Tuesday, 29 July 2008

There Really Was A Murder

When people told me about the murder (Rentergirl passim) I didn’t believe them. I wasn’t trying to be sceptical, just level-headed. Then another neighbour mentioned it. He asked me what I knew, and scornfully I repeated the myths I’d heard: tales of random body parts and screaming.

This man's bombshell was to tell me that there really had been a murder. He told police he’d heard a scream and witnessed two suspicious men running away. At the crime scene, investigators discovered a trail of blood where the body had been dragged across the floor, rubbish sacks and tape, but no corpse. Since the flat was rented in a Byzantine chain of informal subletting, the victim remains undiscovered, and also unidentified.

It hasn’t even made the news – and we’ve all been watching. The suspicion is that a man has murdered his partner. Or - being as the crime occurred on the ground floor – assailant(s) vaulted over the balcony and through an open window. Since the main door is always broken, maybe they knocked before barged in. I realised a short while back that every flat on my floor has identical window locks; no danger for those on higher floors, but on the ground level, a key holder could easily have let themselves in. There are of course no CCTV cameras.

The police canvassed the building, but they didn’t put notes under our front doors asking for information, instead they put notes into post boxes many of which were crow-barred open, emptied by thieves fishing for cheques etc. Police pressed buzzers during the day, when everyone was out (in any case, nobody opens their door unless they already know who’s there). Posters requesting information were apparently ripped down by the people who run a ‘hotel’ business here (don’t want to worry the guests now do we?)

Whenever I write about the dislocated, alienated lives we urban nomads lead, I generally receive comments and emails claiming that all streets are the same, or from people who own their flat and rarely speak to neighbours, insisting that reticence and reserve are not unique to rented newbuilds.

But it is worse here. There’s almost a sense of fear. We are usually afraid to talk, but briefly, and bizarrely we were speaking but only about the murder. Now it’s heads down again, don’t look up, don’t make eye contact, don’t say a word. It takes courage to so much as nod at strangers passing on the corridor.

When I was a child, I lived in a small town, and a man was murdered in a house at the end of our quiet, ordinary road. He ‘kept himself to himself,’ caring for his learning disabled brother. He was also gay. We live in more enlightened times, and the victim had been ‘cottaging’ in the public toilets in the park where we played, and there were dark tales of blackmail. The older brother of a girl at my school was convicted of his murder.

Every locked front door conceals a secret. Crime is everywhere and nowhere is immune, wherever you live, no matter how upmarket your area, nor how diligent the neighbourhood watch scheme. Random acts of violence have always been with us, but the guarded, anti-social world of newbuilds was a contributing factor to the murder, and the emerging enigma. Could this be my final straw?

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

The Lights Aren't On And No-ones Home

This isn’t something I’ve only just noticed. It’s been around a while. It’s called Buy To Leave Empty, and for tenants in buildings like Dovecot Towers it’s the root cause of yet another fresh hell.

The property boom bought with it not just saturation low-rise newbuilds, but other forms of development. Most cities have their eye-catching architect’s masturbation fantasy: a phallic symbol, thrusting into the clouds. Then there are those slightly-out-of-town canal side/dockside dreamscape buildings, which - at the time of their inception - seemed like an excellent idea.

These larger, better fitted-out ‘apartments’ (we’ve reached the level of value where you must no longer say flats) were marketed as luxurious, but - dislocated from the trappings and requirements of a happy life, like ordinary shops and neighbourhood pubs - they’ve been shunned. They are often sited close to drive-in theme bars, multiplex cinemas, outlet stores and US style ‘diners.’ Better paid workers passing through on short term corporate contracts are usually the only inhabitants.

Many buildings, medium, plain and grand alike, are left deliberately empty. If you’ve ever walked past a building and counted how many houselights are switched on of a Monday at nine pm, you might think the occupants are crazy, decadent and debauched socialites, having too much fun. Some flats might still be let at unrealistic prices, and are waiting for deluded buy-to-let chancers to see sense and drop the asking price.

Elsewhere, investors have found caring for pesky residents to be a major pain, so magnates who live on the other side of the world don’t bother finding renters to rattle around in their investment. Sensible owners make a slower buck on the equity, not by ramping up the rents. They snap up bargains, hold tight and yet still enjoy the many generous tax advantages.

In Dovecot Towers, many overseas owners were domiciled in Hong Kong. I’m noticing less Chinese occupants round here now: I think the owners previously let to their children and other relatives, but now prefer a simple life, allowing their investment to stand empty. I’d should welcome the quiet, and an end to other annoyances great and small, but empty flats distort the nature of a neighbourhood, encouraging a block to seem hollow, even dead.

If these ‘apartments’ were released onto an already flooded market, rents would plummet to a reasonable level. Just imagine having so much money you can snap up a massive portfolio of mortgage-free property to mothball until the crisis ends. This means that whenever you notice an empty building, it’s possible that someone somewhere is making millions. You might think: that’s capitalism, and fair play to them. It’s just that, while these concrete embodiments of a deflated property bubble disdainfully flaunt their eventual worth, corridors are left in desolation, deathly quiet, cold and empty.

