Tuesday, 18 December 2007

A Heartwarming Festive Tale

Just before Xmas a few years ago, my friend Anna and I were enjoying a drink in a crowded bar, the atmosphere rich with boozy fumes and yuletide bonhomie. A man lingered outside, where his demeanour grew increasingly animated, even (dare I say it?) attention seeking.

Every night, this particular bar allocated a pitch to one beggar, donating leftovers and a large milky coffee in return for The Beggar Of The Day collecting tables and chairs from the pavement at closing time (enforced dignity from obligatory labour, perhaps).

It was freezing. The designated beggar waited outside warming his hands on the heater high above the door, jumping up and down, directing frosty breath towards the windows, unsettling the revellers, who averted their eyes.

Anna and I have both worked with homeless people. Official safety blankets are riddled with holes, and he could easily have fallen through (insufficient statutory need/no local connection) a situation which might well condemn a vulnerable man to sleeping rough. The temperature being well below zero, we thought we’d intervene: point him towards an emergency shelter, contact the rough sleepers initiative, or something.

I wasn’t feeling self righteous, and neither was Anna. Rough sleepers live by their wits, prey to uncertainties like the weather, public piety, capricious, self-righteous benevolence and scepticism, whilst simultaneously battling the accompanying health problems, both mental and physical.

By the time we left, the man was flamboyantly warming his hands underneath the heater, to mass indifference. As we passed, he wished us a Merry Xmas, and expectantly held out his hand. Anna posed some questions - each received a neat reply: he hadn’t contacted the shelter as he was new to town (I’d seen him around recently)… the rough sleepers initiative was run by judgemental god-botherers… (it isn’t) and so on.

He didn’t want assistance, or advice; he wanted cash, probably because he was an addict, and I wasn’t stumping up. Not through disapproval or squeamishness - but because I refused to pay for heroin which could leave him comatose on a sub zero night, when he might drift away to die quietly, alone in the dark. Other than invite him back (get real) there was nothing else I could do.

The amount of actual rough sleepers is hotly disputed. Government statistics claim that nationwide, five hundred people genuinely live on the streets. Anecdotally, and from my own observations this is a gross underestimate. Anyone crossing a city at night will glimpse spectral figures in the half distance. They are the roofless, searching for somewhere to settle in safety, keeping to the shadows, anxious to avoid the gaze of both the police and violent drunks (they often get a kicking at closing time.)

Renting is inherently precarious. Landlords can still end tenancies abruptly, and those fresh from prison or care homes might not be able to cope with finding and paying the rent. I once had a flat in a social housing block, where tenancies were occasionally allocated to people who had recently been homeless.

In one deserted flat, the caretaker was distressed to find no furniture or belongings, indeed anything homely, just unopened bills, and a card which read: ‘Happy Xmas son, glad to hear you’ve got your life in order, and have found yourself a home.’
‘Son’ was badly damaged by years on the street, and had no support network easing him back into the world of the housed. He slept in the corridor, then in the foyer, eventually wandering back onto the streets, never to return.

After rebuffing a homeless beggar, I wasn't feeling too pleased with myself as I made my way home that night. Then I saw a man carrying some large folded cardboard boxes. He slipped into the undergrowth. Discreetly but hastily, he constructed an improvised bivouac, first spreading festive bin liners on the ground to ensure a water proof base, topped by several flattened seasonal boxes as insulation against the frozen earth.

Next, a sort of cardboard coffin, lined with newspaper (another box protected his head.) Wrapped in a cocoon of blankets donated by homeless charities, he crowned another box with more bin liners. As long as it didn’t rain, this inventive man might just survive the freezing night.

Here in The Wonderful World of Rental, we are all a hair’s breadth away from homelessness. If fortune decrees a downturn, then you, me, and everyone we know could be thrown out onto the streets. Should that fate befall me, at least I will know how to assemble an effective, temporary shelter using rubbish, and I won’t expect a happy ending. Did you?

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

The Pros And Cons Of Dovecot Towers

I moved to Dovecot Towers during a housing panic. It’s far from perfect here and frequently a nightmare. If I was to move, it would be to a similar development with the same troubles, albeit in another part of town. I’d have to pack and find somewhere else, enduring the whole reference/deposit dance. The flat itself would more than likely be identical. And so, trying to be rational and scientific, I have written a list of pros and cons to weight up what I should do. I now have graphs, pie charts, venn diagrams and very white knuckles.

Pros: being near the city. Bars are within lurching distance, and visitors can pop round, casually. It’s like being in Austin Powers, so trendy, hip and happening is it.

Con: being near the city. No community, no neighbourhood, drunken scallies and yobbish, wealthy ‘young professionals’ who vomit on the pavement as they pass my home. Imagining you are being followed home by a ranting drunk to realise it’s actually your neighbour (who’s ranting and drunk).

Pro: being a brownfield development. Dovecot Towers uses derelict waste land instead of paving over rare orchids. Sited on demolished Georgian slums, I am reasonably certain that no dormice were relocated to satisfy my housing needs.

Con: being a brownfield development. Stretched out before me is a magnificent, cascading vista of elegant and majestic building sites, with cranes, obscured by hazy cement dust.

Pro: I never see my neighbours. I wouldn’t enjoy that village mentality, where you can’t buy haemorrhoid cream without everyone knowing, then having nodding acquaintances enquiring after your piles.

Con: I never see my neighbours. If I should die, pigeons could chew the face off my rotting corpse to feed their young, and even then, nobody would know.

Pro: Everything is so close. I don’t need car, and I can walk everywhere, no queues for taxis, or surly bus drivers, no saving change for the ticket machine, or investing in season tickets.

Con: I am always soaking wet, and my shoes are threadbare. I visit suburban friends with a tent and Kendall Mint Cake, just in case (am I over-cautious?) And if I did own a car, there’d be nowhere to park it.

Pro: I don’t have to bother with fitting out my home, as most white goods, a shower etc are already provided.

Cons: The goods provided are second rate, and break down if I have so much as one negative thought about the brand.

Pro: Shops are close by. Luxury goods are within shooting range of my debit card. I can find designer clothes, fashionable accessories, and there’s that chi-chi Farmers Market.

Cons: Balenciaga is within easy reach, but value beans elude me.

Should I put my life in a tailspin? All that turmoil, for more of the same? Life in the city is an acquired taste, but one I have acquired. I can’t imagine living in the suburbs: all that commuting, no Café Nero etc. So here I am, choosing between the rock and the hard place, the frying pan and the fire.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Please Don't Send Me Out There!

Today, I am reluctantly and vaguely considering the dreaded Great Flat Hunt. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t endure that torture again. I’ve been scanning the paper, and looking online. I even tried Gumtree, which once led to some truly disturbing calls from perverts. Gumtree is used by mad people (including my former land lady, who used up much of this planet’s supply of mad).

This is how to find a flat. First, see into the future. Buy the newspapers before they come out. Phone the landlord the month before flat is up for rent (or if possible before they are aware that they own property).

Use mind control, compelling them to rent you the flat. Ten years rent up front in advance (cash, of course) will cement the deal. Deposits are complicated these days: first dibs on your first born’s stem cells, and a promise never to live in the house you are paying for, so as not to damage it, might give you an advantage.

Next, brace yourself for estate agents, and the wily look on their faces as they push you into whatever property’s been on their book’s the longest, disdaining your perfectly reasonable upper rent limit, glancing at their workmates and smirking, undermining your determination to save money.

There are small ads in local papers where close to Manchester city centre means Birmingham, and two bedrooms translates as a studio with an alcove. That’s not to mention the hideous ritual of the wait outside, where it’s first come first served, and the orderly queue is a rugby scrum of psychological warfare, and you must pretend to be…The Best Tenant In The World! (And utterly perfect.)

There’s the tense moment of giving in your notice. Those with tight finances (or just no money at all) must time this carefully to coincide with the date of their new tenancy. A gap of more than a few days means paying rent on two homes, or staying on floors and hostels, and we all hate that.

Then there are references, and the deposit dance (the reality of needing a one months rent upfront and a months deposit to hand over to your new landlord, while you’re still waiting for the former landlord to hand over the money they have supposedly been keeping safe.)

Worse is the actual move. The idea of begging cardboard boxes from supermarkets, carrying them home in the rain and storing them in a tiny flat with no space causes yet more drudgery and fear. And the packing, stuffing valuables with the newspaper you’ve been hoarding, in the sure and certain knowledge that at least one cherished item will be smashed, and something vital will vanish en route.

And for what? For more of the same, hauling everything you own from one end of town to another to escape criminal neighbours, noise, and tiny capsule flats, only to end up in exactly the same situation.

I don’t feel strong enough. Not yet anyway.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Cupboard Love

I have a serious cupboard obsession. I want cupboards so bad, I dream about them. When visiting friends, I only want to talk about cupboards: exactly how many they have, and were they self assembled. I have become ‘That Scary Cupboard Woman,’ with bizarre and slightly disturbing fantasies about fitted wardrobes.

In my one bedroom newbuild, there is a closet for the boiler, meters, and fuse box, which heats everything stored inside to just above blood temperature. Foolishly and in desperation, I keep my vinyl there. I had no choice really, and I now fully expect my precious records to look and sound like Dali’s dream clocks.

I need bigger kitchen cupboards, but the mass purchase, one-size-for-all- unit is tiny. I have no space to keep much food, or store pans. This oversight wakes me bolt upright, screaming in the night. There’s not even a bathroom cabinet, as they are classed as non essential. Imagine guests greeted by haemorrhoid cream, diarrhoea tablets and intimate deodorant (not that I possess those items - honest - but you get my drift).

H had a basement in her house. She could never cherish it as I would. I crave a basement, or an attic. I can actually get quite wistful; just imagine, no boxes, nothing strewn around your home. I would spend time in that basement. I would love it, as it deserves to be loved. In fact I’d worship it like a god. I would install a shrine dedicated to: ‘Stuff’.

Without cupboards, you can’t economise and buy in bulk – even a bargain bumper pack of toilet roll is a major space devouring purchase, stored by necessity in the lounge, which is inconvenient in so many ways.

I am compulsive about chucking things out. There’s nothing I like better than empty floor space. I keep all my belongings boxed up in the ‘hall,’ as there’s nowhere else. It makes me feel temporary, like I’m passing through, or as if I can never stick around.

