Peter Rhodes on a royal prediction, the walls of Derry and how next-door's extension becomes your nightmare

If you pretend you know what you've planted in your garden, take heart from the Daily Telegraph reader who recalls how her father had one row of seeds labelled GOK. It stood for God Only Knows.

Hilary Mantel – no crystal ball
Hilary Mantel – no crystal ball

The sun shone as Northern Ireland relaxed Covid rules and shoppers queued on the city walls of Londonderry. It made a pretty photo for the newspapers.

As I learned on a working trip to the city, Derry is the only place in the UK that still has its complete ring of defensive walls, and very impressive they are. In other cities, ye olde walls were torn down, especially in the booming post-war years, to make way for cars.

Denied the blessings of investment (for obvious reasons), bombed and bullet-scarred Derry missed the roads but kept its walls. Well worth a visit, especially if you're worried about venturing to the Continent this year.

In an announcement last summer the Government relaxed planning rules to create new homes with this promise: “It will mean that families can add up to two storeys to their home, providing much needed additional space for children or elderly relatives as their household grows.” Sounds great. So long as one crucial question is not overlooked.

Birmingham City Council is investigating how an extension to a house in Kings Norton has been built so close to the next house that the gutters actually overlap. The aggrieved neighbour points out that he can no longer maintain his own wall and fears problems with drainage and damp. At a stroke, the neighbour's home-improvement has become his home-worsening. Spot the yawning gulf between fine words in Whitehall and the reality.

And that crucial question, the one that should be asked by council planners and building inspectors when one resident wants an extension? It is this: What about the folk living next door?

Hilary Mantel is a fine writer with a great grasp of history. But she doesn't possess a crystal ball and there's no reason why her prediction that the Monarchy is in “the endgame” should come true. But even if she's not a fortune-teller, she makes us think differently about things.

She says of the Royals: “No other family would be expected to parade a very elderly, newly widowed lady before the TV cameras, and yet it's taken for granted that's what will happen - just as it's taken for granted that a new Royal mother will appear beaming on the hospital steps within a day of giving birth.”

Mantel is right. Why do we expect such things?

“No snogging or hugging outside your household – you don't know where they've been.”

That's the advice from Plymouth City Council as lockdown is eased but social-distancing remains crucial. I'm sure we wish them well but, to be frank, the same advice has been around for many years and it's only because people ignored it that the human race survived.

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