Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Party tears.

I spent much of Saturday in tears. Maybe this seems silly, but the reason was the people who live above me, and their party which went on for 36 hours (at least). It started at 12 on Friday night. It was the usual, people shouting and jeering, throwing bottles from their balcony, with really continual crap trance THUMP! TUMP! THUMPING! The walls were actually rattling. I tried to turning up mys music, and puting on headphones. I even dug out my ear plugs. Nothing drowned it out.

I thought – oh well, it‘ll stop at two or three am. But they kept right on going, winding down slightly at six. But with misdirected/drunk/tripping latecomers began knocking on my door all night and then all morning, the relief of the music being lower was wasted.

Why not simply ask them to stop, you ask. Would you? I mean really, would you challenge burly blokes – who are drunk, and abusive - to turn it down? They turned the music up again at 8am, and I screamed at them from my balcony to please stop, but they just laughed at me.

I returned home at midday, when the music, and party started up again. The front door had been broken, and there was puke and rubbish all over the building.

Why not just move, you’re thinking. Well, why should I? In any case, it’s true that this is a growing problem all over the city. These parties aren’t intimate occasional festivities for a group of mates. Tickets are sold. Websites give directions.

I had important things to do next day. By the afternoon, the music was still thumping, but more gently. Then they turned it up again full blast at 6pm. I was tempted to buzz their door, claiming to be TV Licencing, or the police. It’s just that they know, as do I, that the police don’t call to break up rowdy parties anymore.

That’s why I was crying; I felt so helpless. Loud parties are supposedly one of the hazards of city living. The authorities expect us to just get on with it. They say – well it’s only every now and again. It’s just that banging parties are always coincidentally held the night before other residents must rise promptly at six.

It seems daft, and weak, to have been so upset. Then I saw the headline from the local paper today. It says that city flats are being rented out to stag parties, as flats are cheaper than hotels, and less likely to throw out rowdy guests. I don’t expect a silent life, not in a bustling city. But thirty six hours of relentless, unstoppable thumping was too much.

Saturday, 26 May 2007

Neighbours

Once again, I have new neighbours. If the past is any guide, they will range from one extreme to another; either lovely (the minority, sadly) or the truly horrible, by which I mean gangsters, scary drug dealers and thugs. This makes life interesting when you need to borrow – say, an onion.

Bongo man was nice, if a little mad. Perpetually stoned, he would visit with paranoid tales of the spooky creatures staring through his windows. I worried about him. With his equally fish-eyed friends, he formed a band playing trumpet and bongos. Practice went on a bit, and was slightly repetitive. I asked if he could keep the music to – maybe before twelve? He always warned me from that point, so I could play my music loud enough to disguise his efforts. Which made the other neighbours hate me into return. It’s the circle of life.

He was replaced by a runaway from a care home, and life had made her hard. She and her friends played Boombastic by Shaggy for three solid days, loudly, nonstop. Rocky (the gangster neighbour - he’s a nice boy really) said they were ‘skanky hoes’ when they were actually prostitutes. I once read a press expose on ‘Manchester’s seedy underbelly’ where my neighbours were the featured working girls. They used a guard dog to protect them against vicious clients, which howled at the moon, until their pimp ‘taxed’ them for it.

Meeting them once in a shop, the older one once showed me what they were having for tea (frozen lasagna, since you ask): ‘…at least we’re eating properly’ she reasoned. One night the police raided, and I never saw them again. To my enduring horror, I discovered one was thirteen years old.

I was convinced another neighbour was a serial killer. He refused to answer the door even in emergencies, and left early in the morning with a heavy rucksack, which was empty when he returned in the evening. The greasy smell of frying pork oozed under his door. He was actually a shy trainspotter, with a taste for sausages, who dealt in second hand books.

But I finally heard my new neighbours last night, and they are a bit of a nightmare. I can hear someone mixing horrible house ‘tunage’ (yes, they have decks in their lounge) while another plays luurrrve music. This is preferable to the as yet unknown neighbour, who battered his partner, putting her in hospital. I called the police, and shall willingly go to court, but then I’ll have to move out, because he’ll know who I am by then won’t he?

