Alan Higham

My thoughts on topical issues

Best neighbour

Below, I have reproduced a column from my favourite journalist, Auberon Waugh.  I cannot promise that you will be entertained by it, but it is a rare example of prose that I cannot read without hysterics.

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Christmas decorations were hanging around the one bedroom flat of John Shepherd, 68, in Harlesden when police helped plumbers break-in to repair a water leak which had been reported by neighbours.

The last date crossed off his calendar hanging on the wall was 22nd December but the year on the calendar was 1989 and the skeleton of John Shepherd lay on the floor in the kitchen where it had been lying undisturbed for very nearly 4 years.

Nobody had noticed his absence, although he was being sued by the local council for non-payment of rent. Later Brent council agreed that it had been seeking to evict Mr Shepherd – believing him to be a pensioner of 72 – although obviously in a dilatory and ineffectual way.

Nobody was prepared to accept the blame for Mr Shepherd’s death or for the body lying undiscovered for years but Detective Inspector David Brown from Brent police said: “It is extremely sad to think that an elderly man late dead at home for over three years without being discovered. It is an indictment of modern society.”. One does not like to disagree with the police but I think it is greatly to modern society’s credit that he lay undisturbed by the local welfare busybodies for all that time or even by convivial neighbours.

Through three Christmas seasons while the police were out trying to terrorise motorists and the nation’s 5.2 million public employees were otherwise occupied, his corpse quietly recycled itself in the kitchen linoleum. He was doing nobody harm and nobody did him any harm.

Those who continue to live on the Stonebridge Park estate in Harlesden would be embarrassed to receive Oldie Certificates of Good Neighbourliness signed by the Editor and if I turned up to pin gold medals on their chest they would suspect I was mocking them

The best neighbour is the neighbour who leaves you alone unless asked for help, not the neighbour who is forever ringing the doorbell to ask if you are all right, and the council tenants of Stonebridge Park Estate are a shining example to us all

There was a time when an accumulation of milk bottles would have ‘alerted the neighbours’ as they used to say. Nowadays milk is not always delivered – any more than newspapers are, in the general spirit of idleness amongst the young – it would be nice to think that every tower block of council flats contained a sarcophagus or two where a former pensioner lay quietly mouldering, pension uncollected, rent unpaid, harming no-one, their privacy respected for as long as the building is allowed to stand

It would encourage us to treat these repulsive buildings with a little respect, even awe, as we motor past them on our way to happier surroundings.

The other great lesson to learn from John Shepherd’s experience – or lack of experience, as one might say – is to confirm what I’ve always said about not answering business letters. The great rule about any letter you receive on any subject is that when in doubt about what to answer, don’t answer it. Never answer a business letter unless there is an obvious and immediate advantage to be derived from it and never answer a letter from the local council under any circumstances, even when it seems to promise an advantage. Nothing the council has to offer is worth having. It is always being hedged around with conditions and visits from half a dozen council officials, all paid through the nose for patronising you and supervising whatever tiny benefit is on offer, all required to make life as difficult and humiliating as possible. Most communications from the council offer no benefit whatever, of course, being demands for rent or council tax, or Mrs Thatcher’s disastrous poll-tax, which they will still trying to be collect in ten years’ time

Most people lose their nerve after the tenth reminder in red, demanding immediate payment on pain of instant eviction and seizure of all possessions. Mr Shepherd’s experience – or lack of it – proves that they are quite happy to go on sending these reminders forever or at least for four years. Occasionally, we read of councils sending in the bailiffs, but their victims are the people who were foolish enough to answer the letters, to make excuses, propose ways of paying, plead for mercy or more time. So long as you never answer, as Mr Shepherd never answered (being in no position to do so of course), they will simply go on bombarding you with warning letters in red until even that stops and they leave you to sleep in the bosom of your ancestors.

The poignancy of the Shepherd story has nothing to do with his death, which worked out beautifully so far is anyone’s death can be discussed in those terms. It is in the glimpse afforded of his life and last years on earth. Apparently he had two visitors, one an elderly female neighbour, the other a younger man presumed to be his son. Both must have grown discouraged when he failed to answer the door and gone away, resolved to forget about him. Or perhaps the elderly female neighbour is herself quite mouldering in another part of the estate. Traditional wisdom has it that the very old should be constantly visited, and it is touching how pleased many people are to be visited the loneliness of widowhood or solitary old-age. But by no means everybody want to be visited, and in extreme old age when most of the faculties have gone, I have a feeling that many people would prefer to be left to die alone, just as cats will walk away and seek solitude when they feel death coming upon them. One cannot be sure about this of course, but Mr Shepherd is no longer around to be consulted, and it seems a reasonable guess.

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