A tale of neighbourhood Watch.
By Ron Silk
They don’t leave your doorstep alone, do they ? they perch there, like a tit on a nut-box, jabbing away at you, just like the tit with his half a peanut; and they tell you that God’s in his heaven, all’s wrong with your world; that their system of double glazing is better than the one they hadn’t noticed you’d already got; that their dusters and (second class) furniture polish are what you can’t do without; that their political candidate has got all the answers, and only needs your vote to change the whole world.
And they manage to lay it all at your door, perhaps because that’s where they’re talking at the time. It’s probably your fault that the millennium hasn’t arrived; you’re responsible for the cases of hyperthermia; if you don’t buy their polish, you’re adding to the ranks of the unemployed; and you’re why the Alliance hasn’t got off the bottom of the polls.
Excuse me if Im going on, but it does explain why I’m a little jaundiced and prejudiced when this chap knocks at my door on Saturday morning. Using the Report Sheet I was later to acquire through the Neighbourhood Watch scheme, I should describe him as middle-aged, thinning on top, moustache and blue raincoat. He looked vaguely familiar.
“Good morning” he says “I’m from No. 43 across the road.” I place him then. He’s the chap from No 43 across the road. He’s the chap with the teenage son who runs an old banger. We know in our neighbourhood why they’re called old bangers: its the bang, bang, bang when he’s panel beating at half past eleven at night, and the Bang! as it backfires when he’s adjusting the timing and finally gets it going. We always know when it’s his car coming home; he doesn’t seem to like the sound of his engine any more than we do, and tries to drown it with the noise of his car radio.
But I digress.
“I’m helping the police with their enquiries” he says, smiling to let me know that that’s his little joke, “and I’m trying to find out what support there would be for a local Neighbourhood Watch scheme.” And he goes on to explain how it’s not a vigilante scheme, were not going out making arrests, its not a curtain- twitching scheme for spying on our neighbours, its just looking after our common interests.
I can tell I’m not the first he’s asked. He’s got his spiel off pat. It’s not exactly rehearsed, it’s just running on under it’s own steam from sheer repetition. You can always tell. I once interrupted a guide in some caves in full flow, and he was just as lost then as we were later when they suddenly turned the lights out and threw us into pitch darkness.
But I digress again.
Anyway, it all sounds sense to me, not that I’d mind having a go myself at some of these yobbos, having in the past hidden behind the window several evenings lying in wait for the kids who were whipping the tops off the daffodils in the front garden. I’d have whipped their tops off if I’d seen them, but, I suppose fortunately for me, we never did.
“Well” he says finally “if you are interested, we are having a meeting on Thursday week – at No 43- and the police are sending down a detective from Crime Prevention, and our local beat constable will be there, and they’ll explain it all to us. We look forward to seeing you then.”
He’s a real committee man, you can tell; marks a ‘Yes’ down on his sheet of paper against my number, and, as I’m watching, walks punctiliously down my path to the gate to turn into No 70, instead of hopping over the hedge like the newsboy does. Sometimes I think I’ll grow a particularly vicious breed of holly for that newsboy; I could cheerfully catch him just where he hops over my hedge.
So, Thursday week a collection of us neighbours are over at No 43 for the meeting arranged by my chap with the moustache. He’s son’s not there, – he’s probably out in his banger, farting noisily round the side streets, testing his tyres for screech. But his wife’s there, a pleasant little woman, who spends the whole evening apologising.
“Im sorry we haven’t got enough chairs for you.”
“That’s alright, I’ve been sitting all day. It’s a nice chance to stand.”
(Actually we’d been checking records at the office, I’d been on my feet all day, but politeness is all.)
“I’m sorry, we’ve run out of matching cups and saucers.”
“Don’t worry; its a moder colour cheme, mauve and red.”
She even appologises for her son.
“You must get very fed up with the noise he makes at night. We keep telling him but you know what sons are.”
“Ah, yes but you’re only young once, you know.”
