I am not, by nature, a lawbreaker. But circumstances have driven me to it.
And when I say circumstances, I really mean “admin”. But also, dickheads.
It has been a bizarre month around the old campfire, resulting in brushes with the neighbours, the local council and the law.
Let’s start at the beginning.
The verge of destruction
Last time we spoke, our new wall had just gone in.
It had always been the plan to plant a box hedge behind the wall, so that our front garden could match almost every other house in the street. I really wanted our place to blend in with this slowly-gentrifying-but-still-wonderfully-traditional London streetscape — rather than looking like the Clampetts were keeping their chickens out the front, as it did before.
I spent quite a bit of money on mature plants, to get an instant effect. The hedge equivalent, if you will, of Elton John’s hair: nowhere to be seen one minute. Next minute, BAM! The thickest bush since George W.
Note the crate in the top right-hand corner of the photo. That’s what the hedge arrived in.
The next day, my magnificent Portuguese neighbours Paul and Sofia helped me replace three six-foot-square panels of fencing up the side of the house. The old panels were rotting and, in preparation for our new paving going down, I wanted to replace the old fence.
That left me with three enormous, rotting fence panels to get rid of. So I cut each of them into three sections, stacked them neatly on the verge, and called the council to come and collect both them and the crate. (A service that incurred a £30 charge and would take a week for them to carry out.)
This was where things started to come unstuck. I had just made error number one.
Error one: a failure to integrate
It was Thursday morning and I was working in the front room of our house when a blue van pulled up in the street outside.
A chap with long black hair and wearing a beanie, was leaning out of the window of his cab, looking at my neat pile of timber.
“Oh,” I thought, “perhaps he wants it for his allotment?”
I don’t know this guy from Adam but another neighbour had expressed an interest in the crate for his allotment, because it was an ideal compost bin.
By the time I got outside to offer it to him freely, he was taking a photograph of it. I was a bit surprised to see this, so I asked, politely: “can I help you, mate?”
“I’m so sick of people like you,” he yelled. And then, I kid you not, without so much as taking a breath, he added: “When my parents moved here from India forty years ago, we integrated.”
He then embarked upon a five minute long, wide-ranging, uninterruptible tirade about fly-tipping in which he called me “thick”, an “idiot”, and twice accused me of not having a mind of my own and “just doing what your girlfriend tells you”.
I asked if he could leave out the misogyny; to which he replied:
“I know what that means. You think you’re smart because you use big words but I know big words, too. Just because I drive a van doesn’t mean I’m thick.”
By this point it was exceedingly clear Blue Van Man had invited a lot of friends to a party to which he had not been invited. And by friends I mean “issues”. And by party I mean, “feel free to fuck off anytime you like, mate”.
He also pointed at my neighbours front garden and said “see, he can keep all his rubbish in his yard. Why can’t you manage it?”
Allow me to introduce you to this particular neighbour, hitherto unmentioned on this blog. Let’s call him Asbo. Because the council’s Anti-Social Behaviour Officers are constantly coming around to talk to him.
Asbo has a boarded up front window that his mates smashed in so they could get into his house when he wasn’t answering the door. It’s been like that for four months.
Asbo has regular screaming matches with in the streets with his missus and various other ne’er-do-wells.
Asbo comes begging on our doorstep at 11.30pm.
Weed smoke billows out of Asbo’s broken window at all hours of the night and day.
We have had to let the police run through our house at 3am so they can jump the fences and break up the violence in Asbo’s backyard.
As you can imagine, we love Asbo.
*we now return you to your regularly scheduled programming*
“I wouldn’t hold him up as an upstanding citizen,” I said. But Blue Van Man wasn’t listening; he just railed on and on.
The bit that concerned me was at one stage he called the landscapers who had built our front wall “cowboy builders” who had also created a mess on the footpath. He said he had photos. Which made me wonder how long he had been watching the house… and why?
Although he thought I had a girlfriend, so he can’t have been watching too closely. All the same, I was worried that he seemed unhinged, clearly had it in for me, and knew where I lived.
His blasting only ended when a vehicle honked for him to get out of the road. He departed promising to make sure I received a £400 fine.
Well, I’m just not having it
I was quite rattled by this guy. Yes, he had so many chips on his shoulders it’s a miracle his arms stayed attached, but I hadn’t anticipated being abused in my front garden. It was quite upsetting.
