Tuesday, 29 January 2008

The Smell Of Dovecot Towers

An ominous thick cloud lingers over Dovecot Towers, and it stinks. But then, Dovecot Towers often smells bad. Some of this is caused by a malodorous and determined criminal lurking in our midst: the guerrilla farter. Pernicious flatulence is so anti social. Farting in the lift should be a hanging offence, but hanging is too good for them. Perpetrators exit the lift wearing a smug and knowing grin, just before I enter and nearly die. All lifts should be fitted with those oxygen masks that drop from the ceiling in airplanes, to save our lungs from dissolving in an acrid pall of human methane.

As if that’s not bad enough, there then follows the humiliation of another stranger stepping into the lift, recoiling, grasping at their throat and retching, clawing and banging on the door for release, screaming: ‘SWEET JESUS LET ME OUT!!!’
Their piercing, hate-filled eyes betray the fact that they are blaming me!
So then I stutter unconvincingly: ‘Oh god - it’s horrible isn’t it? It wasn’t me…no really…honest…it wasn’t…DEAR GOD - PLEASE BELIEVE ME!!!!’
But they glare at me again, clearly sceptical about my now desperate please of innocence. Then I become frantic; I couldn’t live another day if anyone actually thought a delicate thing like me was responsible for a pungent, vituperative stink like that. Mind you – that snotty woman on the floor below me? I bet it’s her.

Along the corridors, you can usually inhale the smell of simple quotidian existence, like cooking, takeaways and smoke. It’s a not entirely unpleasant proof of life, and since smaller flats have bathrooms next to the front door, you can occasionally even smell bubble bath, which is proof of bathing. On a Saturday and Sunday morning, there’s an odour of vomit, alongside the smell of skunk, and the accompanying, fruitless perfume of supposed skunk defeaters, like incense. Nice try.

As of last week there’s a new stench around here, which is worse than the fetid odour of bin rooms. We are banned from starting a compost heap (why would you want to in a flat?) but some residents seem to stack up vegetable matter. No, worse than that, it’s the air freshener used to hide the fetid odour of the bin rooms; a sticky, treacly, sickly, syrupy sweet aroma. It’s horrible. I haven’t seen the cleaner around as much as usual, and I suspect his hours have been cut, and that air freshener cubes are the management company’s attempt at disguising their mean spirited short sightedness. Either that or someone’s stashing a corpse. Could be either, really.

This morning there was another new addition to our repository of fragrance. The entire building reeked of beer. On the ground floor, outside the lift, someone had dropped an entire cardboard carton of Stella, which had smashed. What a waste. Of course, some people might return to their flat for a mop and bucket and start cleaning, but this is Dovecot Towers, and that would count as deviant behaviour. Mind you, there was a time when a large pool of free beer would have seen most residents running home for a straw.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Pilar From Spain

Residents of Dovecot Towers live in splendid isolation, but for a while I was happily acquainted with a neighbour. At first she was afraid to speak, mumbling a diffident reply to my cheery good morning. Slowly she realised that I’m not one of the bad guys, and we began, occasionally, to chat. She shares a one bed newbuild with her husband, and is appalled at… well, everything, and more.

Pilar is Spanish and can’t understand why the flats are so badly built, especially the walls, which are little more than a flimsy veneer of paint, leaving her able to hear most of what her neighbours say and do.

She asked me: where do all the families live? In Spain, apartments are larger, and families routinely live clannishly in high-ceilinged city flats with generous balconies, large kitchens, against a backdrop of thriving family friendly cafĂ© culture (should individuals need to escape the confines of domestic life.) Several generations live in one apartment, but then there’s enough space.

Every time I saw her, Pilar was more and more disillusioned. What about respect, she asked: don’t people care? Everybody has their moments, she knows, but parties and screaming every single Saturday? She feels people veer between two extremes: either frosty and unfriendly, or banging drunkenly on her door at night. Why do they drink so much?

And why are the homes so horrible? Why are they built in such a mean spirited fashion, why so small? She wants her younger sister to come and stay, but has had to explain that her home is cramped, and staying for more than a week or so will be difficult for them all, camped out on an airbed in a combined lounge/diner/kitchen/spare room, with a washer on the go.

In Continental Europe, people routinely live in large, reasonably priced apartments. They seem to stay for life. Owners and landlords accept that they will see increase in value over many years, content to profit from reasonable rents, as the property is already mortgage free. Some blocks are Victorian, with both owners and tenants owning and living in the same flat for decades. Some leases have been inherited down the generations from Edwardian times.

In Europe, there is little stigma about renting and seemingly, less greed. Families live slap bang in the middle of thriving urban landscapes, but there are schools, doctors, and some sense of community or village life even in a bustling metropolis. People seem to accept that you never really own a property, but pass it on to your family, who will care for you when you are infirm with illness or age.

Pilar promised to copy me a form she’s obtained from the council about noisy neighbours. But then one day I came home and found boxes of packed belongings stacked outside her flat. Pilar must have had enough – apparently she’s returned to Spain. I really wish the good neighbours stuck around.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

In Search Of Beauty

I’m no tortured, winsome aesthete; I just like my surroundings to be lovely. I am living in the land of the ugly things. Is there a bye law decreeing that newbuilds must be uniform in their hideous awfulness?