A growing pile of papers, and general stuff waits menacingly at one end of my lounge/kitchen/diner/entire life. I know I have to clear it up, for the sake of my own sanity, but where will it go? It’s already moved once of its own accord, and now it’s looming over me. I shift it regularly from one room to the next, sorted, sifted and reduced, like a creeping glacier of filing with no place to be filed.

Society is increasingly acquisitive. We need little encouragement to accumulate huge amounts of general ephemera, even with nowhere to store it. Why do urban dwellers need less space? We are the big consumers, the generation with books, clothes, CD’s, kitchen gizmos, and piles of general things.

Could architects and developers please grasp this salient fact: if they persist in shrinking flats, we will have nowhere to spread out, inspect and air our lives. It’s sad, but in Dovecot Towers, a cargo cult has emerged. We dance wildly and sacrifice goats to honour the great God of MFI, hoping that - in His infinite mercy - He will send us manna, and cupboards.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

The Tour of Dovecot Towers

Dovecot Towers is currently teeming with visitors, wandering around as if they own the keys to Liberty Hall. This happens every six, nine and twelve months, when standard leases end. Strangers are loitering in the foyer, cramming into the lifts, even standing vacantly outside my front door.

It’s like visitor’s day at a stately home. The place is buzzing with potential tenants all guided along the official tour. Estate agents park their branded Smart cars askew as space is limited. I catch them coaxing newbies to close the deal, winching them in with talk of proximity to the city (Bars! Clubs!) claiming to have had ten other viewings that day, so better hurry and commit - hand over that deposit, quickly, now.

You can spot the parents who are far too smart to lose money on student rent. Invest in property is their mantra, and I can see their point; why waste money on those halls of residence with rooms no bigger than a prison cell. Better to buy a flat and cash in when their beloved child graduates, perhaps even making a profit, or renting it out again.

Which means residents are landless peasant scum, and parental buyers stare at us disdainfully in the lift, mothers looking like they have just noticed a nasty smell. Their expressions are pained; they have headaches having spent the day exploring buy to let land, and are appalled, as flats are shoddy and uniform.

Parents of first year students look the established residents up and down with the beady of eye of those who know. They think we are all pimps, and pushers, crazed and waiting to ensnare their innocent offspring. What’s worrying is the amount of times they might actually have a point. One mother cast filthy looks my way, ignoring her surly daughter who nonchalantly ground a crafty cigarette into the floor.

I could start up as a guide: I would show all the places of note in Dovecot Towers: the foyer, where someone was mugged, and where rubbish is thrown on the floor as the bins left by management are stolen. The alcove where the prostitutes work, and the post room (or cheque donation lounge as I prefer to call it).

And I should be doing the interviews, ascertaining whether young Stewie going to throw rubbish off his balcony, or hold parties every weekend? Will they puke in the bin room? Will they form part of a community, or will they smirk and look away when neighbours say good morning?

I overheard one family asking many sensible questions of their vendor: the nature of the area, how much the flat had cost originally (adding – oh we can soon check that…) Another mother was reading her daughter the riot act: she’d be responsible for collecting money from her flatmate, it wasn’t a charity you know, if rent was late, they’d both be out. One slacker son had other concerns. His one and only question: is there a takeaway nearby.
Great news Stewie; they do home delivery.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Change Of Use

When I first moved to Dovecot Towers, the surrounding alleys were occasionally frequented by shady men, ducking and diving and wheeler-dealing. They didn’t bother me, and I never bothered them. Sometimes, I’d overhear the terminology of their trade, stray words like: ‘…grams…’ ‘…brown…’ or ‘….tabs….’

Originally cars were ordinary muddy family saloons, selected to deflect attention, but over time, such modest vehicles were replaced with enormous 4x4’s (still no Porsches though – too obvious?) The language of this new commerce is similar, but of a different dialect, even if the noble tradition of conducting business from the back seat was retained.

New generation businessmen wear suits instead of designer leisure wear, and park their cars to haggle over penthouses and balconies, not pills and powder. Somehow though, both types of transaction seem equally illicit. These new entrepreneurs also employ young runners who slip from car to car relaying messages, while spotting traffic wardens for a game of cat and mouse. I gather that discounts are negotiated in tens of thousands.

Round the back of Dovecot Towers, business is also undergoing transformation. Until recently, the padlocked yards, stranded lock-ups, converted railway arches and orphaned garages crackled and sparked with focussed mayhem from light, local industry. We had no convenience shop close by, but ready access to a pipe welder, a brake repair service, and a small carpentry work-shop.

The nearest pub is up for sale. Owners had locked horns with residents of the surrounding ‘luxury’ flats. Karaoke evenings and an Elvis impersonator are fine, unless you live in a new conversion with wafer thin walls. There was clearly something of a culture clash; men resembling either Mitchell Brother would gather outside, bristling with unfocussed rage. They dressed in T shirts even on a frosty winter night, and held their cigarettes defiantly aloft whilst struggling to restrain squat, muscular dogs. The police patrol car was a fixture.

Admittedly, that pub is scary and rough. Neighbouring residents objected to the licence renewal. It will be taken over, sanitised or civilised, then turned into a gastro pub, or a convincingly authentic real ale hostelry, with an artisan cheese ploughman’s and guest beers. The karaoke will become less heartfelt, and more ironic.

Once there was a car park up the road, next to derelict waste ground (both now covered in new-builds) where local kids ran amok, lighting fires and burning cars. A walk under the railway bridges entailed dodging loose bowelled pigeons, a journey made even more terrifying perhaps because of the previously mentioned amenities.

Local services still consist of sandwich shops provisioning the multitude of builders, offering pungent bacon doorsteps, pies, ‘tuner-mayo’ barms, and a full English breakfast which induces a stroke if you so much as mention it aloud. I don’t expect these older shops will survive. They’ll be replaced by delicatessens, a florist, then a Cafe Nero, and a Tesco Metro. With more people and more homes, the surrounding area will seem less bleak. But who will mend our brakes and weld our pipes?

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Tulips, Volcanoes and Fireworks

It’s like being stranded on a volcano, and knowing it’s due to erupt. From my window all I can see are enormous, glowing volcanoes, spewing lava in the air. Yes, I’m being melodramatic, and I am feeling insecure, but that oncoming property crash is beginning to pose a threat.

The situation is similar to tulip fever in 17th century Holland. Everybody invested in tulips. Speculators collected new bulbs, which sold for huge amounts of money. Stock market beginners invested in what was universally believed to be a solid gold opportunity. Money got silly. Profits were huge. But then consumers grew bored of tulips; crops could fail, and too many bulbs were planted – this wasn’t a good way to invest. Many dabblers were ruined when the bottom fell out.

It’s like that with buy to let. The flats are over abundant, and rotten. Many financial novices believed they had discovered an opportunity to get rich quick, and if banks were unsupportive of their ambitions, they even borrowed money from family, who will also be hit.

How will it affect me? I can’t avoid it, and I don’t even own my flat: I just live in the type of property that’s ripe for a tumble. Buy to let newbuilds in areas crammed with more of the same might plummet in price, bankrupting the owners. That’s not the irrational voice of doom talking, but the prediction of many staid financial publications.

Landlords can just about cover the mortgage with rents, but rely on equity for a profit. Tenants have spotted a shift in power relations, and are bargaining prices down, interest rates have risen, and nobody really wants to live in a newbuild flat themselves. In buildings like Dovecot Towers (and its neighbour - Shoebox Mansions) there are many empty flats in amongst the building sites, where even more tiny, one bed, newbuilds are being constructed as I write, bought off plan by investors.

My landlord seems to be in it for the long term, and could avoid negative equity by keeping his nerve. Then again, he might sell the flat (my home) and get out while the going’s good.

Meanwhile, scallies have been launching fireworks at Dovecot Towers. The flashes and whizz-bangs grew too close for comfort, and another talking-heads-over-the-balcony tenants meeting was spontaneously convened. Thumping Techno Boy ensured that police were called (they never arrived) and we calmed down a lady who thought a bomb had exploded when a rocket hit her window – she’s from Iraq, and was terrified. Other residents wandered around spotting and collecting evidence.

Local lads have decided that we in Dovecot Towers are the enemy. They are convinced we’re rich and that our homes are luxurious. They seem to be aiming rockets at the balconies, trying to land fireworks through the open door, targeting tenants relaxing in the lounge.

How little they know. We are buy to let tenants, awaiting the eruption, and I live in a house made of tulips. The idea of a being hit by flaming, heavily symbolic ordinance, whilst living in a laboured analogy really is the least of my problems.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

The Sound Of Dovecot Towers

Dovecot Towers was built in the Japanese style: flimsily with internal walls made of paper. I am grateful to be safe from earthquakes, but left with an unwanted gift: insights into the lives of people I do not know, and will never see. Whenever I stroll down the landing (even with doors securely bolted) I hear more than I should, and often, more than I would ever want.

One flat on my corridor buzzes. By this I mean there’s an electronic appliance being used full tilt and set to max at all hours. For the sake of decency, and to stop me giggling, I persist in assuming that the inhabitant has really clean teeth.
Or perhaps they have set up a mini motorbike track, and are racing around the lounge, in time trials.
Or could it be ‘The Biggest, Loudest Vibrator In The World!’
The very thought makes my teeth rattle.

Inadvertently, I hear television sounds seeping through front doors. One household possesses a solitary DVD, watched every night, sometimes more than once. It’s in Chinese, so I have no idea what it’s called, or what’s going on. First there’s screaming, then crying, followed by…laughter!

It’s extremely unsettling to pass a flat and hear frying. That can’t be right. Frying? Fat bubbling loudly through a wooden door? It doesn’t inspire confidence. But then your imagination gets to working overtime. What, exactly, is being fried? And why do they fry so often?

Residents who sing in the bath are a constant source of innocent amusement. One man sings show tunes, gloriously, with gusto. You start to worry about soundproofing: if ‘Reedy Shower Voice Lady’ is available for my merriment, what else can be heard booming out from our echoey bathrooms?

