Mean streets: the psychology of neighbour disputes

Eunice Day’s breaking point came when her neighbours asked if she would move her car from a communal grass verge in their cul-de-sac so that it could be mowed. After several weeks of polite hostilities, Day stormed a neighbour’s home in the Dorset town of Ferndown, a row ensued, and the resulting scuffle left the 81-year-old in court charged with assault. In Bedminster, Bristol, fed-up locals have taken a more passive-aggressive approach to ‘outsiders’ parking on their streets. Suburban vigilantes have been creeping out and sellotaping notes to windscreens urging their owners to park outside their own homes instead. Over in the village of Polstead, Suffolk, meanwhile, one couple are

Confessions of a lawn obsessive

For the past few days I’ve been frantically watering my lawn in anticipation of the London hosepipe ban. True, there are other things in the garden that need watering – the roses, the magnolias, the rhododendrons, as well as the tomato plants, the rosemary bushes and the olive tree. But I can probably manage to get round them with my watering can once the ban kicks in and in any case it’s the lawn that’s my pride and joy. Gazing at the stripes after it’s just been mown is one of life’s great pleasures as I settle into late middle age. When Caroline and I first looked round our house

Dear Mary | 31 May 2018

Q. I work at a desk by a window which looks out on to the street where I live. I am disturbed by the sight of the same Englishman strolling past the window innumerable times per day. I know most of my neighbours and he is not one of them. Who is he? I can’t think of a reasonable way to ask him, nor do I wish to encourage a friendship, but this mystery is beginning to obsess me. — I.D., London W11 A. Put some marketing bumf into an envelope and address it to, for example, ‘John Brown’ with your street name and postcode, but the house number missing.

The martyrdom of Proust

Why would a writer like Marcel Proust, who quivered and wheezed at the slightest sensation, decide to live surrounded by neighbours in one of the busiest parts of Paris? In 1906, at the age of 35, shortly after the death of his mother, he moved to a first-floor apartment at 102 Boulevard Haussmann. ‘I couldn’t bear to live in a place that maman never knew,’ he explained. For this ghostly comfort, he paid a heavy price. Petrol fumes and tree pollen — to which he was almost fatally allergic — drifted up from the boulevard. In the absence of maman’s goodnight kiss, he sedated himself with valerian and heroin, but

Dear Mary | 31 August 2017

Q. Our best friends own a house in Morocco which sleeps about ten. They rent it out but go two or three times a year themselves and always invite as many people as they can cram in. They have much more social stamina than we have, so whenever they invite us, we beg that it can be just the four of us. They agree but always renege at the last minute and invite others on the grounds that it will be ‘much jollier’. We just want time alone with them in their undiluted company and we find big house parties mentally exhausting. But it’s not our house so we can’t

Nuisance neighbours sink UK house prices by £17,000

How I long for a detached house with a drive – and, more importantly, no neighbours. My current abode is a three-bed semi with no off-street parking. It’s a free parking street but before you think I’m boasting, it’s also close to three primary schools, has a corner shop and most of the residents seem to be building loft extensions. Taken together, it adds up to pretty painful parking. It gets even worse when one of the tank-driving neighbours is home as he frequently takes up two spaces, which is particularly vexing when I’ve got a boot full of heavy groceries and there are no spaces near the house. Then

Your problems solved | 2 June 2016

Q. We moved recently and new neighbours invited us to join them for dinner at a nearby restaurant. I planned to offer a contribution — perhaps to pay the cost of our meals — but no explicit arrangement was made beforehand. Our friends began by ordering champagne for themselves, while we confined ourselves to glasses of wine. One of them had turbot, which was twice as expensive as any other main course. Without consulting us, they ordered successively two bottles of Chassagne Montrachet. The bill when it came revealed that these had cost £62 each, and the total came to about £350. I produced my card, which was laid beside

The axeman next door

When I moved to London, my husband Henry gave me a copy of Kate Fox’s Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. He was hoping the gift would avoid an awkward conversation about our cultural differences. As an American, I cannot think of anything more English than that. Fox’s chapter about introductions bothered me. The brash American approach: ‘Hi, I’m Bill from Iowa,’ particularly if accompanied by an outstretched hand and a beaming smile, makes the English wince and cringe. I had never known friendliness to be cringeworthy. I felt sorry for Bill from Iowa. I pictured him arriving in my neighbourhood and being scorned for enthusiastically introducing

Real life | 28 April 2016

The gloves are off in my battle with the two brothers who live in the flat upstairs. They have just socked me a brutal left hook. And so no more am I going to be the neurotic, menopausal fruitcake downstairs. From now on I am going to unleash my difficult side. It’s a shame, because when they first moved in I thought they were going to be the neighbours I had always dreamed of: handsome and polite, with a look of dread in their eyes whenever I banged on their door. When I explained that the wheelie bin must be put out at right angles to the kerb at 8

Neighbours and strangers

Margaret Forster, who died on 8 February, excelled at writing about complex relationships between women. Even old friends, she demonstrated, can experience jealousy, disapproval or dislike. Here, ‘Sarah’ has changed her name to live incognito on the west coast of Cumbria, in a town chosen at random. When she gets locked out of her house, a bond is formed between her and her elderly neighbour Nancy — whose deceased friend Amy once owned Sarah’s rental and left Nancy a key. Although Sarah is ostensibly the one with ‘a past’ (prison), it was Nancy whom I found most interesting. She first appears as a typical busybody, spying from her window, curmudgeonly

