The public art of staying private

By John Lewis

This week the view from lawn mower land expanded to infinity and beyond as our old wooden fence was taken down.

The tired post and board structure had been scorched over 50 summers and soaked with the frost and dew of ten thousand mornings. It was a grey and stumbling reminder of the way things were — when people chatted over the fence, jasmine grew uninterrupted and little dogs and big snakes came and went as they pleased.

We could have replaced it with a machine-made vanilla metal border. Plenty of new houses seem to choose the metal option when it comes to border security.

But because we have lived side by side with our neighbours for 25 years and watched our children grow and grandchildren arrive through the slats of the old wooden fence, we thought it would be a shame to lose that intimacy. So we have a new, old-style slatted wooden fence now.

Good neighbours — like a long-lasting wine — are a rarity and should be cherished and nurtured with a friendly wave and the occasional chat — but not too many.

I have lived with neighbours who insisted on telling me the thrilling history of their family feuds every time I saw them. I knew so much about their lives I had several novels in me, but I couldn't look them in the eye if I saw them down the street.

Others would insist on inviting me to dinner so they could hear the thrilling story of my life. I always refused, usually with the excuse that my ex-wife and her lesbian lover were expecting me, or that I was meeting my rock star mates to write their biography.

Of course, this made my neighbours insatiably curious to the point where they stopped me at every opportunity for updates. I was young, I hadn't learned the rules of neighbourly engagement: give enough to be friendly, but never encourage serious conversation. And don't invent stuff.

Some neighbours are like the taxi driver with solutions to everything from Middle Eastern politics to drug sentencing that you have to listen to for 20 minutes.

With an annoying neighbour it could be 25 years of solutions. Your solution is to listen, but don't engage.

Save the discussions on politics, religion and sex to close friends with a bottle of wine after midnight.

Luckily, my wooden fence neighbours have needed no dance of awkward conversation.

For 25 years we have said hello, talked gardens, and admired our children's achievements.

And we've never had a cross word.

Through our wooden fence I have enjoyed the joyful screeches of their grandchildren and the clink of Sunday afternoon sessions of laughter and wine with friends.

From our side they have endured bad Beatle tributes, the occasional dog bark and a lawn mower that sounds like an uncle with bad lungs.

Now we have a new-old fence so our worlds are once again secure — private, but friendly enough to share for another 25 years.