Though the once can go on a long time in some cases.
Anyway, there we all are, collected in the front room, and the detective from Crime Prevention comes and talks to us about the scheme, and how it’s not a vigilante scheme, and we’re not going out and making citizen’s arrests; we’re not twitching the net curtains to spy on our neighbours, we’re just looking after own own interests. No 43, I think to myself, had got it all off very well.
“You see, ladies and gentlemen,” says the detective, “you are supplementing our job in a way we cant’s possibly do, driving round in a car. You are the only people who know which are the strangers in the front garden who have no right to be there and which are your neighbours.”
Well, that’s where the police have got it wrong, because that’s just what we don’t know. For instance, I go off in the morning to catch the 8.17 and if anyone else from the road is catching a train within 5 minutes of mine i might see them, though I might not at 8 o’clock in the morning. But much of the year I’m not home til it’s dark and weekends get busy: – what chance do we have to know who our neighbours are?
So we spend the next part of the evening on what is I suppose the best or most useful thing about the whole Neighbourhood Watch idea, – getting to know our neighbours. And over our cups of tea in mismatched cups and saucers we introduce ourselves.
“Oh, you are from No.100! – with the red Cortina?”
“No, that’s mine. I’M No. 98. But you@re — ?”
“No.68. The monkey puzzle tree.”
“And that’s the odd thing. We’re all introducing ourselves by our street numbers, – not by names at all.
There’s a lot of talk about literacy and numeracy, and I have this little theory. I think we’re much more at home with numbers than we recognise. We don’t really take kindly to names.
If I’m introduced to anyone, I can forget their name before they have had time to ask me what mine is. My favourite moment at an office party was watching my boss trying to introduce to each other two members of staff, neither of whose names he could remember.
But think of the numbers we retain: phone numbers, car registrations, secret numbers on bank cards… There are people who served in the war who can still tell you their Army number. And some people even know their post code.
But I digress again.
So there we are that evening, getting to know each other by our numbers in the street. I’ve even referred to our Committee man, our Co-ordinator as he was described by the detective, as No. 43.
No.43, we are told, is the one who is going to be our chief liaison with the police. They’ll keep him posted about interesting crimes going on in our area, people to watch out for, anything they particularly wants to follow up; and he’ll pass it on to us. Then we’re given these Incident Report sheets to mark down curious things that catch our eye. Not just – ‘I saw this person loitering…’, but virtually the height, weight and colour hair of the stranger; and we’re to give these to No.43, who’ll collate them and forward them to the police. And we’ll all be that much better informed about each other’s movements, at least as far as holidays and away-days are concerned, so that we can rush about pushing each other’s newspapers through letter boxes and so on. Basically it’s a lot of common sense and good neighbourliness.
Mind you, i kept very quiet teh day I noticed that the garage door of No.53 opposite was left wide open, which he never did. So, as his freezer is in there, and he keeps a lot of tools neatly hung on his walls, I shut it for him. I was going to stroll across and take credit for being a good neighbour until I saw what a job he had getting in when he got back. The lady from No. 55 told me later he had just lost his key, and left it open purposely.
No 43. was more than sympathetic when i told him.
“He should have been very grateful to you,” he said. “It’s no the first time it’s happened. My son did just the same for him recently and closed it for him when he found it open. And on that occasion he had already lost a rather good electric drill, plus some of the attachments. I mean it’s all very neat and tidy, but the things are absolutely laid out on display there if anybody does get in. the police tell me that tools are of course very attractive, and I’ve explained to him that we shall all shut it again if we see it open.”
That’s one thing you do have to admit about the scheme. We are all on the qui vive. No. 43’s got a little joke about that too: “on the ‘qui vive’ – k – e – y vive,” he says, with that little smile to nudge you into realising he’s made a joke. Can get a little irritating that joke- and- smile, but he means well, as the damning phrase goes.
