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Home > Culture and Society

Neighbours: What's Their Beef?

14 April 2006

So it turns out that people reporting their neighbours to the water companies for breaking recently imposed hosepipe bans was prophesised in the Old Testament. Isaiah, 19:2, no less:

'I will stir up Egyptian against Egyptian... brother will fight against brother, neighbour against neighbour, city against city, kingdom against kingdom.'

Egypt being symbolic of the cracked and parched plains of South East England, obviously.

According to the Guardian, since last Monday, 353 pillars of the community have reported their neighbours for crimes against water. Southern Water has had 1,500 reports since their hosepipe embargo was introduced last summer. Whether this informing on ones' neighbours is purely driven by some twisted sense of patriotic responsibility towards the nation's water supplies isn't clear, but it's surely reasonable to suggest that some of these grassings will have been inspired by long-nursed neighbourhood grudges.

Most people seeing a neighbour hosing his clematis would probably vaguely observe 'What a bastard', before going for a nice deep bath, overfilling the kettle and leaving the tap running while they brush their teeth. Let's be honest here, nobody's going to die of thirst this summer.

Still, as Bart Simpson said while ratting out Milhouse and his girlfriend to the latter's father, 'Let's just say I'm a concerned prude with too much time on my hands.' Imagine sitting, stewing in your impotent Little Englander fury as you watch your much more successful neighbour with his nicer house, faster car and better paid job. Couple that with your bored, unfulfilled wife's Pavlovian response of absent-mindedly touching her breasts whenever his name comes up in conversation and you've got an itch for petty revenge not seen since Liesl Von Trapp's Hitler Youth boyfriend was patronised by her deserter father.

Scientists and philosophers should be rubbing their hands with glee at what amounts to the Prisoner's Dilemma - last seen explored in Robert Kilroy-Silk's metaphor-for-rape gameshow, 'Shafted' - being played out on an unprecedented scale.

Under the terms of the Dilemma, at its simplest a game examining how people interact, two 'prisoners' earn rewards by deciding whether to cooperate with, or betray, each other. If both cooperate, they each receive a reward. If one betrays the other, the betrayer receives the whole reward while his opponent gets nothing. If both betray each other, they receive a smaller reward than if they had cooperated.

In the short term, continual betrayal is the strategy to adopt - it is more rewarding than cooperating. Over a long enough timeline, however, the strategy fails because, naturally enough, the repeat betrayer runs out of dupes to betray because everybody betrays him right back and his level of reward diminishes. It therefore becomes more beneficial to cooperate. Or as Richard Dawkins put it when applying the Prisoner's Dilemma to evolutionary theory in his seminal book, The Selfish Gene, 'nice guys finish first'.

In the real world then, under the terms of the Dilemma, the small-minded curtain-twitcher enjoys the reward of a warm thrill of so-called civic responsibility-cum-victory over a perceived rival. If he reports enough people breaking the ban to the authorities, however, he will sooner or later receive a knock on the door himself if he dares to stray too close to the garden tap. Or dogshit through his letterbox. The task for philosophers and sociologists is to ascertain how many neighbours a person can inform on before they, in a quest for their own satisfaction, begin to plot his downfall.

If only these neighbours had cooperated, they both could have had lush, verdant gardens. The water companies, in the face of this de facto civil disobedience, would have to channel more of their corpulent profits and directors' bonuses into stemming the tidal wave of water wasted through leaking pipes every day. Thames Water alone pissed away 913 million litres a day last year.

'It couldn't happen here' is how people reassure themselves when they consider oppression acted out abroad. But as the over-quoted, misquoted and under-heeded Pastor Martin Niemöller might have said, 'When they came for the hosepipe ban breakers I remained silent, I was not a hosepipe ban breaker...'

These are paranoid times and levels of trust across society are at low ebb. Imagine some of these characters if you appealed directly to their warped sense of public good. Your neighbour not got an ID card? Maybe he's an unmarried Asian man who works strange hours (maybe you're a racially sensitive cabbie and he likes The Clash as well)? Telephone the authorities immediately for a pat on the head, a fillip to your damaged ego, and a story to tell your similarly racist mates down the pub. Your details can then be added to the informant database which will come in very handy when this government finally stops mucking about and dons the jackboots and jodhpurs. Hell, some cabinet ministers are only a best-suit-at-the-cleaners hair's breadth from it now.

And as mop-topped über-gärtner, Monty Don points out in the Guardian, the law enforcing hosepipe bans, the Water Industry Act 1991, has a loophole you could ride a very thirsty camel through. That is, the act only prohibits watering the garden and washing the car during a ban. Filthy Rich can top up his swimming pool with impunity while Dirt Poor, fearing for his wilting vegetable patch, risks a thousand pound fine. It's class warfare at its rawest.

So, the next time you see or hear your neighbour irrigating his spuds, think twice. Imagine Robert Kilroy-Silk seductively whispering, 'Will you share or will you shaft?' in your ear. When the creeping fear has worn off get yourself down to Homebase. They've got some lovely tomato plants.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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