This January why not resolve to get to know the people who live near you?
As Helen McGurk reports, good neigbhours really can become good friends
Years ago, not long after I moved into my first house, I was pottering about in the garden when the next door neighbour leaned over the hedge to introduce himself.
The neighbour wanted to be known simply as ‘B’ and casually informed me he was just out of prison for murdering a man!
As over-sharing B made his way back indoors, his signet ring and gold chains glinting in the sunlight, I slowly digested the unpalatable information - I had bought a house beside a 70-year-old tattooed killer with a bizarre penchant for frilly net curtains and an array of unsettling garden gnomes. Great! Just great!
Thankfully I saw little of B, but he was never far from my nostrils due to his predilection for heavily-scented plug-ins.
The sickly smell of Floral Perfection and Spiced Apple permeated through the flimsy walls of my house, making me nauseous, and very, very curious.... maybe the air freshener was to cover the smell of a dead body, I ruminated, then decided to move out.
My experience with B was a bit extreme, but having good neighbours, preferably without a criminal conviction, is really important.
When we buy a house and fork out hundreds of pounds for a survey, no surveyor answers the £132,795 question, (that according to the Land & Property Services and the Northern Ireland Statistics & Research Agency, is the current average house price here) what are the neighbours like? Never mind the state of the property — what’s the state of the neighbours? Are they unsafe? Are they cracked? Are they falling apart? Are they dangerously wired?
The Christmas period can amplify feelings of loneliness, and, for many, the start of a new year doesn’t improve the situation. January is unquestionably the bleakest month, so it’s a good time to connect with others in our communities.
Prof Helen Stokes-Lampard, the chair of the Royal College of GPs, said loneliness and social isolation can be as bad for a person’s health as chronic diseases.
She encourages people to be “good citizens” and connect with friends and neighbours in a “meaningful” way.
“Any festival or gathering where people get together can extenuate or magnify feelings of being isolated or lonely,” she said.
“People usually are already vulnerable and also it’s darker, the whole Sad (seasonal affective disorder) thing about short days, amplify these things.
“As a GP, we see people in their communities, we are part of their communities, and we see the adverse impact these things have on people’s health – these are as bad as chronic diseases to your health.”
Stokes-Lampard continued: “Moments of meaningful connection is the language we use. Not just saying ‘hi’ or waving to the neighbour but actually saying ‘how are you doing, how are things going?’
“Having a little chat. Checking in on people in more than a trivial way. As a healthcare professional, we always feel like we spend our days doing good stuff, but this is about being a good citizen and part of society.
“In a world where we’ve got more connection by social media than ever before, we also hear and see other people are less connected with somebody that can hold your hand in a time of trouble.”
Thankfully, since our experience with B, and to the best of my knowledge, we have not had any dodgy neighbours - although in our second house, we were regularly woken by the resident seagulls squawking from the rooftops, with bizarre Mancunian vowel sounds, like a dozen Liam Gallaghers bickering with a dozen Noels.
Three years ago we moved to our current home. It is a fairly typical street with young families, a couple of older people living on their own and couples whose children have flown the nest.
There are people who have lived on the street all their lives, and newbies, like us. There is also a mix of nationalities; American, Malaysian, Spanish, Lebanese.
The day we moved in the lady across the street delivered a lovely gift and card; our next-door neighbours invited us in for a barbecue - with those two gestures, we knew we would be happy here.
I am fairly chatty and have the perfect chat accessories, two children and a cute dog. Now, I not only know all the residents’ names, but also their pets’.
There are some fascinating people on my street and since we moved in, we have had numerous get-togethers with our neighbours. I walk regularly with a couple of them to try and keep fit, and last year we organised a street clean-up.
If we are away, they will put out our bin; if we need a cup of sugar they will supply it. It is like a little village. I could go to any house on the road and know they would help me with what I wanted.
We even have a Whatsapp group, so we can inform each other if the water’s turned off or just to wish each other a ‘Happy Christmas’.
That is not to say we know every stitch of each other’s lives, we don’t intrude, but we are sewn together by location.
I know I am lucky. A lot of people are merely on nodding terms with their neighbours, or worse, embroiled in a battle with them.
A survey by Which? found that noise tops the list of neighbour complaints, with about three in five people annoyed by loud voices or arguments, blaring music and TVs.
A quarter of those affected are irritated by door slamming, a similar percentage have been disturbed by their neighbours’ noisy pets.
Which? suggests that if you have a problem neighbour, you should: keep a diary of when noise or an incident occurs, and how long it lasts; speak calmly to your neighbour about the problem to see if they will stop doing it; if you live in a flat and own the leasehold, contact the freeholder who may be able to take action against the other leaseholder, or if there is no change you can contact your local authority’s environmental health department who will investigate the issue and can prosecute where necessary. If all else fails, consider legal proceedings, but Which? warns these are costly and should only be considered after taking legal advice.
A quarter of people who are frustrated with their neighbours have made no attempts to rectify the problem, and 10 per cent retaliated by becoming nuisance neighbours themselves.
My good neighbours are good friends and when I am old and decrepit, I would like to think that, one day, when I drag myself to the front door with a broken limb or some other ailment, and throw myself, with my remaining strength, across the doorstep, one of the neighbours will remember that fundamental commandment of civilisation - to love thy neighbour as thyself.
*We would love to hear about your good neighbours. Are they always there for you?
Do they go the extra mile to help you out?
Do you get together regularly for tea and a catch-up?
Perhaps the neighbours look out for an elderly friend or relative?
Maybe they help out with the school run or childcare?
Whatever the circumstances, if you would like to say thank you to a special neighbour please get in touch by emailing email@example.com or write to Helen McGurk, features editor, News Letter, Metro Building, 6-9 Donegall Square South, Belfast, BT1 5JA.
We look forward to hearing from you.