Newbuild complexes are crushing cities countrywide. They are bleak, and blank. One allegedly luxurious development is covered in beige ceramic tiles. It resembles a tribute to the Arndale Centre, which in turn, paid homage to the artistic principles exemplified by municipal urinals.

Victorian city warehouses and even Edwardian tenements were built from attractive red brick and carved sandstone. They stand majestically, still coveted and much loved. Older buildings enhance the architectural beauty of an area. They have names, and their date of completion is lovingly and proudly displayed. They feature carved symbolic relief, and contrasting brickwork.

Newbuilds are identikit flat-packs. They’re not even lego blocks, but duplo, dropped onto a brownfield site with no thought of what they might contribute to the area in terms of pleasing appearance. Oh – forgive me – some have wooden panelling on the outside, so they look like residential Mini Clubmen.

Once inside, the walls are bland, the bath fittings are bland, the people are bland. As evidence of someone’s moment of madness, the carpets are beige. Decorating rules disdain the basic human need for pleasing surroundings.

Landlords forbid us from nailing pictures or any other decoration to the walls, as we are then obliged to cover any resulting holes with filler, and repaint the entire room. This is slightly unreasonable, and I’ve given up on hanging pictures, as when you move around so much, my life would be like that of the men toiling on The Forth Bridge, with never ending emulsion.

Imagine the potential for trouble caused simply by putting up some shelves. If flats are furnished, they are provided with a cursory bookshelf, as newbuilds renters neither read, nor collect CD’s or games. I’m starting a campaign to reinstate the picture rail. Your granny’s house will have had one: a thin wooden rail around the room, allowing for pictures to be hung without damaging the walls. Renters could add their own touch of home, without gouging out the thin, eminently gougable plaster board dividing walls.

It used to be the case that owners permitted new tenants paint the walls of their new home (you know – the one we pay to live in) even allowing us a week rent free to pay for paint, but now live in fear of colour. That bloody American woman has flooded our world with neutral tones. It’s like living in the waiting room of a secure unit. Flats and their foyers are decorated in a climate of fear, both of colour and personalising adornment, indeed anything shiny, bright and happy, visually stimulating or interesting. It’s not that we want fuchsia walls, but we can’t even put up our own curtains, as they never even provide a curtain rail. In fact, we are forbidden from using curtain rails as they will leave holes in the ceiling. It defies belief.

It’s so tempting to go out with a flourish, and embellish my flat, the foyer and lifts with a lavish freeform technicolour modern mural. If I’m going to lose my deposit, then I’m going to do it in style.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Darkness Falls On Dovecot Towers

As they say in mediocre westerns, it’s quiet. Too quiet. Recent nights in Dovecot Towers have been silent, and gloomy.

After all I’ve written about noisy parties and rowdy neighbours, you’d think the lead up to the festive season, especially New Year’s Eve, would be crazy with booming, bass-heavy, drug-fuelled debauchery. I’m not so churlish as to expect silence, especially not on New Years Eve, but I was dreading yet another 48 hour party from hell, with my neighbours screaming and banging on doors for a fortnight. But they didn’t.

Even Georgie from 603 has been quiet of late. Same with Thumping Techno Boy (he of the response: ‘I can do whatever I like – it’s my flat!’) To commemorate Hogmanay I was expecting predatory torrents of vomit cascading down the stairs, like the flood of blood in The Shining. But no walls ran with fountains of beer splattered from vigorously shaken cans. No unofficial community urinals appeared; we just had a few pizza boxes left on the floor, but then there are no bins.

Days before xmas, the lights in the surrounding flats went out ominously one by one. The nearby building site shut down, granting a merciful release from my hitherto floodlit lounge. The darkness was eerie. New Years Eve was deathly quiet: nobody shouting their order to the drug dealer conveniently waiting on the street below. Not so much as raised voices or loud laughter. Nothing.

Students heading home for xmas made the building seem even more bleak. Many have gone for good, with replacements electing to start their tenancies at the beginning of term, rather than on the first of the month. For owners, this means a worrying and expensive void period, with no rental income for those dabblers and other property chancers, now officially known to be dancing on the edge of bankruptcy. There have also been some evictions.

Tenants might be calling some of the shots – a timely development in certain respects. Owners are increasingly desperate; simply grateful to have guaranteed occupants - even if newer tenants feel free to be more assertive. Landlords, especially newbies, can be unreasonable and intransigent. Last year, one poor soul was forced to move out by Jan 1st, and Xmas is no time for flat hunting.

I scan the horizon, with its crane raddled carpet of building sites and similar cliff faces of newbuild flats, and notice that the newest blocks are especially slow to light up. A checkerboard of houselights indicates human occupation, but so many buildings seem three quarters empty. The silence is deceptively tranquil, as this stillness is indicative of forthcoming economic desolation. And vacant buildings do nothing for the character and charm of the neighbourhood. Inhabitants who perpetually come and go are literally causing darkness to descend.

The festive season is long over, but Dovecot Towers is still too quiet, and the house lights around me are not switching on. One ray of light was the fact that a neighbour and I exchanged Xmas cards. It might not seem like much, but around here, it’s a massive advance for humanity.