Wednesday 3 August 2016


I came back to Europe from the USA in the mid-80s with a PhD and an invitation to interview for a job in Newcastle upon Tyne, England's first city south of the Scottish borrrder. They offered me the job to start in 10 days time and I had to rush about to rent a house, find some furniture and learn where the shops were between our new home and the University where I was to work. After 3 years, they renewed my contract and we cast about for a house to buy. We couldn't afford anything in the salubrious suburb of Jesmond where we were renting, so we spent the Summer house-hunting the other side of the tracks Jesmond Dene in rougher and readier Heaton. It was a buyers market and we eventually plumped for 37 Cheltenham Terrace [street view with black door] a 2.5 storey late Victorian red-brick terrace. A pal of ours had a job digitising the UK's demographics by postcode so that advertisers could pitch more accurately. Our street was 1/3 owner-occupier; 1/3 council houses; 1/3 private rental. We were the own-occs in #37; a rotation of students lived in #35; and #39 were long-time tenants of the council. The Summer after we moved, our neighbour next door at #39 died and the house was too big and too sad for her widower and their youngest teenage son. So they swapped houses with a younger couple who had three kids under the age of 6.

It was Summer, the building season in rainy England, and the council used the change in tenancy to refurbish the house to make it habitable by a younger family.  Mr Ahmed at #41 was also doing up his newly purchased investment for the rental market. It was hot and muggy so we were asleep with the bedroom window open when I heard a sound in the yard next door and saw a couple of lads tricking about with our new neighbour's kitchen window "AHEM, I say chaps, do you think you should be there at this time of night?" . . . "There's no point trying to duck down behind the wall, I know you're there" . . . undignified scramble over the gate and sound of feet racing off down the service lane behind the terrace.

I went to work as usual the next day but came home mid-morning to see if the night-time robbers had done any damage. Mr Ahmed was in the street outside his property scratching his head because the front door was missing and he didn't know why the builders would have removed it. It turned out that, after the carpenter's tools, the heavy Victorian hardwood door was the most desirable object in the property. You can see the white modern door with which Mr Ahmed replaced the original. Like in a play, almost as soon as I'd finished commiserating with Mr "41" Ahmed, Mr "39" Connolly rocked up.  I hadn't actually spoken to him before, so I told him about the incident the previous night and he told me >!TMI TMI!< that he'd done time in Durham gaol, indeed he'd just come out from an 18 month stretch in chokey. Without me expressing more than the most cursory interest in this fact, he told me the whole sorry story.

"The wife went shopping with our kids and took a taxi home. The cab-driver drove like a mad thing, terrifying her and the children. When I got home she was still weeping shaking, so I went to the cab company and made them finger the driver. I complained to him, he dissed me, and we got into a fight during which I bit off the baastid's nose. I got three years for GBH, paroled after I'd done half my time"

In my sheltered existence, getting a very expensive education, I'd never met a real hard chaw before; not even counting the two sailors I slept with in Cornwall in 1973. We were thus a trifle ambivalent about our new neighbour; a state of mind enhanced when a crudely hand-written sign appeared in his kitchen window "Peter Connolly lives here. so Be WEAR".

Fast forward a year or so, The Boy left his bike in the back yard with the gate open or propped up against the gate in the service alley behind the house - the story evolved in the telling. That was bad news but we sort of wrote it off. I bumped to Neighbour Connolly the next day and mentioned the theft as the most exciting thing that had happened to us since I saw him last. He didn't say much - a man more of actions than words - but the bicycle silently reappeared in our yard that evening. Clearly the noli me tangere zone extended beyond the property of lags, gangstas and hard men to include their friends and neighbours. On balance we slept a little easier after that but I wasn't in a hurry to cuff the oldest Connolly boy when he threw candy-bar wrappers in the street, as I'm rather attached to my nose. 

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