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 outrĂ© 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!’