boom crash, or Duff Duff Duff Duff, endlessly percussively repetitive, but with teasing little breaks in the industrial rhythm that trick you into thinking, "Has it finally, finally finished?"... Played loud, sometimes with speakers on a bedroom windowsill turned out into the garden.
It was no comfort to know we were not alone. Indeed, at the height of this influx, one in ten of the population of Southampton was Polish or East European. One in ten. When we finally cracked and I called the Council's "Noise Nuisance" hotline one night at 2 a.m., they more or less finished my sentences for me, they'd heard it all before so often. This repeated itself for 18 months or so, as new batches came and went.
Then one day, we saw them loading everything into the vans, and they were gone. A beautiful silence descended, but we waited anxiously for whatever would come next. A circus troupe? An orchestra? We waited, and waited. We were like troops on the Somme, half wishing the next barrage would just start and get it over with, and half wishing the silence would never end, but knowing it couldn't.
Then, a shy East Asian couple with a small child appeared next door, and the silence continued unbroken. It was bliss. We hardly ever heard or indeed saw anyone next door. Lights went on and off with regularity, though, and we could hear the odd door or cupboard being closed: it was like a second coming of our original neighbours. We unclenched, and got on with our lives. Our new neighbours were clearly keeping themselves to themselves, and that suited us just fine.
If you're British, you may already have guessed how this story develops. Eight months later and two weeks ago, we had a visit from the police. Did we know anything about our neighbours? Did we often see them? Might they be sort of Chinese-looking? It appeared one of our other, nosier neighbours seems to have thought the lights were going on and off a little too regularly. As in, on a timer. Then, last week, several police vans rolled up, and began dismantling the cannabis growing factory that had been installed next door.
Quite how they ever delivered and installed the quantities of gear -- fans, batteries, industrial ventilation pipes, wiring, mysterious wooden boxes -- that were being slung by the police into the back of a truck, all without arousing anyone's suspicions, I cannot imagine. It took all day to take apart, with lots of crashing and banging, and filled two trucks. And then, because the occupants had bypassed the electricity meter to run all this kit free of charge, it took most of the night for the power company to restore the house to safety. Apparently houses taken over in this way have been known to catch fire because of the load on these improvised electricals...
So, now we wait again with a degree of anxiety mixed with resignation to meet whoever turns out to be our next new neighbours. This used to be a "quiet family neighbourhood, close to the hospital and good schools." No longer quite so much, it seems.
Of course, this has been happening all over the country. We -- in our educated, left-liberal way -- have naturally tried to condemn the sin but love the sinner. Though I confess I could cheerfully have decked the noisy sinner with a pickaxe handle at times (mainly 2 a.m.) -- another couple of months of full-on euro-pop and I suspect I could have been writing this blog from jail. But we do understand the economic, social and political forces that cause migrations like this, and realise that national characteristics cannot be generalised from the sort of person who travels across Europe in search of fortune in the form of a ragpicking scam, or halfway round the world to babysit cannabis plants in a suburban loft. We also realise that nothing can or should be done to prevent people coming here to look for work or a better lifestyle, so long as we share membership of the European Union, which is on the whole a Good Thing. And all this may make us a little untypical.
Which brings us to the EU election results... Two seats for the racist British National Party and thirteen for the UK Independence Party in the European Parliament is not just some sort of temporary, tactical response to the scandal of MP's expenses. The mass abstention of voters, especially Labour voters, has exposed something normally submerged but which has been steadily growing for some time.
Without getting portentous, it's clear the political class needs to wake up to the reality of the changes that are being lived out at street level, especially in the parts of town they generally choose not to live in. The working-class community is in crisis, and has been ever since "Thatcher" (a convenient shorthand for the neo-con consensus widely shared in the political elite, including the Blairite Labour Party) decided heavy industry did not figure in our future, and that anyone who didn't fancy office work was a backward-looking Neanderthal with no real place in the workforce of UK PLC. There is a perfect storm of despair and anger brewing in those neglected parts of the country that lost their way when the docks, the steel furnaces, the coal mines, the car factories and the shipyards shut down in the 1980s and 90s.
Parties like the BNP and UKIP like to channel this anger and despair into xenophobia and its uglier cousin, racism, partly because it's a ready source of political energy, and partly (unpalatable as this may be) because a lot of people are actually very angry and do actually believe the accounts peddled by these parties, both as an explanation and a solution. Yes, it's a form of magical thinking which mistakes correlations for causes ("A man with a turban moved in next door, and I lost my job; send him away, I'll get it back") and oversimplifies ("We joined the EU, ignored the Commonwealth, and lost control of our national destiny"). But it can't be ignored by politicians or, worse, airily dismissed as an unsophisticated misunderstanding. What better solutions are they offering which people can understand and vote for?
It's easy to dismiss the likes of the BNP across Europe as merely the ignorant politics of an underclass of unemployables -- alienated, tattooed, violent, foul-mouthed and hedonistic -- who resent the arrival of successive waves of the eminently employable; most recently, le plombier polonais. But the rise of this new underclass is really the bewildered, self-harming response of a vital stratum of our society to its perceived abandonment, and it's a shocking development to anyone who grew up in the working class of the 1950s and 60s. It didn't used to be like this.
"This" needs to be taken seriously. Very seriously. Above all, there has to be meaningful, decently-paid work (skilled and unskilled manual work, for the most part) for the legions of young, strong, not particularly bright people born in this country, or there will be trouble. Lots of trouble.