Your problems solved | 25 February 2016

Q. Former colleagues, with whom I got on very well in the context of the office, are buying a house near my own and say they are depending on me and my husband to introduce them to ‘all’ our friends in this area. This has been giving me nightmares. Like us, our friends down here are busy with jobs and children and would not thank us for foisting on to them new neighbours who would not be on the same wavelength. It’s a sense of humour thing. We are so tired we just want to relax when socialising. But I don’t want to be unneighbourly. How can I tactfully dispel

Your problems solved | 7 January 2016

Q. Although I have met most of the fellow occupants of my building at residents’ meetings, we don’t socialise. However our newest neighbour, a Canadian, has now emailed all the other women in the building offering to open up her own flat for a bonding evening of drinks and nibbles and where we would watch a movie together. She has asked each of us to name some dates in 2016 when we would be free so she can co-ordinate an evening which suits everyone. From what I have gleaned at the residents’ meetings, I don’t fancy the sort of ‘hen night’ atmosphere which she might be envisaging. I don’t want

Dear Mary: I always end up subsidising my greedy friend’s lunch

Q. I have lunch once a month with an old university friend. Over the years we have both thickened out but I now make a serious effort to curb my appetite. I will usually order one glass of white wine and a starter-sized mozzarella salad, but my friend invariably has the main course, the cheeseboard and three glasses of wine followed by a digestif. We’ve always split the bill but now that my ‘share’ is, for example, £20 to his £120, I have started to feel a tiny bit bitter about paying £70 — especially since I don’t think he has noticed the anomaly. After all this time, how can I

Your problems solved | 13 August 2015

Q. Is there a polite way of not letting someone hold your baby? I love giving mine to people to hold but I don’t like it when he gets handed back to me stinking of someone’s perfume. Is there a kind way of keeping him away from anyone I don’t like the smell of, ideally without giving my son a bad reputation? — Name and address withheld A. Everyone will agree that the smell of clean baby trumps any other and that such a smell should never be overwhelmed. But there is no way of politely preventing handling by the over-perfumed. You must put up with it. After all, babies are

Trouble withthe neighbours

A few years ago, I got a bit fed up with receiving Christmas cards from my friends designed to show off just how well they were doing. A typical card consisted of five or six blond children on ponies or quad bikes with a massive country house in the background. The caption would be something like: ‘Greetings from Shropshire.’ So I came up with an idea. Why not create my own version? I’d get my four children to strike a variety of delinquent poses. One would be outside QPR stadium, fag in mouth and can of beer in hand. Another would be doing an impression of Lord Coke with a

Dear Mary: What can I do about my neighbours’ downmarket recycling?

Q. Since recycling was introduced in our village, the wall at the end of our drive has become the depositing point for some neighbours as well as for us. Unfortunately their detritus is not sophisticated and while our green boxes are filled with wine bottles of respectable appellations, theirs is crammed with cheap lager tins. The recycling lorry comes before our friends are up so I’m not concerned about them, but more distant acquaintances on their way to work inevitably see the boxes, and we can’t invite them all to dinner to establish our credentials. How can we persuade our neighbours to keep their empties to themselves? — J.C., Taunton,

Dear Mary: Do I really have to take my shoes off indoors?

Q. There has been a marked increase in the number of people who have pristine flooring and are so keen not to have outside dirt brought in that it has, in my view, entered the value system of good manners for me to offer to remove my shoes when arriving at their homes. That’s fine. But in the evening, especially if I’m invited to a dinner or drinks party, I think about my shoes according to the rest of my outfit. To then have to take off the soft, possibly Jimmy Choo, suede shoes or delicate leather boots and spend the evening in barely stockinged feet is, to me, uncomfortable

Dear Mary: Can I ask for a lift on my friend’s private jet?

Q. We have moved to the country and my husband often prefers me to drive — not because he wants to drink, but just because he’s quite a lazy fellow by nature. My problem is that his back-seat driving is making our journeys intolerable as he keeps telling me how to drive. Apart from this we get on well, so how can I end his control freakery in a car? — Name withheld, Sittingbourne, Kent A. Next time he asks you to drive, say you will only do so if he agrees to wear an airline-style eye mask (keep a stockpile in the glove compartment) and leave you to get on

Dear Mary: Is there anything that can stop companies throwing away my CV?

Q. I graduated this year (I got a first) and have written more than 70 letters to potential employers. Those who deigned to reply just sent formulaic acknowledgements and regrets. People who know me can’t believe the apathy. Everything I’ve already achieved (without parental help) is there in my CV. Volunteering, sport, my own small business… Moreover, I’ve already raised enough money by my own efforts to be able to work without being paid for six months, an offer I’ve included in all my applications. Clearly, the employers are just too busy to read my CV. If they did, they would definitely give me at least an interview. Any suggestions?

Warning: upspeak can wreck your career

A few weeks ago, I accompanied my daughter to an Open Day at Roehampton College, where she is hoping to start a teacher training course in September. I enjoyed it — and was impressed by the broad mix of motivated young men and women who, if all goes well, will soon be teaching the next generation of primary school children. Towards the end of the afternoon, the co-ordinator said she wanted to offer a few tips about the interview process that would begin once all the applications have been submitted. It turned out she had only one main tip: avoid upspeak. She stressed the point vigorously. Indeed, her message for