Snatches of eavesdropped conversation form an entertaining highlight of the journey down the corridor:
‘…really hairy arse!’
‘Extra cheese, extra mushrooms, extra peppers. Oh, sod it – extra EVERYTHING!’
‘Bist du verruckt?’
Look, it’s not as if I am lurking outside with a tape recorder, and I know this sounds a little creepy, but I have no choice when it’s all so loud, and walls are so thin. One voice jabbered in Spanish as I passed by. Then I heard someone exclaim: ‘…hahahaha! They thought I was Spanish!’
Others speak in code.

Myself, I am prone to shouting foul abuse at Patricia Hewitt, cackling with laughter during My Name Is Earl, and yelling: ‘…who the hell are you?’ at uncaptioned television commentators (but I ain’t crazy.)

During the night time silence, my flat is like an untuned radio, receiving traces of random broadcasts through the static. Some sounds will stay with me forever. I have heard compulsive chatter, from people I know to live alone (it’s not the talking to yourself, but when you begin to answer your own questions…) Audible weeping is extremely distressing, and I am occasionally tempted to intervene (better not though, eh?)

The most disturbing sound I’ve heard so far has entered my nightmares: someone stood on their balcony, lovingly and repeatedly sharpening a metallic blade.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

He Sweeps, He Cleans, He Rules Dovecot Towers

Dovecot Towers is patrolled by a mysterious cleaning contractor who moves down the corridors with ghostly stealth. Working discreetly and quietly, he has a habit of appearing behind me when I least expect, a bit like Mr Benn.

He’s the man who knows. Always hoovering, mopping or doing something clever and strange like polishing wooden doors with baby oil, he says I am (what he describes as) one of the few ‘normal’ people in the building. I take this as a compliment.

Certain other tenants treat him like a servant. He’s been summoned haughtily to the penthouses as if he is their butler. For some strange reason, he is expected to haul large packages and even their shopping up several flights of stairs whenever the lifts are broken.

I have the impression that secretly, he runs the place. He’s taught me all I know about the true nature of Dovecot Towers. I discovered that the car park is owned by one person, the structure by another company, while individual landlords own the flats, with a separate business responsible for the maintenance of Dovecot Towers in its entirety. As he told me this, he was carrying huge sacks of leaking rubbish, having just removed dogs mess from the lift.

Whilst diligently mopping up some beer thrown around the foyer’s walls and surfaces, he explained that many of the flats are owned by foreign investors, who don’t pay much attention to the maintenance of their property. He agrees that one day, Dovecot Towers will be a slum (and that it’s already 75% there). He says he’s scared to scrub too hard, as some of the surfaces could crumble, and the structure is so dainty that even dusting could knock it down.

I don’t envy him. He spends his day being abused and mocked. He empties the bin rooms of maggot infested rubbish in the summer. There isn’t enough money in the world to compensate him for the filth he sees, or the snide comments he tolerates. Britain has a caste system; cleaners are de facto untouchables, decreed to be disgusting by association, designated a lower form of life by the same people who leave suppurating detritus, bodily humours and rubbish for him to clear.

Despite polite requests, tenants persist in dumping bed frames, and other heavy discarded furniture for him to dispose of (why not ask and then give him a hand?) They’ve obviously confused him with a porter, and a bin man, but they should beware: he has secret powers. One word to him and noisy neighbours are mysteriously silenced. Some are never seen again…

He’s only a cleaner after all; just the man who gathers shards of broken glass every Monday morning. He’s a servant who mops up vomit, and sweeps away the fag ends. Funnily enough, he owns the cleaning company, and makes a decent living from cleaning up filth. Certain hoity-toity, high and mighty residents actually have the audacity to believe they’re better than he is. Fine sentiments indeed from people who piss on the floor.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Renting dreams, home owning nightmares.

I’ve never been on a diet. My yo-yo fasting/feasting friend claims that whenever she’s skimping, she dreams constantly of chocolate, doughy carbs, and butter.

The forbidden or impossible grows ever more alluring. I can’t afford to buy a house, but there are many reasons why I want to: the illusion of security, gaining control, even holding a stake not just in property, but in my own life. No landlord as capricious puppet master to my world would be liberating.

Renting is deeply uncertain. After six months, will the overlord of my destiny renew the lease, or sell up underneath me? Owners might raise the rent on a whim, because they can. Most choose not to, preferring continuity and a large financial return over many years; even so, you never know.

If ever I am depressed about my situation, I remember a sign outside a pub along the road from Dovecot Towers. A company advertises Insolvency Relief for mortgage defaulters. They buy property from owners teetering on insolvency, then rent it back, stalling bankruptcy, and disgrace. Such a marvellous business opportunity; garnering profit from misery, at a terrible loss to the homeless former owners.

But I still want to own a home. To be responsible for my own actions, not wondering what the landlord will think if I redecorate, or if my behaviour will lead to a negative reference. I want to feel my space is really mine. One owner filled my flat with unwanted knick-knacks, using my precious space for storage, while another moved in unwanted tenants. Not being obliged to tolerate their lord and master’s outré taste in vintage soft furnishings would be a blessing for many.

Feeling like a loser is poor motivation, but a strong one. Many of my friends are way beyond home purchase chatter, having entered a world of loft extensions, renovations, and relocating to the country. Occasionally, I would like to join in.

A think tank recently claimed that if prices are reasonable, renting can be economically viable. This is crystal metheconomics: property is a means of saving. If you don’t own your home, money is flowing down the drain. When in my dotage, I am faced with selecting a cheap nursing home, or paying for decent care, I will have nothing to sell.

This government encourages both employment ‘flexibility’ and home ownership, providing employers with a vanquished and obedient workforce. Struggling mortgagees are stigmatised as ‘sub prime’, i.e. subhuman, when they are simply vulnerable, desperate folk punished for swallowing and then choking on the lie they were fed.

Poor people commit to mortgages eight times their meagre annual income. They are not drunk with greed; they simply want to own the house they live in. It’s Dickensian: crushed, they exist on gruel (cheap frozen pizzas), dress in rags (2nd hand Primark), with no winter heating. Chronic illness propels them towards homelessness, as does having children. They are worried to the point of collapse, damaged, scared, and hungry. But at least they own some property (well, on paper anyway.)

All of this true, I know. Why then do I still dream of owning my own home?

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Yasmin's Private Arrangement

Recently, I found my neighbour sitting crestfallen in the corridor. Yasmin lost her keys, and had been waiting three hours for her flatmates to return. I invited her in; countless other tenants had passed by and ignored her. That’s how it goes in Dovecot Towers; suspicion discourages neighbourliness, and even common humanity.

While she waited, Yasmin told a cautionary tale - one that’s increasingly common. Seeking a flat, she placed an ad on Gumtree. A man replied, but she declined, explaining that as a Muslim, she needed an all female house. He cajoled and haunted her, insisting that he was an observant Muslim. He even offered Yasmin the en-suite room, and accepted that she’d need a lock on her bedroom door.

So she moved in, and loved her new home. She treated her flatmate like a brother – even cooked for him. All was well, except for one niggle: he collected the rent, claiming it was simpler if he passed it on to the landlord. Yasmin was deeply unsure about this.

Two weeks into her tenancy, she came home to find her flatmate had abruptly left, and taken his belongings. After that shock, the following day Yasmin was greeted by strangers in her lounge. Two separate couples had moved in: one in his old room, another expecting Yasmin to vacate that day. Both had paid rental cash in advance and a large ‘security bond’ to her former flatmate, who was missing, incommunicado and hunted by a multitude of creditors.

Yasmin contacted the actual owner/landlord, who - given the circumstances - was extremely reasonable. He’d not been paid for ages, but still allowed Yasmin and one couple permission to remain for one month, rent free, while perhaps understandably refusing her permission to remain.

Yasmin had repeatedly insisted that her former flatmate provide a formal, legal tenancy agreement. Somehow he never got round to it. The new couple opened some of his post; he’s deeply in debt, which might explain why he’s defrauded them all.

I have lived in houses of multiple occupation where the landlord has appointed one tenant to collect rent on behalf of the entire household. With frequent comings and goings, it’s a reasonable way to operate. S is currently in a similar situation. She pays her rent to ‘…the Columbian’ (there’s no way of saying that without it sounding dodgy) but so far, everything’s working out.

Agencies evaluate potential tenants, often taking weeks to leisurely check credit and other references, charging massive admin fees to do so. An emerging underworld of informal letting has become an alternative to that complicated and lengthy (albeit highly desirable) legal process.

The rental world is insecure, casual and fluid. People move around; sometimes a short lease - or no lease - is easier. Tenants may need to stay for eight months, not six, or one room becomes free when other tenants wish to remain. This tenuous letting network runs on trust.

Now broke and homeless, Yasmin texted her former flatmate: ‘I will see you again. How will you ever look me in the face?’
Meanwhile, Yasmin’s three older brothers are also keen to meet him.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Newbuild Flats Are Homewreckers

Couples move to Dovecot Towers to improve their arguments. Theatrical, ear-splitting, traumatic public rows are a regular fixture hereabouts.

Once locked inside in a tiny flat, there’s no escape. With outsize furniture shoehorned into an inhumanely small space, couples are trapped: they cannot move, manoeuvre, or walk away. Even slight misdemeanours are magnified into dramatic and convoluted disagreements, with lasting recriminations.

Newbuild rentals like Dovecot Towers are often the first step into the magical world of living together. It’s cheaper to share a one bedroom flat, but couples ignore the consequences when leasing their little hutch. Some two bed flats are home to two sets of couples, which (even with two bathrooms) must be a fresh, living hell for all.

That precious balcony becomes both a haven, and an arena. It’s an escape from a claustrophobic house share with its lounge/dining room/ kitchen/study room/everything room combo. Scrapping couples use the balcony as a stage to heighten the impact of their quarrel: step outside to scream abuse and everyone in the whole block will know what a bastard/bitch he/she really is. Balconies are also high altitude launch pads for dramatically throwing out precious belongings.

I witness al fresco marital ructions nearly every day. A motorbike is usually parked outside the building, in clear view of its owner’s flat. The couple who live there argue frequently. I have seen ‘Him’ sitting wistfully astride his bike, and noticed a girl - presumably ‘Her’ - weeping in the shrubbery. Neighbours recently watched in amazement as one couple ran outside to slap faces and shove each other, before reuniting to abuse the onlookers, who they accused of ‘…nosiness.’

