The most exciting place on earth I have ever been to is the village where I live.
And I don’t think I’m boasting to say that I’ve been to a lot of exciting places: Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza strip, Egypt, Korea, Crossmaglen, the Somerset Levels at high tide… My favourite dateline is ‘By Melissa Kite in Helmand’. But I’m also proud of the years I spent in a Portakabin at Stormont covering the Good Friday peace talks.
I’m just saying, I’ve been posted all over the world so I’ve seen a few interesting places.
But I’m starting to think that the most interesting place I’ve ever seen in terms of studying human nature is the small Surrey enclave where I bought a cottage three years ago in search of a quiet life.
I guess that just about serves me right for trying to bow out of the rough and tumble. God has a funny way of saying, ‘Not so fast…’
I pitched up in sleepy, manicured commuter-beltsville hoping I would at least not have to deal with gang warfare and gun violence, having done my bit overseas, and also having completed a 15-year residential sentence living in the London Borough of Lambeth. Bring on a nice quiet cottage on a village green, I wrote at the time.
But in the past few years I’ve witnessed, among other things, the dramatic dawn seizure of 123 horses from a farm down the road, and someone blowing up the cashpoint on the high street.
As I write, I am recovering from an incident in the village shop in which a shouting match developed between a local lady who was tired and emotional, and another woman who refused to get to the back of the queue when the tired and emotional one told her to, which culminated in the over-refreshed lady’s husband telling the woman who wouldn’t move that he had a gun and was going to shoot her. It was 5 p.m. In rural Surrey.
Shortly before that, I came home to find that someone had crashed their car into the bus stop, comprehensively trashing both the wooden shelter, which now leaned at an angle, and the village noticeboard, which lay on the ground, smashed to smithereens. Police tape had been wound around the wreckage, leaflets advertising history society talks and dog-walking services just visible. No one was batting an eyelid. Passers-by glanced at the twisted remains nonchalantly as if to say, ‘Surrey, eh? It’s like the Bronx.’ Apologies to the Bronx, because I’m guessing it’s quieter there.
Yes, it’s all very confusing. I understand why tempers are frayed in the West Bank. I see why people were a bit edgy when I was mooching round ‘bandit country’ on the Irish border. I get why the Israelis pulled me aside for an hour-long interrogation at Ben Gurion over a parcel I had allowed a shop to gift wrap.
What I don’t understand is why householders in Surrey are so uptight, not just since coronavirus..
How, I wonder, are we to withstand a pandemic if we are at each other’s throats over parking? The parking tensions are insane. If I put my car slightly at the wrong angle it sparks days of retaliation with cars wedged virtually sideways.
One time, I hired a car while mine was having a service and the next day awoke to find a tyre slashed. Strange car, see. Not meant to be there.
Dangerous currents simmer under the surface. These mostly emerge in the form of planning disputes and debates over who can have a Velux window.
When I moved in, I had to instruct lawyers to deal with the myriad, complex disputes my modest property was inexplicably embroiled in.
In the course of investigating how these started, I came across a neighbour who knew too much and could barely speak for fear ‘they’ would find out she had consorted with me.
I’ve interviewed victims of knee-cappings in west Belfast who were less frightened than her. Turned out that something happening to me had happened to her too, only she had caved. She had allowed the owner of an adjoining property to build an extension that went over her boundary line because this owner was something high up in the village ruling hierarchy. Now when she sits in her back garden she looks at a brick wall with an overhanging gutter. But she didn’t dare complain. She was scared witless of a Hyacinth Bucket lookalike on some jam-making committee.
We sat in her cramped garden next to this ugly great wall, like the old East German border, as she said, ‘Oh it’s not so bad really. We get sun for half an hour some days. Tea?’
And I thought, this is the most extraordinary place I have ever been to.
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