Back in 1988 the UK property market went into hyperdrive. For those unfamiliar with the scenario, tax laws regarding mortgages were changing, and if a mortgage hadn't been arranged by August of that year, one would be at a disadvantage. This meant that everyone who didn't have a property was desperate to buy one, and everyone who had one, wanted a more expensive one. Anyway, the price of property rocketed, and there weren't enough properties to meet the demand, and new developments started springing up everywhere.
It was during this highly- charged period that the first letter arrived. It was from an Estate Agent (Realtor), to cut a long story short, he suggested that he held a meeting with all the property owners on our block, there were 16 of us, with a view to buying all our properties, at a premium, pulling them down, and putting up a large block of flats. They gave us the figure their client was prepared to pay. and told us to divide it among themselves. Our block was unusual in as much as the houses weren't uniform, they'd gone up at different times. There were big houses with fairly big gardens (ours), a big house with a big garden, medium houses with medium gardens, and smallish houses with big gardens. Sort it out amongst ourselves, you've got to be joking. Everybody agreed that the big house with the big garden should get the most, but apart from that, everybody thought their house, or at least their type of house, was entitled to more than the other types. Things were getting a little fraught, when Estate Agent 2's letter arrived. He too wanted to have a meeting with all of us. So we met with him. The developer he was representing was extremely well-known, reputable, and offering considerably more money than the first people. All things being equal, and all people being greedy, we unanimously agreed to go with number 2. They appeared altogether more serious. One of their directors came to meet with us, I remember noticing that he was wearing Gucci loafers, he put the deal to us, he mentioned the total figure, and then said that he would make individual offers to each householder, from that amount. He stood up, and we filed past him. It was like the receiving line at a wedding in reverse. We shook his hand, and he gave us each a white envelope with our names on it.
I would like you to imagine what went on afterwards. I'll give you a brief rundown of the occupants of the houses, there was one Chinese family, five British/Jewish, two Indian/Jewish, one Indian/Hindu, one Indian/Muslim and six indigenous British. We didn't have Bhutros Bhutros Galli, but, goodness, we needed him. We quickly formed splinter groups. Our alliances were diverse. They weren't split along ethnic lines, nor was the divide house-size related. All I know is that there were meetings going on in all of the houses, all of the time. At least that's how it seemed. During that time, the group our house was in actually remained constant. There was the Chairman and I (Large house fairly large garden), our best friends and near neighbours Colin and Lizzie (large house very large garden), elderly market traders Frank and Eva and retired solicitor Laurence (medium houses medium gardens). We considered ourselves to be the pragmatic ones, who were prepared to compromise to let the deal go through. The offer was so good, that we agreed amongst ourselves that if the money was divided equally between all houses, it would still be a fantastic offer. The others weren't so agreeable. People started arguing in the street. One hot summers day, I had the pleasure of seeing two Jewish men in their late sixties pushing and swearing at each other outside my house. It was a time of extreme tension. It seemed to me nobody slept for weeks. People would be knocking on peoples doors at all hours of the day and night. Plans were hatched and discarded, suggestions were made and rejected. Frankly it was hell.
And then, one Saturday morning, while the plotting went on around me, I opened the front door. I have always been an early riser, and before the supermarkets opened 24 hours a day (and obviously, before the chair), I liked to be at the supermarket when it opened at 8 am. Anyway, I opened the front door, and there, on the doormat, were a pair of crossed chicken feet. This both surprised and baffled me. Now I must confess that I have always been a bit squeamish about chicken feet when they were not actually attached to a living chicken. My grandmother always included them in her chicken soup. and I hated to see them bobbing away in the pan next to the kneidlach (matzo balls) and carrots. So when I saw them outside my house, I was, frankly, disgusted. I woke up the Chairman, and dragged him to the door to inspect them. He was also baffled (actually, he spent a lot of time being baffled, apparently it's a Newtonian trait), and phoned Colin. Colin came up the road, and we all stood and looked at the feet. 'Isn't this some sort of Jewish warning?', said Colin. He and the Chairman looked at me expectantly. I was the Jewish one, but I didn't know. I had always lived in North West London, not in the East End or the Shteitl in Poland. These things were as alien to me as to them. So I consulted the oracle, or Mum, as I called her. She cast her mind back to her childhood, and decided that Colin might be right.
We sat and drank coffee, and pondered (Tesco would have to wait). Who could it be? The obvious culprit was the Estate Agent who was (a) fed up with the time we were taking to arrive at a solution and (b) Jewish. As I was a bit of a mover and shaker in the deal, being the only person who was talking to everyone all the time, he obviously thought it was time to give the protaganists a proverbial kick in the rear. Then the Chairman and Colin went to have a further look on the front step, and discovered that that the chicken feet had been wrapped in an old utility bill from a flat a couple of streets away.
They decided to investigate.
I want you to imagine two broad, youngish men over six feet tall, with beards and sunglasses. Off they went to the block of flats a couple of streets away, where they rifled through the communal rubbish bins for signs of chicken innards or carcases. Now this was a bit of a no-brainer, for this was a very Jewish block, on a Saturday morning, where most people had eaten chicken the night before.
So they knocked on the door of the flat where the utility bill had been sent.
At this point I would like to remind you that we were all demented.
A small Jewish woman looked through the peephole. She could see two large men with beards and sunglasses. She didn't open the door. 'Yes?' she said 'Can I help you?'. ' We're investigating an incident of intimidation by chicken feet' said Colin. 'Are you the police' asked the small Jewish woman. 'No' said Colin. 'Well then' she said, 'Who are you?' they looked at each other, got out their Visa cards, and solemnly passed them under the door.
Three weeks later, the property market nose-dived, and the deal fell through.