God knows what it must be like with four people, their visitors, phones calls, cooking, varying daily routines, soggy laundry, TV choices, and music, all crammed together like inmates in a twisted reality show. Except there’s no prize.

Personally, I find shouting and screaming upsetting, whereas others find amusement in watching a drunken couple exchange wounding and humiliating personal abuse. One domestic dispute was extremely violent: I even heard the thwack of ‘Him’ hitting ‘Her’. We all knew what has happening. What shocked me wasn’t just the violence, but the fact that in a building of around 300 people, I was the only one to call the police.

Recently a lamppost near Dovecot Towers was damaged. The attached traffic notices were torn down, and strewn across the road. Nearby, a man sat for hours in his dented car, playing dreadful generic ‘Dumped Bloke’ slow tunes, clutching a road sign in his arms, while sobbing loudly.

Neighbours screamed at him to turn it down. Genuinely distraught and weeping, he slurred that his relationship had ended. Didn’t we care? He was drunk, and spent the entire weekend alone in his flat, howling and berating the girl who broke his heart.

You just wonder: what’s the significance of the road sign to the break up? Did it read: ‘Give Way,’ ‘No Entry!’ or simply ‘Stop!’

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Penthouse Superiority in my Newbuild Complex

Georgie from 603 is obviously quite posh, but not very bright. I’ve never met her; never seen her, but recently she yelled out her flat number and complete name loftily from above at four am, while guiding party guests. Silly Georgie.

Her luxury penthouse palace exists in a vertiginous otherworld, like Shangri-La, with exclusive access to a private lift. Our paths seldom cross, but even chance encounters make it absolutely clear that they regard themselves as being of a ‘better sort’ than the rental property scum who inhabit a lower level, both metaphorically and in real life.

Middle flats in Dovecot Towers are bog standard newbuilds. We are stuck halfway, sharing a lift with the rest of the building. The other day someone deposited crap (no actual crap) in ‘our’ elevator. Now I resent that private lift even more.

The entire ground floor is owned by one landlord. It’s let short term to the desperate, owing to the danger of having scallies leaping over the balcony, straight into your lounge/diner/kitchen. They are cheaper, fitted routinely with a burglar alarm, and you wouldn’t catch me in one.

My ‘betters’ make a lot of noise. To paraphrase that wonderfully named Swedish band, they are suburban kids with biblical and Victorian names. Flats are twice the size of mine, and often given as birthday presents. One upper floor dweller keeps a teensy dog in her handbag (hence the mess in ‘our’ lift.)

Georgie was hosting a little soiree for Rachel, Charlotte, and the boys, with jelly, cake, lashings of lovely weed and screaming. They all sang Happy Birthday really loud; gawd, they were – like – reeeeeally wasted, you know? Georgie was responsible for the 48 hour party from hell a few months ago (rentergirl passim) and had been warned quite severely to shut up or else.

But, here we go again, fourth Sunday morning in a row. As usual, her poor, simple guests had lost their way. She observed their epic trek from her eyrie, and like a beacon, or a booming, braying satnav, coaxed them over hill and dale towards Dovecot Towers by screeching: ‘TAKE THE NEXT RIGHT!!!’

Patiently, I waited for the lost partygoers to appear. When they came into view, I requested forcefully that they told Georgie from 603 to please be quiet, as we could all hear everything she said (although apparently she can’t hear us remonstrating from below).

The insults flew: I was told to shut up, and mind my own business. One classy lady invited me down for a punch up; pointing out that she had the weight advantage, I declined. Then I was told I was full of shit for not fighting, and ‘....what did I expect living so close to town?’ (Actually, I don’t, but aaaanyway…) Festivities concluded at 8am. My neighbour starts work at nine.

Georgie from 603 and her chums clearly believe they own the place; that they rule Dovecot Towers by divine right. Our flats might be less luxurious, might not have a private lift, might not have been a graduation present. But when Georgie, way up in the clouds in 603, is excluded from the entire area by an ASBO, she’ll fall to earth with a mighty bump.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Evidence Of Actual People

A growing pile of half empty takeaway boxes appeared close to Dovecot Towers, stacked up and hidden in an alley. It was a forlorn and lonely sight.

Later, I spotted a man - somewhat on the large side of chubby – greedily, and guiltily devouring burgers. I suppose his home has been declared a health food zone. If he shares a typically tiny, one bed flat, then a dirty alley is a haven for that hurried junk food fix.

Such close encounters are unusual. I rarely see living people around here, just the fallout of human occupation, like rubbish, abandoned post, and scraps of food dumped hastily outside. Considering that our rubbish is regularly sifted by thieves eager to pilfer documents for use in ID theft, residents are cavalier about how they discard evidence. Bank statements, personal letters, even prescriptions, are all strewn laxly around. Some are harmless, whereas other papers could be misused.

They could be ghosts for all I know, because I never see them. The people who leave these traces are ephemeral, and mysterious; fleeting wraiths glimpsed from the corner of my eye. I know they must exist because they leave a trail.

I often hear doors slamming before I edge down the corridor. Everyone seems keen to avoid their neighbours. People open their front door, check the coast is clear, and hurry off down the way, keeping well away from other tenants. It’s a sad, strange and isolated existence.

Even so, there are clues. Empty packing boxes abandoned in the rubbish room reveal so much about the mysterious inhabitants: decoded cardboard cartons allude to shopping, hobbies and who’s moving in. I often find myself wondering: who owns all the posh furniture from Heals (classy for Dovecot Towers) and who eats an oversize, overstuffed pizza every single day.

Someone regularly replaces an enormous mirror. Even with the expense, there’s the terrible misfortune. Most furniture is cheap, either because landlords are cheapskates, or tenants will be moving on. The same items break with predictable regularity: coffee tables, computer desks and shoddy fold-up dining chairs which probably fall to pieces at moments of exquisite comedy potential.

Using packing box divination, I have discovered that someone in Dovecot Towers recently bought a trampoline. Just how they will use it, when flats are so small that even energetic gesticulating can put you in the spinal unit, is a mystery to me. Wary that I am being similarly evaluated, I wrap all my rubbish and shred everything, which is hugely therapeutic.

When post is stolen, I wonder if the thief is reading up on me, forming a picture of my life. I wonder if I should ask my friends to send consoling advice about invented tragedy; maybe thieves will pity me, and leave well alone. Or should I plant fake letters from terrified ‘victims’, begging me to stop picking off and murdering their family, encouraging fear, and respect? Thieves have given up with bank statements (useless for ID theft, so I’m advised) but as for everything else – what will the sifters make of me?

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Blame It On The Buy To Let Tenants

Mea culpa. It’s all down to me, and those of us unfortunate enough to rent newbuild buy to let flats. It’s true: everything is our fault (well not mine specifically, but you take my point.)

The brothel on the floor below was run by but to let tenants. How they managed such a scheme from a tiny, one bedroom newbuild flat with plaster membranes instead of brick walls is beyond me. It must have led to a hurried service. Our benighted caretaker pointed out that some of the ‘girls’ were entertaining clients on the stairwell and also - when demand was high - in the recess on the landing. How resourceful.

And the graffiti? Guess who. The scoundrel who uses a stolen credit card to order takeaway food from someone else’s address? Yeah, you’ve guessed it. Who dumps rubbish, vandalises our management company’s feeble attempt at landscaping, blasts out horrible techno, while screeching abuse at visitors from their balcony? The git breaking the main door every morning by pulling it open (and no, that shouldn’t be possible)? Stealing post? Why, that’ll be the buy to let tenants.

Neophyte, ‘hobby’ landlords must accept some of the blame. Frequently laissez faire with the pre tenancy screening, they are apparently unruffled by the destructive effect of noisy, aggressive occupants on neighbours, and indeed - their own flat.

Of course, most wicked deeds are perpetrated by an energetically active minority of tenants who laugh in the face of outrage and complaints, caring not one iota what their landlord thinks. Then again, dedicated villains can forge a reference afterwards, so conclusive vetting is virtually impossible. And what is to be done when the accused is renting from his loving parents, blindly incapable of accepting that their darling child is creating havoc.

Around eighty per cent of flats in Dovecot Towers were snapped up unseen by Chinese property speculators. Being as they’re mostly based in Hong Kong, it’s little wonder they take no interest in the distress of neighbours they will never meet. They’ve invested long term in the bare bricks and mortar, and might be admirably less twitchy about smaller concerns like painting, but are unlikely to rush over on a jet plane if their errant lessees play music a little too loud.

The proximity of new developments to the city centre, and the accompanying clubs and bars, causes major problems. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that cheap flats next to the red light area might be commandeered for use as brothels and make-do ‘pharmacies’, although housing associations, councils and landlords feigned surprise when this happened. Such flats became highly desirable locations for criminal gangs to sell drugs or live close to the office, so the dodgy bloke next door really was the gun toting, crack dealing, pimp your mother warned you about.

There is no central control. Perhaps buy to let landlords should be obliged to notify management agents when they rent out the property. Perhaps tenants should form residents associations, encouraging a sense of community to fight against the temporary ‘just passing through - whatevah’ mentality that blights my home. Perhaps kitchen taps should dispense chilled champagne on demand.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

To The People I Barely Knew - Adieu!

Dovecot Towers is in a state of flux. It’s moving time, both in and out (allowing for a certain amount of shaking it all about.)

People come, and they go. On the carousel that is Rentergirl’s nomadic life, it can take ages to reach even basic nodding terms with neighbours. But don’t set any store by those halfhearted greetings; next thing you know, there are packing boxes stacked up outside your new friends flat, and surly removal men in the lift.

I will sort of miss 4pm Cigarette Girl. Living in a nearby flat, she habitually enjoyed very loud sex in the afternoon, then - giggling in her dressing gown - would hammer frantically on neighbours’ doors to beg for that post coital fag.

Snotty Boys I will not miss. They were thin, and stylish. Whenever I met them by the lift, my cheery ‘Good Morning!’ was greeted with a reluctant, terse, grunt, implying they’d require rubber gloves, a face mask, and a translator-cum-minder to converse with me. Same for the woman who actually turned her face to ignore me, but later knocked on my door in urgent need of toilet roll, whose exit I will not mourn.

