A couple of days ago I’m walking the kids home from school when I find myself stopping dead in front of the small, 60s-built, council-owned block of flats next door, staring at a youngish woman balanced on a brick wall going at a tree trunk with a fairly flimsy saw.
‘What do you want?’ she reminds me of the girls who used to scare me back in my Swansea comprehensive schooldays, minus the Townhill accent.
‘I… what… you’re cutting the tree…’ I manage, realizing I’ve been staring rudely while feeling quite proud that my yoga training is helping me stand my ground.
‘Why’s it any business of yours?’ The saw is leaving a long scratch around the tree trunk which is around 20cm in diameter and pretty tall. If it falls it will easily take out the car parked at the kerb-side.
‘I live next door.’ I nod towards my Victorian maisonette, busy accruing ludicrous
value just because it’s situated in our particular corner of leafy north London.
‘Since when?’ Some saw-flexing. ‘I haven’t seen you before.’
The kids, sensing conflict, have already run to our front door. I am without back-up.
‘For the last three years. I’m Alison. I put the note through about the scaffolders?’
The block is currently cased in what must be north London’s entire supply of scaffolding. I’m told it’s badly in need of maintenance. Two ceilings have apparently come down inside. The scaffolders, a talented and innovative bunch, had managed to scaffold open the gate which usually secures the flats’ back garden and around 70 others adjoining it at – when else – 4.30pm on a Friday. I’d phoned the council, the scaffold company and the police just about continuously over a 90 minute period and had dropped a note into the flats updating the neighbours on my (extremely slow) progress.
‘Oh it was you.’
I maintain eye contact and my upright yogic stance. She nods at me. We’re ok.
‘You like it then?’ This is one of a couple of women standing on the steps leading to the shared entrance, watching the action. I know the other to say hello to – she says ‘alright love?’ to me – a bright-eyed, lively-looking woman whose very old dog walks her very slowly each morning and evening.
‘Well, I like trees…’ I say.
‘It blocks all our light,’ she says, at the exact moment I look up and see how the long, leafy north London branches are pushing close to the first floor windows (currently hidden behind scaffolding and heavy green gauze and apparently to stay that way for the next six (spring and summer) months. ‘We’ve asked and asked the council to do something but they never do.’
I look back at the woman and the saw. It is now clearly blunt. She has another go anyway.
‘Perhaps you could just take out the branches nearest the windows?’ I suggest.
But her face says she isn’t interested in taking out a few branches. She’s had enough of waiting to get her home maintained while the houses round about are Farrow and Balled into property magazine heaven.
The conversation doesn’t really end; it sort of fades. I shuffle away, mumbling sympathies about the light. The woman slides down off the wall, saying she’d probably better return the saw, get something better.
I walk past a day later with the kids, on our way home from voting in the local and European elections. The mark on the tree trunk is clearly visible, the kind of thing we’d have called a scram at school, raking the skin enough to leave a mark but not enough to draw blood.
I’ve taken my kids with me to vote since they were babies; told them how people died for this right, this equality; how women in this country have had the vote for less than a century. Their school held a great election this week engaging them in the process, trying to prove to them that it’s relevant, encouraging them to encourage their families. And our ward has re-elected a great, hard-working trio.
But as the results filter through and the radio and press are full of snatched interviews with people leaving polling stations, one particular brief radio interview sticks with me. A tired-sounding, older man who had voted UKIP without enthusiasm sighs: ‘Labour used to be the party of the working class, but not any more.’
We’re told that London is different in a way that for today’s purposes (not voting UKIP) is a Good Thing. Tolerant. Multi-ethnic. Outward-looking. And it is, and wonderfully so. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not also eating itself.
I think about how it is when you can’t spend an hour and a half arguing on the phone to make sure your home is left safe; when your next door neighbour’s place is putting on absurd value day by day while your ceiling falls in; when you’re told you have to go out and exercise your right to vote but no-one seems to represent you; when in a fast, expensive city your local services, libraries, pensioners’ lunch clubs – the little things that make life properly richer and cost relatively little to run – are being closed by councils squeezed breathless by Westminster while the guy in the four storey house across the road still commutes to ‘manage risk’ in the City; when, increasingly, your light is blocked out.
In the end you’d want to take a saw to the situation, wouldn’t you? And much as I love my trees, I couldn’t blame her.