What upset me most was him having a crack at me for failing to integrate, when I had literally built a wall and planted a hedge to make sure my house matched every other house in the street!
So, I called the council. Apparently leaving the timber out for collection was fine, as they’d been notified. But I moved it into my garden for collection in any case.
During the course of his tirade, as if to build up his local credentials, Blue Van Man had explained how long he’d lived in the area, that he’d gone to school behind our house, and so on. He provided a lot of information, including his place of work.
I took this information to Miss Marple, my wonderful curtain-twitching neighbour-over-the-road, who leaves violent signs in her front garden, and set her to work. She calls the police “the fuzz”, so you know she’s the right person for the job.
I wanted to know who he was and where he lived. You know, just for peace of mind. And bald fucking vengeance.
She had the information within 12 hours.
Turns out Blue Van Man lives just a bit further up the street.
Here’s his Big Blue Van is parked out the front.
And this is his front yard.
Trim your bloody hedge, mate.
Why won’t these people integrate?
Error two: mixing cement on the highway
So this week, my cowboy builders were back. They’ve been here putting down the paving in the back garden and up the side of the house.
I’d prepared the space, taking the garden back to ground zero.
And I’d marked out where the paving needed to go.
Knowing they were coming and knowing they would need to store materials in the on-street parking space on the road out front, I called the council to ask about a permit. Blue Van Man was in the back of my mind. I wanted a piece of paper I could wave at him/shove up his arse.
I called the council’s Building Control Department.
They put me onto Highways.
Highways put me onto Parking.
The guy in parking didn’t know and said he’d call me back.
He actually called me back. Which is perhaps the biggest miracle of this whole situation.
“We can’t put a ticket on something without a registration number – you’ll be fine,” he said. That was his official advice. He said he’d make a note of it. (He could have tattooed it on his John Thomas for all the difference it made.)
Three days later, I’m working in the front room again and I look out the window to see a guy dressed in a black leather jacket and black jeans taking a photograph of the sand and the cement mixer in the car parking bay in the street.
Blue Van Man had been replaced by a guy who looked exactly like Christoph Waltz in that film where he’s in the Gestapo. Everything about him was disturbingly pristine. In a sort of, OCD, way. I expect his cuticles were flawless.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
He showed me his badge. A proper shiny badge in a black wallet, like he was the goddamn sheriff. He spoke with an eastern European accent. He was from the council. And he was not impressed.
I relayed my story. I explained that I was not a rule breaker. He shot me a look that said “I’ve heard all this before”.
“It is not permitted to mix cement on the highway,” he said, as if construction had spilled out onto the M25.
By this point I was expecting waterboarding, but he handed me his phone and made me buy an £80 permit (in lieu of a fine). Which is what I had spent two hours trying to do a couple of days before.
It was a clinical and efficient execution.
I mentioned the trouble I’d had recently with the rubbish I had out for collection, although kept Blue Van Man out of it. Gestapo Christoph Waltz said “yes, neighbours can be like that sometimes,” and — I promise you — turned to look up the street, where Blue Van Man lives.
Anyway, here’s the paving
But before I go on, let’s do some gardening. (Well, hard landscaping.) Let’s have a look at the paving that has gone in.
Not bad for cowboy builders.
Actually, they’re proper East End “geezers” and I bloody love them for it.
One of the lads, Dean, is such a geezer his ringtone is the Only Fools and Horses theme tune. You couldn’t make it up.
An ‘e dun a bloody good job. Innit.
Rules are meant to be broken
As I mentioned, I am not, by nature, a rule breaker. I’m the kind of guy who sits in the backseat and chides the driver for not indicating. I’m the guy who tutts loudly when someone drops litter in the street… or possibly picks it up, chases them up the road and gives it back to them. I’m often the guy who, twitching at the curtains, calls the cops to report the street brawl, or fracas, or all-in mele.
I mean, I have an anxiety attack at the self-service checkout when an item won’t scan, panicking that the attendant will think I’m trying to nick a 50p slice of pumpkin.
Traditionally, I have always preferred to stay on the right side of the law.
But, having clearly been branded a criminal by the locals and the authorities, I figure I might as well live up to this newfound reputation. I have a taste for crime now. And I have a new arch nemesis in the form of Blue Van Man. So, I may well break the law again, in due course.
As it happens, Asbo and his missus both got arrested for shop-lifting last week. So don’t tell me I’m not bloody integrating.
Join my garden journey progress from the start, here.
Read the next blog post in this series here.