Dressing Gown Weed Man was mostly harmless. He’d stand, dazed and stoned on his first floor ‘terrace’ gazing into the distance, wearing his dressing gown whatever the time of day. Apparently, his washing was persistently stolen from the line (easy to reach on the ground floor) so perhaps he was self medicating and had no clothes left.

I will not miss the man (okay, people) with terrible mental health and drink problems who used to summon help by urgently ringing door bells at all hours, but I do worry for them all.

I am nostalgic for the flat which held meetings for unconvincing transvestites/transsexuals. I was often met in the lift by muscular gentlemen in nasty dresses, asking in a gruff bass profundo which floor I required. Their progress was heartening: they eased swiftly from hefty bloke in a frock, to an elegant lady in just a few weeks. All it took was a manicure, a shave and a guided trip around Per Una at M&S

In my previous home, the neighbours were convivial. The man who made his living from car boot sales was cheery, and grateful for the junk I gave him. If he made any money from my donations, he’d give me a tenner here and there. Other neighbours varied from chatty, to protective, to mad. A few of us reached the cup of tea/borrowing a cup of sugar phase, but in this transient life, friendships are unsustainable.

In one block, Rebecca and I were the only tenants not in profitable employment as burglars or prostitutes, and neither of us had recently been released from a long term facility of any kind, so instantly we felt a bond. We once chatted amiably in the foyer, until we were threatened by another tenant, aggressively begging for money. We’d catch up when waiting at dawn for the all clear after the resident pyromaniac had set another fire, and often met in the caretaker’s office, reporting a neighbour’s door being kicked in. Rebecca and I still exchange Christmas cards.

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Landlords and villains

Yesterday day I drifted into the weird world of those mysterious beings who dwell on The Other Side, the dark side, the outer edge of the property map marked ‘….here be dragons’.

Actually, I was looking at some blogs posted by landlords, researching what these creatures of the night were saying about me and my fellow landless peasant scum.

Most landlord sites are quite straightforward, posting and answering queries about tenancies, rogue traders, and insurance, etc. Their current concern (or obsession) is staying strong and not selling up in the face of ‘The Oncoming Crash,’ believing that if too many of their comrades sell up in the face of fear, a chain reaction will begin, and they will lose everything in that dreaded scenario of plummeting house prices, and worthless investments.

Others are vile. One suggests boosting rental income by advertising a flat without stating the precise rent, but requesting sealed bids. The highest offer wins the flat. One blogger refers to his tenant casually throughout his posts as ‘that bitch’. She paid her rent late; not good, but part and parcel of the landlord experience, for those who know. Now she’s paid up, he is set on evicting her, seemingly because he can. This attitude is pretty rich considering the great evil landlords themselves are occasionally known to do.

Many landlords openly despise even blameless tenants for no clear reason. They assume we are evil. Where does this resentment come from? We need a home. They need our rent (we pay their mortgage, and ergo their pension fund) and usually this works out fine, so why the hostility?

Elsewhere, there are innocuous hints on improving the property, confirming what we all know: effectively maintained properties decorated in neutral colours, supplied with sturdy, pleasant furniture and decent white goods will raise more consistent rental. One site basically agrees with many points made here: don’t skip repairs, don’t abuse the tenant relationship, don’t be a bully and turn up unannounced.

These pointers are presumably aimed at dilatantte landlords, dimly aware there’s a flat somewhere around these parts, which they vaguely remember acquiring, which would account for the money that comes in sometimes (how lovely!) These hobby landlords must fondly imagine that repairs are done secretly at night by kindly elves, and anyway: just who are those dreary ‘tenant’ people squawking about the leaks and collapsing ceilings?

The majority of landlord sites discuss methods of securing a mortgage; there's much less chatter about the benefits (and obligations) involved in keeping the property in an appealing condition. What landlords need is consistency; encouraging happy, settled tenants to remain in place and reliably pay rent must surely be their aim.

We are in this together. Tenants need well constructed homes, intelligently and sympathetically fitted out. We need flats we can live in for some time, a sense of security, but above all else, a home, a real home, not rat runs for lab animals. Landlords would also benefit. In so many ways, we are on the same side. So let’s not fight.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

If The Tenants Are United

Bluebirds are flying over Dovecot Towers. Peace has been declared. Love rules once more.

Last night, the man in the flat below screamed up from his balcony, demanding that I turn down my music, except I wasn’t playing any. It emerged that he’s just moved in, and his predecessor - who had tormented me with shouting and appalling musical choices - has gone.

In an instant, more shouting heads had appeared over each railing; inquisitive neighbours wondering who was playing the nasty, thumping techno loathed by us all, admitting that we’d all been blaming each other.

In this increasingly Pinteresque scenario, a growing multitude of disembodied faces popped out of windows to join the debate. None of us had ever met before. People don’t normally speak round here. Tenants are more than naturally unfriendly; some are actually scared.

And so began the weirdest tenant’s meeting ever, where we discussed repairs, rubbish collection, and just who was responsible for the truly awful thumpage rentergirl has complained about many times here, with more and more heads speaking out.

A representative from the now numerous array of talking heads ventured down to visit the noisy culprit, and stated our case for some quiet. The thumping horror house was turned off. I could hear myself think for the first time in months.

It can be scary in Dovecot Towers. I never answer my door, as visitors know to call before they get to mine. People who bang on doors and ring bells randomly late at night are always trouble, and I often wonder what could be done to make life a little more hospitable.

Tenants/residents associations seem like a great idea: everyone working together against the evil management company/council/rogue occupant. Unfortunately, my only experience is of such organizations is that they are run by people who are strange and misguided. They convened meetings in the pub, and negotiated cut price real ale as refreshment. The first resolution they agreed concerned solidarity with Cuba. Then they came round at closing time to rustle up interest in their organisation, calling on the younger, female residents.

Buy to let owners are appalled by the intimidating atmosphere in Dovecot Towers: prospective tenants and purchasers have been glared at, or sized up as potential victims for later on, at the muggers convenience. Residents avoid eye contact in the lift, and I never use the stairs (especially at night.)

But it pays to be cautious. One neighbour ostentatiously greeted me everyday, until he became quite threatening. Tetchily, he ticked me off for being ‘stand offish’ and was later found loitering outside another female neighbour’s flat, playing hangman with her name on the wall outside before launching into inquisitorial chatter whenever she emerged. They came for him in the night.

That night though, I listened to my own music, with no invasive thumping house ruining my happiness. Then, the man who had complained loudest about the rogue music, and who had ventured down to arrange its cessation, turned his telly up full volume, but - realising what he had done - immediately lowered the sound again. No actual bluebirds, and not quite peace in our time, but hopefully a change in attitude.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

In The Neighbourhood

I live in the city, not a village. There are no elegant spinsters cycling sedately to evensong, no cheeky cherubs playing hopscotch in the street. I live on what is practically a motorway. It discourages humanity. We don’t even have a Spar.

My new, temporary neighbourhood is experiencing a large influx of new inhabitants, which is causing some resentment. The established locals pass through the buy to let developments as they walk from the estate on their way to town, and consequently the comments, and shovings, seem to be increasing.

Recently, the newest buy to let block was ‘dressed’ for sale, with primary coloured bins placed outside, presumably empted of flowers. At night, I saw four scallies on bikes heading off into the sunset carrying one bin apiece on the back of their bikes.

Perhaps I am doing them down. Perhaps they said: ‘…I say Tarquin; you know those bins we bought from Heals that we keep on the patio? Well those would make a perfect match - let’s offer to buy one, pre-owned, and ready distressed?’
But that’s not what happened, is it?

A local shop opened up. Gratefully, I called in for my Sunday paper, telling the owner how good it is to finally have some useful amenities - like his shop. He grunts, and ignores me. I think – well, that’s me back at Smiths. The miserable news agent stares at the wall. His Thai bride stands outside in the rain with her feet in a bowl of warm water. He sells vegetarian food, you know.

One local pub offers ‘accommodation’ more as a threat than a promise. Another pub was just put up for sale. Its windows were smashed every Sunday, and during Karaoke Tuesdays, the same rugged matron belts out ‘I Will Survive’ with tears rolling down her face. Friday afternoon they have an Elvis impersonator. A few houses down, the pub exquisitely decorated with Edwardian tiling is still boarded up.

There is a beautiful church, which manages to maintain stained glass windows and pretty flower beds. This area was formerly a Georgian slum, and salvaged gravestones exhibit the engraved names of god-fearing labourers, dead at thirty five and all called John, or infants killed at six months by weaning (one family mourned successive babies named Ann). The bells ring out every Sunday, summoning a congregation consisting mostly of sumptuously dressed African families, who don’t seem to live in the new flats, or the estate up the road.

It’s not as if hordes of incomers and blow-ins have edged out the locals. There weren’t any locals. There were no flats around my way; for years it was bleak, and desolate, with busy main roads, some small industry and warehouses, but no housing. Many years ago the Georgian hovels were demolished to make way for roads, a stadium, and car parks; it’s only recently that homes were built again. In time it will be lovely - or rather, lively - round here, with bars, and restaurants, and people mixing. As it is now, there’s a sense of different tribes suspiciously passing by, rubbing each other up the wrong way, but never really meeting.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

They're all mad.

People with a spare room for a while are always mad. It shouldn’t be true, but it is. Just as drug dealers are from Salford, and even in Orkney, Socialist Worker sellers have cockney accents, so it is that people with a spare room for a while are always certifiable.

Over the years, I have enjoyed their temporary rented accommodation when in between homes, but just days after moving in, I’m sleeping with a chair wedged under the door, and 999 on speed dial. Maybe my room had previously been their special secret friend. Perhaps they spoke to it at night: (‘…Hush now, liebling, I have found you a human! And this time – a real one! Hahahaha!’)

And yet, when plans go wrong, they are extremely useful. ‘Katie’ was thirty-something, with a posh job in marketing; I was new in the big city and she was a friend of a friend. Always immaculate herself, and very correct, her boyfriend was an incongruous seventeen year old lout in a hoodie. What does she see in him? I wondered, as he farted openly and repeatedly in the lounge, monopolising the remote control after snatching it from my hand.