And credi where credit’s due, he does try to be efficient. I think all the people in our block belong to the Neighbourhood Watch now he’s got it running: those that didn’t come in at first have been told how successful it is, and we’ve all been worked on to put these little stickers in our window; and we keep him advised of when we’re going on holiday and so on. Personally I think its a very narrow borderline between being efficient and being officious, but I mustn’t run him down. It would be a pity to think that getting to know a neighbour better came to mean not liking them as much. He so obviously does mean it for the best, and is doing it all to be neighbourly; – really live up to what he sees the job is. He even produces a newsletter for us.
Not that we need a newsletter for our first incident. No 102 had some tools stolen from the boot of his car which had been left on the forecourt all day. There are times when neighbours do talk to each other and we all know the details long before the newsletter comes out. Thefts from cars, the beat constable has told No. 43 , are very much on the increase and we should all be very careful about leaving them unlocked, even in our own driveways. No. 102 is pretty sure the boot was locked and is a bit fed-up because he was going to work on his car the next weekend; but that’s where the neighbourliness comes in and No. 43 persuades his son to give up work on his banger and pop along to help him. With all the work he does he’s ended up with a pretty comprehensive range of equipment.
And to give No. 32 his due, he does work on the neighbourliness as well, not just the efficiency. He was struck, he says in Newsletter No 6, at our very first meeting how we latched on to the opportunity to find out who our neighbours were, and how about a bit of a social get together ? He’s willing to have this at his house, so there we all are one evening crammed into his living room to enjoy our bottle party and remind ourselves who we all are. It’s pretty crowded – I think most of us have turned out – and the evening’s a great success. Not such a success mind you, for Nos. 63 and 65 who reckon someone must have been keeping an eye on the road, and find when they get home they’ve had a break-in. Not much taken but very upsetting all the same.
Very perturbed, no.43 is in his next newsletter and the police are of course, closely involved, but haven’t come up with anything yet. We should all polish up our vigilance, don’t hesitate to fill in one of our Incident Report sheets if we see anything at all suspicious and pass it on to him: after all this is what Neighbourhood Watch is supposed to prevent.
You cant say No.43 doesn’t increase his vigilance. I wouldn’t say he actually patrols the street but he’s certainly on the ‘k – e – y vive’ all right. He’s probably the right bloke for the job I must admit and if he knows more than one of us is away, either he or his son can be seen regularly passing, keeping an eye on the post or the milk bottles and generally watching the place.
Even this doesn’t stop a burglary at No.32 when they are away on holiday, though I suppose it’s something that the theft is quickly reported, as No.43 noticed from over the fence the following day that the back door had been forced.
There is worse to come.
For No.43 it is the last straw. I get this young chap on my doorstep and he’s not God’s lieutenant, a double glazer, a polish vendor or the Alliance candidate. He is, he shows me, and with my Neighbourhood Watch training I actually read his identity card, a detective from the local constabulary.
He is, he explain, probably nearly as worried about what we think of neighbourhood watch as we are. this neighbourhood must have very serious doubts about the effectiveness of teh system.
“This neighbour”, I say, “certainly has.”
“Understandable” he says “Have I missed anything myself”
“Good” he says “because it will reassure you to know – well I hope it will reassure you to know that you have all been victims of a most unusual set of circumstances. An extremely cool operation. No.43 is in fact helping the police with their enquiries” I can see that little smile flit accross and siappear from the face of No43. “What he and his son, they were both in it, have been doing is to take advantage of the information that came to them from all of you in the road and carry out the thefts themselves. Like all successful criminals of course, they got over- confident.”
“You mean like breaking in next door ?”
“More than that. In the course of our enquiries ” I could have sworn the detective had that little smile then, ” we even found some things that his neighbour had security marked. Anyway, I thought it important that you should know your spate of troubles are over. But of course you should keep watching.”
I think we are all reassured, in spite of the experience. We had another meeting to discuss it all and chose another co-ordinator. I try not to be too officious, just efficient, so we can keep the watch going. We even keep an eye open to prevent any vandalism on the empty building at No.43