It’s disconcerting when you realise your own status as ‘that mad woman next door.’ I moved in to a flat in Manchester, having seen The Fall a few days previously. Exhaustion from carrying crates heavy stuff up two flights of stairs turned to silliness, as my friends and I perfected our best ever Mark E Smith impersonation. Suddenly, the neighbour’s door opened, and out stepped Simon Woollstencroft, then drummer with…The Fall. Wordlessly, he helped me in with my sofa.

Thanks Simon.

Monday, 21 May 2007

Staying in touch

Staying In Touch (1)

After the leaving do, who will you stay in touch with? Will you keep your friends, or quickly fade into oblivion, drifting into a netherworld of deleted emails, with the good intention ‘Must call…’ declining in importance on mutual ‘to do’ lists?

I refused to have a leaving do, mainly through the fear that I would fail, grow scared, and return with indecent haste. I emailed details of my new address immediately, and got some lovely ‘welcome to your home’ cards in the post. One former colleague never got in contact, except to call me asking if I would babysit, having forgotten that I had moved, which sort of set the tone.

Men are just weird about friendship generally, and R ignores everyone after they’ve left his orbit, humbly admitting that dipping self esteem and poor people skills compel him to believe that no-one will choose to stay in touch. So they don’t.

Those who maintain contact are a surprise. Wayne called to update me on his news. Danny is so good at saying in touch that sometimes I forgot I hadn’t seen him for months. It’s what you discuss that counts. Trivia is important – the chatter, and minutiae of everyday life. Cheap calls mean allow hours of mindless chat. I want to know about Danny’s new bathroom, and his dog. Anna always calls when she’s bought new clothes, claiming to have heard me encouraging her in absentia, and blaming me, but contact drifts, and is purely on her terms. Helen sent witty, informative emails from New Zealand, which made me laugh out loud.

Emma emails, regularly, and even visits me. Gary’s texts are always hilarious; bitchy comments about bands he’s seen, or the daft questions he’s going to ask them. Dan won’t communicate at anything other than yearly intervals, but myspacing means we usually track each other down. These days, Wendy - who is so busy - sends texts and emails that chatter about that freaky Ron Meuck exhibition in Edinburgh, or that she is busy.

I wish it was possible to plead for contact without sounding needy, and desperate, to calmly inform your friends that due to solitude, cards, letters and emails have an increased value, and that yes – would they please respond?

Sophie and I have lived in different cities for a while now, and both appreciate how hard it can be to wander in solitude and eavesdrop on the world. Casually, she spends about two hours on the phone each night, if she’s not careful. I think – two hours on the phone? That’s what you’d average for a night in the pub. And we talk about absolute bollocks: what we’re having for tea, gossip, stupid chats, sometimes watching the same TV show simultaneously.

The selection process for weeding out life long friends is deceptively ruthless. People may fade before they vanish, other departures are brutally abrupt. It’s always sad when they disappear, but it seems to be inevitable. Some leave behind a gap, and others, a long, dark shadow.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Leaving Glasow