Late at night, the truth emerged. Increasingly desperate cries of ‘Ohmygodohmygod!’ proved she didn’t like him for his conversation. Stumbling out to the loo one night, I saw she had left her bedroom door wide open during one especially loud session, so I shut it. I was given notice the very next morning, which I found a little harsh. After all, it's not as if I peered round the door to ask for a hand out with the bins.

Given such emergencies, you may find that some spare roomers live alone through choice. Others because it’s better for humanity. One landlady kindly rented me a room while I was again between homes. She was a ‘character’. Missy (let’s call her Missy) kept a small museum of historical tampon boxes on the coffee table, shown proudly to visitors. When she went away for the weekend, and removed the batteries from the remote control, I said nothing (I was paying rent, remember.)

Missy liked her booze. One night, I was drunkenly locked out of the flat until three pm the next day. At first I thought I was being melodramatic for worrying she might have suffocated. Just as I was poised to call the police to break down the door, she appeared with no explanation, other than that she was pissed.

For Missy, the world was paved with eggshells. Not anticipating her every whim was interpreted as warlike. I was soon given notice for unreasonably ringing the doorbell while locked out. Missy is probably at home right now, howling at the moon, dancing naked around a shrine devoted her beloved Lloyd Grossman pasta sauce. Missy wanted to be a naturopath, but she was already as naturopathic as a hat-stand.

I can laugh about it now, but it didn't seem half as funny when I was sitting in the council offices declaring myself homeless.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

The property crash is coming!

The Property Crash Is Coming – everybody run! Like headless chickens, the buy to let owners are retreating, and the joy (okay then schadenfreude) is unconfined. I first noticed this phenomenon when my own landlord paid lip service to wanting to keep me on as a tenant.

Prospective tenants have cautiously bargained down local rents. One landlord placed a notice on the front of my building, offering his vacant flat. The initial rent required was comically optimistic, but gradually fell to a reasonable level. Eventually a free parking space was included. Nobody wants to live in one bedroom new build dovecots. As investment properties, they are the one property option failing to swell in worth, resulting in negative equity, making this, for the first time, a tenants’ market.

Owners will be grateful for good tenants (well any tenant) willing to live in the pigeon holes they’ve chosen as their investment. Instead of tedious dinner conversations of how much their property has increased, it will be the shame of negative equity, and they’ll have the gall to feel sorry for themselves.

Oh, it’s like knowing that Wall Street is going to crash, and selling all your stock beforehand. Buy to let owners are nervous, but might learn to treat tenants with a little more respect, and perhaps become more reasonable about deposits, decorating and repairs.

Perhaps building quality will improve. You’d like to think that more houses, and two (or even three!) bedroom flats will be commissioned. Future developments could feature larger living areas, and (am I being crazy here?) might include some space gobbling creature comforts, like separate kitchens, and cupboards.

One thing is for sure: rents won’t spiral downwards at the same rate they increased. Landlords need to pay the mortgage, and that’s the problem of negative equity; owners pay a mortgage on property worth less than they gave for it, leaving rental as a desirable solution. But with a glut of one bed flats, landlords might become less pernickety and capricious.

The main drawback for tenants is insecurity: renters must be aware that in cases of insolvency, their home could be sold underneath them. They might be able to remain as sitting tenants, but this is the economic climate where property magnates swoop and establish a portfolio of property. Wouldn’t it be nice if ethical social housing trusts intervened, and bought up some housing while the market is favourable?

I know my gloating is unseemly, but over the years, I’ve been provoked. Even if smug property owners stop being so self righteousness, their whining about negative equity will replace the boasting about the rise in value. I’m sure it won’t be good for landlords owning flats with negative equity, but they’ll have the likes of me to tide them over and pay their mortgage. They might even appreciate landless peasant scum such as myself.

Cities like Brighton and London enjoyed a huge property boom. The inevitable bust gave tenants a brief window of security. But when the boom came round again, many tenants returned home to find a ‘For Sale’ sign in the garden. Happy days were here again, and they were out.

Thursday, 26 July 2007


This morning I was woken up by a siren, presumably the fire alarm, which might have meant that Dovecot Towers was ablaze. I didn’t panic. I was calm, but the alarm kept on blaring, so I peered into the corridor. I wasn’t expecting hordes of panicky residents racing for the exit, hauling sobbing children, hefty loved ones and livestock (with many chickens – these scenarios always include chickens) but nobody else seemed to bother.

What if it really was a fire? I wondered where I should go, and what I should do. Of course the alarm would be wired to the fire station, so the fire brigade would automatically be racing over out to dampen the flames and save us all. Or would they? I wondered if I should call them. The alarm was whining on, and still nobody moved.

Previously I have lived in social housing, where - if nothing else - they cared about safety. Alarms were tested regularly. We recognised the familiar screech of the siren, and were drilled efficiently until we knew automatically where to assemble. Mind you, we were also blessed with a resident pyromaniac. Wearing an ill fitting dressing gown, he set many fires, and enjoyed the ensuing chaos from a special vantage spot on the street corner below. This got to be quite annoying. Eventually other residents tried to lynch him.

We were then advised to remain inside unless firemen hammered on the door, confirmed the fire was genuine, and ordered us to evacuate. Residents then started more fires, attempting to fulfil a common sexual fantasy involving a fireman’s hose.

But here in Dovecot Towers, what should I do? Even in my private flat in Glasgow, the fire assembly point was prominently displayed. There is nothing in Dovecot Towers, no drill, no signs, nothing. Not even a notice warning the dozy and smoke befuddled not to use the lifts. Nothing.

But did this mystery siren even come from Dovecot Towers? Perhaps it was the block next door, but I still didn’t see any movement. Maybe it was the security alarm from the building opposite, as scallies often breach defences intending to treat the cranes and diggers as their own personal adventure playground.

Eventually, I decided that this was a generic non urgent warning siren, indicating either that it was Tuesday, raining, or set off just to annoy me in particular; there was no blaze, and I wasn’t going to die, or lose everything I owned to smoke damage. Later, as I made my way into town, I heard the city’s sound track: a cacophony of sirens, bells, and electric warning devices. Car alarms ring out, to the disdain of everyone. Recorded messages assail my ears, advising me with fine and chilling hauteur, to: ‘…please close the door behind me/mind the gap’ and highly vocal lifts inform me quite imperiously which floor I am on. We are accustomed and immune to these warnings, until the genuine item is irrelevant. It’s as if the city itself is crying wolf.

Meanwhile, in Dovecot Towers, I am aware that - just as with the shoddy fittings, finishes, and poor attitude to security for the buy to let tenants who make up the majority of residents - the management company has ignored fire safety. It will take a disaster to stir them into action, and then only if makes the news.

Friday, 20 July 2007

Knowing too much

I hear every word my neighbours say. They stand on the balcony shouting into their mobiles, bellowing back into the flat. Shutting my own door makes no difference, and anyway it’s not practical on a hot, stuffy day.

Usually, I only hear those neighbours who live in an adjacent flat, but last night some distant residents were in the throes of one of the most traumatic arguments I’ve ever heard. I felt like a three year old, cowering upstairs mummy and daddy tearing strips off each other. It was horrible: two desperate people screaming, thrashing out their future. She thought he wanted her to move out, and then - sobbing – admitted she thought he wanted her to have an abortion. His denial was unconvincing, and delayed.

I shouldn’t know this. It was private. I closed the windows and shut the door, but the night air was humid, and soon I opened the window again. They were still arguing. I don’t know who they are; I’ve never seen them. I probably never will. It was compelling, don’t get me wrong, but I heard other windows opening and shutting as residents rushed to listen in. We are all trespassers; bystanders in a very private drama. Tenants leaned over the railings in the pouring rain, soaked but shamelessly trying to catch every word, looking for the flat which was the location for this melodrama.

The row worsened; doors were slammed, something crystalline was broken, the screaming and recriminations grew louder: and more ferocious and horrible. She was a slut. He was a bastard. She was a bitch. It wasn’t his baby. She hated him; he hated her. She was packing her suitcase. Oh yeah? Well…he was calling the taxi himself.

He blamed her family. She agreed, but she needs their help with a baby on the way. They couldn’t stay in Dovecot Towers – it’s no place for a child. I could sense the other residents straining to hear. I wanted to shout at the mystery fighting couple to keep it down (it was late at night by now) if only to remind them that we could all hear their argument, but I think they were past caring.

We all live in little residential boxes. Isolation renders us immune to the idea that tenants are linked by some sort of neighbourly umbilical cord. We shut our front doors, imagining this protects us from the world. But when we enjoy our desirable balconies, it’s as if we share an open plan living room, a fact which residents forget, as they venture outside to order drugs and pizzas, have innocent, pointless, screeching conversations, even arrange adulterous liaisons with their partner oblivious in the bathroom.

By two am the row was easing off. She was still crying. His despair was palpable; he was scared, but did she really think he wouldn’t help her with the baby? As they were calming down, the rain lashed and the focus changed. Her final words were plaintive, and soft. She said: ‘…you just don’t love me anymore, do you?’
I couldn't hear his answer.

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Does Everybody Hate Newbuilds?

Some dejected plumbers struck up conversation in the lift recently. They were keen to share the news that all fittings, walls, ceilings, roofs, brickwork, as well as the foundations, girders, and well everything here in Dovecot Towers is cheap, shoddy and possibly dangerous. We get a lot of that round here. They also exposed the reality of a bathroom covered in what seems to be luxurious tiling: whenever they start a repair, they must rip out all the tiles and start again, as it cannot be removed in part sections.

When builders describe homes like my own, I am told of filigree brickwork with the wind whistling through, and wobbly, earthquake imitating foundations. Eventually, I succumb to wearing a hard hat when taking out the bins; well, you can’t be too careful, and I might get brain damage from tumbling boulders and sharp masonry. Builders are convinced my home is a machine of death, and predict my premature demise. They are carving my gravestone: ‘…we warned her about those newbuilds.’

Plasterers hate newbuilds. They speak ruefully about thin, miserly applications of second rate rendering, slapped on haphazardly where waterfalls of damp are waiting to pounce. Roofers bemoan the flat roofs, cracked slates, and leaking surfaces. They take some pride in their work, and realise that slapdash standards do nothing for their professional reputation.

