Close neighbours, if not the best friends

1st October 2004 at 01:00
Everybody needs good neighbours, as the song says, but for much of the time I would beg to differ. When I came to our school no one warned me about the effort I would spend dealing with neighbours, good or bad.

Perhaps ours are closer than most, as our 70-year-old building is tucked into a side street on a site that is laughable by modern standards. Even the architects had misgivings. Contemporary newspapers report "a school designed on the most modern lines" but to describe the playgrounds as "adequate" is euphemistic. "Cramped" would be more accurate, as houses on all sides are hard up against our tight boundaries.

The school replaced a convent. Hundreds of children evicted the nuns and shattered the 1930s' peace. The shockwaves reverberate down the decades, like a localised version of the Big Bang, to afflict our present neighbours.

Packed against our playground walls are two solicitors, a chiropodist and an assortment of 18th and 19th century villas. I don't know if the property prices are affected by proximity to the school but they are in a most vulnerable position.

Footballs and plastic bottles can be dangerous missiles if they descend from the sky on to an unwary gardener or, even worse, his or her prize roses.

Sometimes we ring the changes and skipping ropes, hoops and outdoor chessmen hurdle the walls. And even the most placid people can lose patience with a parade of small boys retrieving footballs.

Keeping the peace is tricky. Residents have a right to undisturbed lives, although there are times when you want to say: "Serves you right for buying a house backing on to a school playground." The children have less than half the space recommended for a school of our size. Postage-stamp play areas are not their fault, so depriving them of the ball games that most of them live for is not an option.

However, being considerate to our neighbours is central to religious education and its recent secular partner, personal and social development, so we resort to campaigns which encourage restraint in the bombardment of neighbours' gardens. Often, children don't understand that there are people and property on the other side of a blank wall.

During the complaints seasons, and once I have completed my grovelling apologies, I take my protesters on a tour of the school. Each party can become more understanding if they put a human face on the other. That's the theory. Sometimes it works. Perhaps this year we'll get together for tea and Christmas carols.

The solicitors are different. They don't care about their gardens but get very upset at the possibility of damage to their cars or those of their clients.

A road's width away are many other neighbours in Georgian villas or 1960s flats. They are less likely to suffer attack from the playground. Their aggravation is the twice-daily congestion, rotten driving and illegal parking of parents. Occasionally, the more adventurous residents will summon a traffic warden and we rush to the front street in expectation of an entertaining punch-up.

But all is not black. The solicitors poach our bells and playground noises to regulate their coffee and lunch breaks. We enjoy our musical visits at Christmas to the patients in the St Johnstoun nursing home. The elderly residents of the flats find great entertainment in watching the playground from their elevated vantage-point and, more than once, have pointed out a problem unseen from the ground.

All our neighbours find the school holidays unnaturally quiet and welcome the return of youthful chatter and activity at the start of a new term.

Until the first ball lands in the garden, that is.

Brian Toner is head of St John's primary in Perth.

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