My Last Day In Glasgow
Even though I love Glasgow, I have so many reasons to go, but not enough reasons to stay. The removal men collected my possessions, leaving me pacing around in the empty flat. Then I wandered around the city, reminding myself how beautiful it is – something that surprised everyone who visited.
Fighting my decision, I went to Mono, my refuge. Halfway through my pasta, the removal man calls. This time he’s talking like a cheap extra on Taggart. With a tone of focused malice, he demands an £150 above his written quote for ‘heavier than expected boxes’, or he will dump my belongings on the pavement. None of his porters had mentioned a problem, but when I indignantly refuse, he calls me a silly girl, and hangs up. He sounds really nasty, and a bit mad.
The following morning, I called the police. They aren’t keen to get involved, but when I pointed out his attempt at extortion, they visit him and explain the error of his ways. Later he calls wanting to sort things out with ‘nae trouble’. I won’t pay him any more money. I don’t have any more money.
Adrian, who may well have been the best landlord in the world, arrived to scrub the flat in hospital detail. He’s very conscientious, and even cleaned behind the cooker. That’s the measure of the man.
Next day, I woke up with the worst ever hangover anyone ever had at all, ever. The reason was Wendy, and her evil '...why not have a whisky?' and then the lovely Nigel and Mono people who said the same. It would have been churlish to refuse. Still drunk, I ran a bath, and tried to move the last minute washing hung to dry on the line above me, but clumsily knocked most of it in the water. Unable to fit dripping linen into my luggage, I could only throw some of my favourite clothes away. It’s sunny on Gallowgate and the monstrous, landlubbing seagulls are as freaky as ever.
The taxi arrived. (Somebody stop me. I want to stay.) As with taxi drivers in Manchester, Glaswegian cabbies are dry in their humour. 'So you're leaving here then?' I am asked, dourly. 'Its seems that way…' (I want to stay.) 'Why?' ''I don't know. Didn't really work out,' (I wish I could stay.)'Glasgow's a dark city,' he continued.'I love it here.' I said righteously fuming at the lack of appreciation for his hometown. We drive through the Merchant City, the grand buildings once tobacco warehouses and now home to apartments (not flats, never flats) and so many bars and restaurants. The taxi man is determined to make his point.'No it's dark, and cold, and there's a bad side...the young men are in trouble. There's fighting and stabbing, and drugs. So many suicides. No work. The weather's horrible. A very dark place.'
I want to stay. I just can't find the willpower to ask him to turn the cab around and save me from the train that's taking me away from this fantastic city.
So, I’m on my way to Brighton, the beach and uncertainty. Meanwhile a wannabe gangster is holding all my worldly goods to ransom.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Really, actually properly homeless.

Have you ever been homeless? I don’t mean occupying your friend’s spare basement luxury flat as you waft blithely from one bijou pied-a-terre to the next, but really, genuinely having no home, pleading with the council, living in a hostel, homeless.

I came inches to it last summer. I had used up all my favours with kind friends and their spare rooms and floors. Having moved to a new city, I had then been thrown out on the streets with an hours notice by a temporary landlady with emerging mental health problems, including alcoholism. I was in Brighton, where there wasn’t a hope in hell of finding somewhere fast, as all accommodation is at a premium.

I went back to the city I knew best, Manchester, genuinely shredded by my experiences. I was waiting for an agency to confirm I could move into a new flat, as they were checking my references (which after some recent difficulties might have been a little touch and go) and I was waiting for some money to arrive for rent, all of which contributed to the looming threat of actually being homeless. Not exactly Cathy Come Home, but the threat of having nowhere to live was very real indeed.

I went to the council (at the time, I was disabled). When they visited, a kind but distracted woman went through a complicated process of assessing my ‘need’ and their responsibility. I wasn’t needy enough apparently, and after a year and half in Glasgow, I had a tenuous local connection. They were not obliged to help, and I would have been sent back to Glasgow, for the undoubted delight of a homeless hostel there. You can imagine what fun that would be.

It made me ill. My belongings were in storage (but at least I had belongings; household items and the like, so I didn’t have to worry about finding the funds to buy them, another issue for the long term homeless who must find cookers, sofas, cutlery etc.)

Strangely, I just couldn’t convince people in my social circle to take this seriously. My friends didn’t seem to accept how near I was to being on the streets; they all assumed that I would be housed by the council, or that someone else would let me stay for a short while. I had severed my links with Manchester, and Salford. I had left Glasgow behind, and never really landed in Brighton. I belonged nowhere, had no home. I think everyone assumed that it was my fault, or that I was exaggerating. I wasn’t.

It’s also true that they had their own problems. E rented a small doorless, one bed flat, but kindly lent me her sofa for as long as she could. One of my best friends was gutting his house, and had his own family staying. Others just didn’t want me on their lounge floor/spare room (and why should they?)

All fair enough, but I was heading towards a disaster. I explained to them all that I knew it would be for matter of days. They did their best. A’s partner, who has professional experience, warned me off emergency housing, stating one notorious hostel was: ‘…the closest thing to a Turkish prison you’ll find.’ I was shocked to think that this might be my next destination. But more so as they knew this was where I might end up.