Even the man who repaired my washer hates newbuilds, and he lives in one. It’s not just buy to let owners reluctant to pay for his work (he now demands cash upfront). While his brand new home was being finished, he was persuading the builders to scrap any white goods which came inclusive; he has his own fridge etc. As they were installing his washer drier, he was removing it, straight to the scrap heap.

Architects hate newbuilds, because they have little input in their design. There’s one huge, supposedly luxurious new-build near to me. It’s covered in off-white tiling, like a municipal urinal. It has tiny windows, a minuscule balcony, and looks like a secure unit for serial killers (who also really hate newbuilds, and were driven to kill when living in one.) One, now notorious, high end apartment block was ‘imagined’ by a fashion designer, with no training in (or experience of) architecture.

Everybody hates newbuilds. Estate agents would - without their halo slipping - describe the cupboard under my sink as being ‘…compact, with excellent access to amenities’. Even they hate newbuilds, but are constantly pressured to rent them as a priority, as buy to let owners walk a financial tightrope, and can’t afford empty flats. Estate agents disguise reality with words like ‘fresh’ and ‘new.’ Eventually, they develop a guilty expression, and convert to Catholicism, seeking absolution for the mortal sin of persuading tenants to pay rent on a buy to let newbuild.

Most workmen believe that within ten years, these detested new flats will be demolished. Who builds them? Who designs them? And who’s daft enough to live in them? Meanwhile contractors all agree on one thing: they are coining it in, from hours of large scale, long term, and therefore costly repair work. Which means that workmen are unique: they really, really love newbuilds.

Monday, 9 July 2007

Birth Of A Buy To Let Dovecot

Little Boxes by Malvina Reynolds
‘Little boxes on the hillside, Little boxes made of tickytackyLittle boxes on the hillside, little boxes all the sameThere's a green one and a pink one and a blue one and a yellow oneAnd they're all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.’
Over the past year, I have watched a block of flats being built, and the result reminds me of that song. Little Boxes was written about suburbia, but the lyrics suit my surroundings: the growing Land of The Buy To Let Dovecots, which - as I have seen - really are made out of ticky tacky, and really do look just the same.
The construction process begins with an enormous hole in the ground, surrounded by hoardings, all exclaiming how exciting and innovative this particular new development will be. Developers start the lift shaft, with gallons of concrete poured from a crane, and wary men in hardhats screaming as the skip floats ominously above them, waiting to shoot its load. The building takes shape; all are variations on a theme. Most newbuilds are stacks of one bedroom flats, with a few two beds at the end of the corridoor.
Newborn dovecots are tended by a gang of cranes; they look like huge, sinister insects building a nest. There are dumper trucks, and lorries arriving crammed with building supplies, noisily unloaded at 7am. When they fall silent, the building is nearly ready.
The facade is tacked on towards the end of the process, giving the building the look of a book shelf, or a corporate pigeon hole: anonymous empty frontages where people, rather than post, will be filed away. It’s difficult at this point to decide whether this shell will grow up to be an office block, or housing. Ideally, both are designed after considering very different requirements and priorities: homes should be comfortable, with living space, offices ought to favour functional practicalities, but they both look just the same.
Balconies are soon visible, with men suspended from winches seeming to bungee jump as they work on the exterior. Well before the dovecot is completed, visitors can be seen wandering around inside, switching on a checkerboard of houselights, presumably inspecting their new home, or being persuaded to buy one of these ‘exciting and innovative’ apartments.
Finally, a ‘design feature’ is added. In the example I was observing, this is an enormous white (presumably fibre glass) teepee type structure covering the entire roof, illuminated at night. My own dovecot is at the less classy end of the buy to let/purchase off plan design, and subsequently has no ‘features.’ It’s a rabbit hutch for people; a filing cabinet for human beings.
Even with cranes and lorries still working through the night, when the block is obviously still incomplete, television sets begin to flicker inside. Some brave pioneers are already living in these brand new, designer dovecots, which are all made out of ticky tacky, and all look the same.

Friday, 6 July 2007

Buy to let is bad for tenants too.

People speak of buy to let tenants as is if we are all ‘yuppies’ (do people still say that?) or trust funded wastrels with pots of money carelessly oozing away, when we should invest in property. The truth is simple: we aren’t rich, and just need a home.

Rarely mentioned are the problems caused for tenants by saturation buy to let. Rookie landlords often fly by the seat of their pants. They are reluctant to employ contractors for repairs (owners often arrive grumpily at 2am brandishing new spanners bought from the garage). The state of the building requires a high level of commitment when it comes to stumping up for professionals.

For buy to let tenants, there is the endemic apprehension that your landlord might not be keeping up with their own payments. Friends have been given notice after years of blameless occupation, meticulously paying the rent, keeping the place spic and span, because the property has been repossessed.

In certain blocks, buy to let tenants are the bane of everyone’s life. New owners economise, avoiding letting agencies (which to be fair, are extortionate) but often don’t check references, or police their tenant’s behaviour. This isn’t a matter of surveillance, or ‘control,’ but about ensuring the property is maintained and no disruptive or criminal activity takes place. Would you want to live next to a brothel? Or an improvised nightclub?

Buy to let increases rent. Many are the cases of one flat in a council block costing much more than its neighbour. This means going cap in hand to the council, explaining why your flat costs twice as much as the identical one next door. This is divisive on council estates, and in even private property, one neighbour can pay less; for example strong minded tenants might bargain a landlord down if the flat has been empty. This is problematic for tenants on benefit, where a standard rate is permitted for housing costs.

Developers don’t think ahead. More affordable, accessible housing, built on brownfield sites, is required rather than paving over the green belt with buy to let hutches for the comparatively wealthy to use as a pension plan. These are barely big enough for one person, let alone a couple, so when people wish to trade up, or need more space than their allocated microcapsule, two bedroom flats are rare, and large one bed flats are non existent.

An emerging and all consuming sense of impermanence is proving corrosive. I can’t imagine a positive campaign group being formed from an area dominated by buy to let flats (especially newbuilds, which are the majority). Most of these conquered colonies have no schools, and no doctors surgery. They seem to be built on the understanding that a six month lease is all that’s required. Many are on nine month leases, which is betrays the fact that these blocks are aimed at students, rather than a vibrant, lasting, organic community, one which will contribute to an area. The spectre of negative equity means that even buy to let owners lose out in the end.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Training feral newbies

There are rules you know. Tenants are either born knowing them, or learn by osmosis and experience. Others are raised by wolves. When these feral creatures move into a new home, they don’t understand how to act like a grown up. Flat dwellers well seasoned by years in fragile, echoey, newbuilds must intervene, or else the city will be plagued by hordes of wild, rampaging newbies switched into attack mode, sweeping into the lifts, and leaving havoc in their trail. Here are some tips, then:

It’s basic, I know, but don’t play ‘knock door/ runaway’ at 6.30 am (or at anytime). I’ll only get you back, and I will get you so damn good.

Don’t be so naïve as to think the neighbours are your new best friends. They are your enemies, and will blame you for messing up the bin room (when God knows you never venture that far, preferring to drop your rubbish onto the street from your balcony). In retaliation they will dump broken smelly bin liners outside your flat, play their music really loud, and then whine when you return the favour. They will steal your parcels, sneakily ordering more in your name while you’re away. They’ll listen into your conversations on the balcony and toy with reporting you to the drug squad. They may even be the drug squad.

Don’t drops smouldering fag ends on the foyer carpet. You wouldn’t do this at your parent’s house. Well, would you? Actually, you probably would.

Inside and outside are different. Outside is the street. I explain this because - should you need to discard pizza boxes, puke urgently, or be caught short for a piss - then do it ‘outside’ rather than ‘inside’ i.e. not on the carpet, by the lift, or outside my flat. Even better; head for the bin rooms. That’s where the bins are stored. You know; for your rubbish.

When you move in and your flat is all sparkly and shiny, well that sparkle is caused by a state called ‘cleanliness’. The bad news is, even if you don’t live that way, it’s how your flat should be left. It must be ‘clean’, which means you’ll have to ‘clean’ it. You’ll need ‘cleaning products’ like a mop, a hoover, some cloths and stuff. There are firms which offer a pay per hour end of tenancy clean, so if your surfaces are encrusted with gunk, the bath sloshes with goo, and there are dog ends embedded in the carpet, try using one of these services, or clean as you go. Then, you’ll see your deposit again.

Most citizens have a day that runs like this: they rise for work between six and eight am approxrimately, and often go to bed between eleven and midnight. This varies at weekends. If you live your life on a different timetable with alternative hours, then respect those around you. They might be heavily armed, or could stage a revenge four am wake up call. On a Sunday.

If you run out of things and need to borrow… some loo roll perhaps, maybe you need a parcel accepting, or fancy a chat, then it’s nice to be able to turn to your neighbours. So the golden rule is this; don’t piss them off. It’s better in the long run. Especially if you plan on popping your head into the corridor without dodging sniper fire.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Legends Of The Newbuilds

Perhaps it’s being confined. Maybe it’s desperation, or the feeling of being hemmed in, knowing that you will always live in a tiny newbuild flat, with no escape, moving to another, and another…and another, forever, and ever. But an entire belief system is emerging, circulated by illicit whispers in new developments; it’s a complex web of fantasies, fairy tales and modern myths, complete with it's own unique demons.

There’s the paranoia. ‘They,’ ‘Them,’ ‘The Government,’ have allegedly installed listening devices into all new flats. While nothing would surprise me coming from those Labour enthusiasts for ID cards, I think the man sharing this information should get some fresh air and smoke less weed, because all ‘They’ will ever hear is the high pitched whine of whingeing tenants.

Then there are stories about the rats. Huge, man eating rats the size of donkeys which devour small children, and chew your feet if you stand still too long. But don’t worry, because we are going to have buzzards living on the roof, to sort this out. That’s the rumour courtesy of yet another newbuild hating, wildlife loving tenant. I have never seen a rat. Rats are far too clever to move into a newbuild. ‘No, the place is definitely stuffed to the rafters with enormous great bloodsucking rats.’ He insisted ‘A man in a pub told me.’

People have some daft ideas. New tenants are touching in their innocence, and embark on an epic quest to locate the now legendary ‘Lock Up In The Car Park.’ The story goes that because the flats were designed without much in the way of cupboards, every flat has a lock up in the basement, to store the stuff you won’t need until you move out, or just to store stuff. Tenants have asked where they collect their key. What a crazy idea.

There’s the building haunted by a dead rent boy, or junkie. There’s the story that ‘… a man was raped in the basement. He’s in a mental hospital now. Don’t park your car alone!’ I think (in fact I know) that the last legend was invented by the caretaker when giving potential residents 'the grand tour', to deter ‘the wrong sort of people’ from moving in.

Another story goes that these flats were only built to last for ten or so years, as the land is earmarked for the new United ground, a swimming pool, or parkland. So there’s no point buying one as they’ll knock it down, but don’t worry as anyone living there from the beginning and paying their rent will have rights to buy a new flat cheaply. Of course, and I believe! The sceptic in me suspects this rumour was started by the buy to let owners.

The scariest rumour is that the flower bed is sited on an old Indian burial/communal plague pit. While I am sceptical, my fear is this: that they moved the grave stones – but: THEY DIDN’T MOVE THE BODIES!!!

It gets to everyone eventually.

Saturday, 23 June 2007

Sharing my wisdom

The one positive development of recent weeks has been my lovely new neighbours. We met in difficult circumstances; they were moving in and slamming the front door. If you read rentergirl, you could be forgiven that I have hypersensitive ears like Superman, or am the grouchiest, most intolerant neighbour ever. I’m not really that bad - it’s just that in our lightly built block, whenever the door slams, my windows rattle, and light fittings fall off the wall etc. When I popped my head around the door, instead of the burly, psycho-scally I feared, was…. a reasonable man. I asked if they’d mind the door. Later, he visited to apologise, and even introduced himself. I think in Dovecot Towers, people like us are the deviants.

So far, they are polite, friendly, don’t blast out their music, nor are they menacing in any way. Their flat is identical to mine. It’s telling that they too have bargained down the rent with newbie buy-to-let landlord, who relented on the price after paying a mortgage on an empty flat for a few months.

But they aren’t allowed to put up curtains because that would leave ‘…holes in the ceiling.’ In their furnished flat, the landlady insists on blinds (thankfully of the sunlight blocking Venetian variety.) But they must repaint the flat before they leave in exactly the same one coat chalky cheap emulsion used by the developers. She’s even chasing the developers so as to get an exact match. Maintaining the decoration is the landlord’s duty, not the tenant. When did that tide turn?

Anyway, my neighbour helped me re adjust the door closer. So what, you think. You don’t understand; for six months now I’ve had doors slamming in my face. Hot tea has been regularly, painfully and messily spilled, and I have been spooked in the night by what in deep sleep sounds like a poltergeist, but is actually just the door closer on a hair trigger response to breezes. These closers are to prevent fires. As they are always propped open, keeping our tiny homes aired, the door slammers are a waste of time.

Oh, and aren’t I just the wise old lag? I am the Norman Stanley Fletcher of that block. I advised them: get your mail redirected to a safe address. Point out to the landlord the lack of a splashback by the kitchen sink (the paint peels off within weeks) and the paint marks on the floor.

It’s saying something that there is a knack to moving into, and then living in a newbuild. There shouldn’t be little tricks to pass on. My home is a building, not a car that must be run in for maximum efficiency.

The government is launching an enquiry into why so many people are dissatisfied with newly built property. Shall we save time and money? Because these buildings are poorly built, and badly designed. The design is not brand new, but the latest in a long production line of similar developments, and everything ought to work. The developers should by rights have ironed out the generic faults and niggles by now. One week later, and all is still well with my neighbours. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Let Battle Commence!

After work, the people who live below me just want to chill. They do this by eating pizza, and (it would appear) enjoying quite a lot of drugs, while playing thumping music. Only one of these is of any concern to me.

I didn’t want a war, but they’ve asked for one. Oh, they’ve asked for one. Playing music is hardly a crime, but I don’t mean ethereal whispers of pleasant sound wafting upwards on a summer’s day. I mean remorseless, unremitting thumpage. What’s worse, they’ve been playing the same track everyday between 7-9pm.

Due to complaints by fellow residents, a letter has been sent to them by the management company, worded in that eerily calm, reasonable, polite and yet intensely threatening manner used only by gangsters and the council. The sound diminished for a while, but gradually the level snakes up slowly until it’s at earbleeding full blast again.

Perhaps I should just shoot them. They deserve it. Or should I remind them that if I can hear the music, I can hear everything else, because they do everything loudly, with the door open. I could record them, and slip a tape under their door, hoping that embarrassment might shut them up.

Or maybe I could get medieval on their arse, and pour boiling water, or oil through the gaps in the decking on the balcony. Or build a badly constructed wormery outside, and then fail to recapture escapees.

I could report them to the council. The Environmental Health dept are badasses; they’ve got noise meters, and they can confiscate a stereo, or fine miscreants up to £1000 for polluting the silence. When they are cautioned, my neighbours briefly turn the volume down, but then friends visit, they want to stand in another room and enjoy the tunage.

Or could play my own music really loud; I have some very shit music that I could blast out at antisocial hours. But that could earn me a similar fine, so probably best not. I could time when they are asleep and press their buzzer. I could – when some confused visitor of theirs mistakenly presses my buzzer at 4am claiming to be a ‘pizza delivery’ - tell the drugs squad. The thing is, I sort of believe in karma, or rather the ancient Northern philosophy of what goes around comes around again to bite you on the arse. So best not.

In another block, close by, some renegades were given forty eight hours notice to quit by their landlord, after a tide of complaints about similar behaviour. I wish I was that lucky.

I could move out, but it's likely that another block would share the same problem: loud modern stereos too powerful for the thin newbuild walls, and used by inconsiderate neighbours.

I could reason with them. I could explain the distress they are causing me. But I would do so in the sure and certain knowledge that they don’t give right royal flying fuck what I think, as they will move out, and they’ll get a reference, or lie, and inflict themselves on someone else. They’d also know who I am, and I’d know who they are; an incendiary situation. Anonymity is desirable, and so I sit simmering, waiting for them to go, out so that peace, and my own music choices can prevail in my own home. But I just wish it would stop. How can I make it stop?

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Communal cooking

Last night, I was transported back to my childhood, via an evocative aroma, snaking through my balcony. This was no Madeleine, sending me into a frenzy of recollection, nor was it the sharp vinegary hit of fish and chips pricking my soul with hazy dreamlike memories of seaside holidays past. Rather, the pungent smell was rancid lard, used to fry eggs, which reminded me of my gran, and her habit of clarifying dripping, to make it last all summer long.

In my building, tenants have no secrets. Unless you live on salad (which I do) the neighbours can tell what we are eating. Pizza is the norm here, as are curries.

In one former house, the level of cooking was poor. ‘A’ would put a large pan of cold water on the hob, and place in it some mushrooms, potatoes and peas: this was her veg. Then she’d leave a cheap pie in the oven to dry out completely. She once put the pan on the hob with nothing but water, having forgotten about her veg, which led to her infamy: she had actually burned water.

It’s so hard not to comment on other’s food choices. You mustn’t judge, when poverty decrees some unimaginative but filling meals: we all ate too many baked potatoes. Even so, I had to bite my tongue when I saw that one housemate settling down to a huge plate of overcooked pasta. The sauce? Tinned spaghetti. Even that was better than the anorexic who lived on sardines and crispbread, whilst chanting the calorie content of our food as we ate.

I was mocked by all of the above for my habit of eating properly cooked food, which I bought from the excellent (and cheap) local market. Lovely fish, excellent cheese, but they thought me odd for not eating dairlea and pies. Then one got scurvy, and asked for advice. I suggested she eat some fruit, so she settled down to a meal of tinned cling peaches in heavy syrup. Another flatmate on a health kick ate a ‘salad’ consisting of spam, corned beef, boiled eggs, pate, salami, and some ham, with a lettuce leaf, (presumably to keep her regular).

But one flatmate had created a now legendary recipe that became the stuff of nightmares, a meal which had us all calling our families to tell them we loved them, tearfully putting our affairs in order, and saying our prayers, before alerting the emergency services. Her signature dish was liver curry.

Friday, 8 June 2007

The End Of The Affair

Time to go.

Last night was the final straw. Nothing major. No-one set fire to the building (well, not yet anyway.) I spent the night enduring the end of term, all back to mine, ‘we’re moving out for the summer so we don’t give a fuck about anyone’ crew, entertaining the residents with doors smashing, and screaming on balconies. They were arguing in the corridors, outside my flat. They were standing outside my front door and screeching their pizza order: ‘…STACEY WANTS EXTRA CHEESE!!!’ (Come to think of it, this means they may have discovered a 24 hour pizza service. Either that, or they weren’t really ordering pizza.)

It’s like moving into a shared house, and being ‘old enough to know better’ when everyone else is 19, and in their first home. The vomit in the foyer, the broken bottles in the lift; it’s all getting worse. I never wanted to live there, and I’m in no way sentimental about the dovecot I moved to in desperation.

There is something inherently transient about these new build city flats. They are 90% buy to let, with tenants on a six or nine month lease. Everything is temporary, and nobody cares.

The one redeeming feature of my home has been the view. When I first moved in, Wayne (who lives up the road) claimed to enjoy the sight of the snow on the distant hills. Being as I was half blind at the time, I couldn’t share his joy, but over the months, and at certain times of day, the varied, urban vista twinkles beyond my balcony. I speculate who’s at home in the tower blocks, gaze at the imposing, gothic prison towers, marvel at the fireworks set off by scallies (still, in June) and then worry about the smoke from the burning cars they have stolen.

All this will vanish when the new flats planned in front of me are completed. No longer will I gaze out across the city, savouring the city lights on a clear, crisp winter night. The building works are already a nightmare; the dust makes me wheeze, and settles in seconds on my freshly cleaned surfaces. Work begins at 7.30am, even at weekends. The lift’s been broken for two weeks now, and the front door is permanently open. Apparently someone’s been sleeping in the bin rooms.

My home enjoyed a brief moment of youth, when all was new, and everything functioned, but the block’s descent into slum housing is unavoidably underway. The caretaker pleads with the management company – who ignore him, or have ‘meetings’. My landlord promises a solution but then disappears on another of his endless holidays. There’s nothing I can do about any of this, except leave.