I have worked in housing issues, and know full well that slightly vulnerable, single homeless people are rarely a priority. D and E couldn’t understand why I feared hostels quite so much. They insisted that it wouldn’t be that bad. I disagreed. Families with children get priority, and the ‘best’ places. People like me don’t count for much. Eventually, I ended up staying gratefully and temporarily in a cheap hotel, which nearly bankrupted me, but was better than a park bench.

The experience was humbling, and terrifying. Ultimately, I was lucky. I had a deposit, and with my references intact, I found a flat. Even so, the memory is chilling.

Friday, 11 May 2007

Or, where should I go?

I wanted to live somewhere else, but wasn’t sure where. I had outgrown Manchester. The city I once loved had become my home town, in a way that reawakens adolescent emotional baggage. But then, I have a major problem with my actual hometown of Swindon; the very mention of it makes me fidget, drink cider, and threaten to run away from home.

The hard part was deciding where to go next. I don’t do countryside. It’s empty there, and the silence at night is eerie; I can’t sleep without sirens and alarms. Worse, it’s full of animals with their puddles, and no buses. I need the busy sense of threat, the sense of possibility that goes with life in a busy city.

I pinned a map of Britain on the wall, and stuck a pin on every place that counts. I have developed my own, idiosyncratic selection criteria: any future home town must have two football teams, a university (preferably two) and an art school. Another essential is a music scene that has spawned several all time top twenty bands. Throw in bonus points for additional factors such as sprawling parks, proper markets, and people you like (deducting points for people you don’t, like regretted ex’s.) Most important of all - plenty of flats, all cheap and easy to rent. Having work there helps, as does knowing a few people.

I crossed out a few possibles. I have an irrational fear of Sheffield, so that wasn’t going to happen. From an initial list of Edinburgh, Liverpool, Bristol, Dublin, Leeds, Brighton and Glasgow, I was left with the last two. Brighton had the beach, but even Sophie who loves the place finally concedes that Brighton is Neverland. Everyone’s a web designer, or ‘working towards’ becoming one.

Now my brain hurt from all that possibility. I asked for advice. Friends pitched in with peculiar suggestions: ‘I went to Huddersfield once – it seemed alright,’ ‘Why not Aberdeen?’ ‘Plymouth looked nice from the train window.’

And so I visited Glasgow for the day. I know the city has an edge; Danny was mugged there for his trainers a few years ago, but it’s not the city of heroin and string vests certain clich├ęs lead you to believe. There’s music: Glasgow is home to the magnificent Mogwai.

And it’s beautiful. The architecture is disarmingly grand. The public transport is cheap and efficient (what’s more the Clockwork Orange – the local underground - is really cute, and usefully skirts the city centre). The university, is a red brick temple of learning set in a beautiful park. There are hundreds of bars and restaurants, and a defiant, indefinable buzz.

My friend Dan’s family own a flat in the West of the city, and I stayed there for two weeks, flat-hunting, and deciding if I could stay. The weather was unusually hospitable. I felt comfortable. The people were friendly.

Glasgow has soul. It has an edge, and music, trains, and flats. I decided to move to Glasgow.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Flatmates are from hell

Flatmates are the best excuse for living alone. People with totally incompatible views, habits, beliefs and personalities are shoehorned by circumstances and necessity into a prison. I’m no angel. I can be difficult, I admit it. But I have endured enforced cohabitation until I could stand no more.

When you first have flatmates, you are young, and there is the excuse of inexperience in household matters that eases the pain of the no housework thing. We were all the same. Even so, common sense dictates that when you knock over a full dustbin in the lounge, you do not leave it for three weeks over the summer festering on the carpet, until the rats were playing volleyball with empty tins. You just don’t do that.

The same criminal had this habit: keeping her house keys on a large leather fob, and writing her name and address on the fob (in case she lost it) and then losing it. She just couldn’t, wouldn’t understand why this was witless, and was appalled when the household decreed that – whenever she lost the keys - she should pay for the locks to be changed.

Varying standards of cleanliness are a constant source of conflict. One ex co-dweller had a fear of mould. This led to frantic clear out sessions whenever we were out, ridding the house of ‘old’ vodka, blue cheese, and a fruitcake that improves with age. She was strangely immune to her habits i.e. the bins and ash trays piled high with vertiginous stacks of fags and ash.

I used to hate the ongoing soap opera of household relationships. I avoided it, and kept myself to myself. I once returned after the xmas break to find the occupants seething in a cold, dark fury. In my absence, everyone had fallen out: one had shagged the other one’s boyfriend, and in revenge, an attack of retaliatory shagging meant that they had all shagged each others partners, but hated someone else for screwing their beloved. It was the stuff of restoration drama, but with libidinous children in the leading roles, and infanticide and disembowellment replaced by sulking, slamming of doors and bursting righteously into tears.

An unmourned flatmate was a huge fan of Barry Manilow. She played him all the time. Another moved in her ignorant sexist ex US para boyfriend. One of my darkest hours was the flatmate who was stalking a poor mutual acquaintance. She was never keen for me to enter her room, but one night, I felt obliged, as I had heard her anguished sobbing. She was maintaining a shrine to this benighted man, with snatched photos, and stolen belongings of his pinned as trophies to the wall. I came home one night to find the lights dimmed, with just one spotlight trained on her. She looked… well; mad, and asked if I thought she was pretty. I ran to the pub. When she moved out it was to but a flat opposite the man of her dreams. She seemed to be watching him through a telescope.

This is not a judgement thing, about morals or anything, but two ex flatmates were extremely promiscuous, and invited all the local scallies back to ours. They suggested that I was snob for thinking this was ill advised. The burglaries were regular, efficient, and thorough.

Saturday, 5 May 2007

I am not sad, just a bit...solitary....?

I’ve often been alone in a city, not knowing a soul. I didn’t move for university, or relocate for love, nor was I transferred for work. I was shifting my entire life to a new world, full of strangers.

If this sounds daunting, then I won’t deceive you; it’s even worse than it sounds. Initially though, the experience was liberating. I wandered round never having to duck into a doorway to avoid tedious former colleagues, or psychotic ex flatmates, but it was also odd never hearing my name called out in town, never bumping into an old friend. I began to wonder what would happen if something went seriously wrong, such as a fire, or being locked out of my flat.

Anyway, first stop for me: the gym and the library. This isn’t as smug as it sounds: the library for the internet, and the gym, ok, it’s for being smug. The Glasgow gym is full of burly, square jawed blokes who look on indulgently at the feeble weight of my bicep curls, as they ooze sweat and testosterone onto the floor. Quite intimidating, and not very friendly.

I began to value kind words, casually offered, from the woman in Tesco who asked about my day, and the wry librarians willing to chat. It’ll be fine, my friends say. But being female means that certain people - that is strange men in bars - do approach me, but not always in the way that I want.

Loneliness is the last taboo. Confess to being gay, dying or mad, and you should ideally expect empathy, and kindness, but never confess to being lonely; people will edge slowly away, as you are now a sad, pathetic loser, with just an inaccurate internet persona, a deluded to do list, and thirty filthy cats for company.

But in Glasgow I’d done enough sitting in a bar reading a carefully chosen book, being pitied for seeming to be stood up and desolate. I’d seen films alone, gone to gigs. I was talking to myself, and worse than that – answering my own questions (badly). I sent emails asking if anyone knew people in my new city who might be sociable enough to maybe…see a band, meet for a coffee, or anything really. Apparently though, borrowing friends is tantamount to asking to borrow a friend's underwear.

Most daunting of all is that difficult moment when an acquaintance seems to drift towards a potential friendship, where you broach the subject of maybe, meeting up. To misjudge that moment is very awkward. Maybe there is a code for ‘I don’t fancy you, and I am not a stalker collecting your knickers from the laundry basket, I just want to have a coffee, and maybe a bit of a chat about our respective days, or maybe, see a film, or something…?’

So, what then? I appreciated the lovely ‘barrista’ who would slip me the odd free coffee and stamp my card loads, or the barman who would return my desperate, clumsy attempts at small talk. People can be kind.

But here are my two most important hints: there are people who say that there is no such thing as a stranger, only a friend you haven’t met. They must be punched hard, and later, when your arms begin to ache, they must be kicked.

Above all else remember this. You can tell strangers on the bus about your gory gynaecological complaints, or inform neighbours about the oozing pustules that could erupt any time soon. But never, ever no matter how desperate you may be, must you admit to being lonely.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Estate Agents

Agencies seem like a fantastic idea. They are the landlord’s friend: managing the property, collecting rent, organising repairs, thoroughly checking references, and - should circumstances dictate - initiating legal action. Simultaneously, they are the tenant’s guardian angel: they have property on tap, and control lazy, irascible landlords, ensuring properties are neat, water tight, and generally tickety boo.

Except, that’s a lie.

Agencies don’t do a thing. Once they’ve lured us in, they charge up to eight weeks rent in advance, with admin fees, on top of sundry mystery monies. Their latest wheeze is demanding and entire six months rent upfront. Landlords are charged a large percentage for a cursory background check on villainous tenants. Alternatively, they want five years certificated accounts, from renters who must all be nuns, and demand references stretching back ten years. Even those in their forties find themselves in need of a guarantor, despite spotless credit checks, some savings and years of respectable employment as a teacher. Agencies see all renters as losers, ands are strangely suspicious of us, the people who make their living.

What task they perform, or what services they provide to earn their money remains an enigma. Complain of damage and you’ll be redirected, testily, to the landlord, who also prides himself on inactivity. I was recently shooed from my management company’s posh offices, as they were very busy, didn’t I know? And yes I did know, but could I have those blinds I’d been promised, please?

Try and find an unfurnished flat, and you’ll be treated like a sky blue deviant. Tenants are wastrels and we never own furniture. We are sad. We are poor. We couldn’t possibly organise a sofa. My landlord realised that providing my own furniture relieved the burden of buying household items, or suffering wear and tear. Even so, he’s never put in the shower curtains, or supplied the blinds he promised, and the agency refuse to intervene.

These establishments their windows with information about bright and chic display flats, all cheap and available. This is just a ruse to snare you. In reality there are no flats with balconies, unfurnished close to town; that was just an artistic representation. I have been told that Hulme counted as Manchester City Centre. I have been shown flats, which – while spacious in the spec - was tiny on the inside as well as out, and fondly described as ‘bijou’. I have viewed refurbished flats which genuinely were refurbished, but eighty years ago.

There was one beacon of sanity. In a world where agencies want to scan your retina, check your great grandparents credit reference and keep siblings hostage in a basement, along with an entire years rent on deposit in ten pence pieces, I encountered a small, family run, well established agency in Glasgow. They had no truck with these superficial fripperies. ‘If you don’t pay your rent, we’ll be reasonable.’ They said. ‘We’ll chuck you out straight away.’

Agencies are deceptively polite, and very reasonable when first showing tenants around. But always remember this; these people are estate agents.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

I suppose I should have done this first, but anyway, this is what rentergirl is all about.

We didn’t all make it onto the property ladder. I have no home sweet home.

Television, and newspapers devote hours worth of space to desirable and expensive property, but few of my friends live that way, in dream homes: we drift from city to city, and flat to flat. Penury condemns me to rented accommodation - a world of shared houses, grim bedsits and mad landlords, of strange, semi-psychotic housemates, and unpredictable evictions. There is also hope, humanity and humour in this world.

I am not alone. Buy to let compels many people to negotiate a life that means moving on every six months, sharing houses well into your thirties, if not for ever, for example when relationships break down.

We face intrusive, lecherous landlords. We negotiate with dubious rental agencies, who demand reams of references and one kidney in the freezer by way of a deposit. The perfect home is in Brigadoon.

There are bogus, bullying removal companies when you can’t ask your friends to drive you anymore, belongings to pack, friendly hangouts to locate. And then there are flatmates, who range from your new best friend, to those who have you with the emergency services as they stand on the roof and threaten to jump.

There’s the gap when you are between houses, and must beg to stay with unwilling friends, tolerated only because they know they could be next, either through relationships ending, job loss, or leases not renewed. There’s that moment when you arrive in new town, knowing no-one, aiming to make a new life.

This epic, universal journey of finding a home dominates many lives. This is how many people live now, and may do forever. If nothing else, I've learne d alot through this experience.