There is another side to calmly sitting out the crunch/recession/whatever, accumulating property for the eventual equity to accrue. Way down below, in the semi-landscaped garden, homeless men and women are sleeping in the shrubbery.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Has There Been A Murder?

There’s Been A Murder…?

It began quietly, with whispers that: ‘…something very bad has happened.’ The police, who were often been parked outside, had mentioned something about an assault. Perhaps that’s what they meant.

The following day, I met a tenant who asked if I had heard about ‘…the murder.’ What? Calmly he explained that there had been a killing on the first floor, and that the police were questioning residents living there.

I remained sceptical. Surely it would have been on the telly? Mindless slaughter is still rare enough around here to merit considerable coverage on the local news. After further consideration, I thought - oh come on: there’d be an incident room outside, with police knocking not just on the ‘relevant’ floor but canvassing elsewhere as well, and I’ve heard nothing.

Then signs appeared about a planned community meeting with local police to be held nearby, aimed at addressing tenant’s concerns about crime, which got me thinking. Another tenant later struck up conversation with the sole purpose of discussing the alleged murder. I didn’t contradict her, but she was firmly of the opinion that a man had sadistically killed his partner. Domestic violence is still shamefully under reported, but I believe that even a dismissive media would reveal any death by foul means.

Days later, there was still nothing on the news, when yet another tenant broached the subject in the lift. Details have grown worse with every retelling: here there was no corpse - well not a complete one - just random dismembered body parts hidden in the bin room. The cynic in me theorised that it’s some half-eaten takeaway chicken, but my informant was adamant. He’d heard there was trail of blood, fingers, limbs, and everything.

Still nothing on the news though, and other residents on my floor had heard nothing about it. The lower floors are certainly more dangerous, vulnerable since they present the opportunity of leaping over the balcony and straight into the lounge. The people who live on the ground floor are more convinced than those of us safe on the higher floors that something awful happened. Still nothing on the news, mind you.

Personally, I think it’s symptomatic of the sense of alienation in Dovecot Towers. With so little contact I couldn’t describe the people who live to one side of me, or opposite, nor could I pick them out in an identity parade, and god knows who lives above me, or below. Meanwhile, the story is getting worse: now neighbours are supposed to have ‘disappeared’ (or else they’re on holiday…) and bloodcurdling screams have been heard (unless it was the telly…)

Ultimately, I’m certain that nobody’s died. I’m sure we’d know. Unless there is a monstrous serial killer picking off newbuild residents, and the police are keeping details quiet so as to efficiently catch and prosecute the murderer, just like on the telly. Here in Dovecot Towers, our daily lives are secluded and dislocated. We rarely talk; how bizarre it would be if a murder encouraged tenants to chat.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Jolly Japes and High Jinks

Many recently completed developments have names like tacky nightclubs. I’ve heard of a Spectrum, a TheEdge, and even a Blue2. Little wonder then that certain occupants can’t tell the difference between party central and their own sweet home.

These days, most residents of Dovecot Towers are students, and they love to play. Classic and now legendary examples of these pranks include the lads who suspended their house-mate’s possessions on bungee wires from the branches of a tall tree. Elsewhere, tricksters planted cress in an absent friend’s carpet. On his return, he was greeted by a lawn in his bedroom. Others shifted the furniture from their house-mates room, and perfectly reconstructed his digs, alfresco. Then there are water fights, streakers, and competitive piles of junk food cartons. Totally hilarious.

Unless like me, you’ve heard all this before. I could live with the occasional frantic party, but am defeated by the assumption that everybody in the building returns at 3am and can rise leisurely on a Sunday and so slamming doors and screaming is of no consequence. And, no, it’s not about being an old fart; many younger residents also have that Victor Meldrew moment, screaming at the ceiling, especially when working split shifts which start at eight am after enduring neighbours who celebrate the simple fact of it being Wednesday by screaming until seven.

Some flats, especially in those found in increasingly rare, remaining pockets of social housing, practice age selection. One block sets a limit of twenty-five. I’m not entirely sure how this works. Are residents booted out if they survive all that debauchery and reach the dreaded age of thirty, or worse have the audacity to cruise on through to forty? And what if you are twenty four when you move in?

Here’s the problem: there is no magical age when consideration and empathy kick in. On reaching their quarter century, citizens don’t automatically abandon improvised, informal home nightclubs for B&Q. On reaching twenty-six, it’s erroneously assumed that yobs change into considerate citizens. This theory was disproved by Thumping Techno Boy (formerly of this parish) who was well into his thirties; age didn’t restrain him from blaring out tunage until my ears bled. I once met an eloquent adversary of pandemonium round here who was just twenty two.

Most tenants in Dovecot Towers are students. They live their days to a different timetable: up late, and sleeping in, but at least we have end of term to look forward to. Even so, every block has at least one incongruously older resident, and some occupants have their kids to stay, even if no children actually live here permanently.

Currently, landlords are desperate to rent their buy-to-let money-pit and students are a boon in that respect, since they pay the rent, and if not use parents as guarantors. It’s just that they bring their lifestyle with them. I’m no fuddy-duddy expecting endless silence and peace to encourage contemplation, but I survived life in a hall of residence, and I don’t want to go back.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Battening The Hatches

Floundering construction firms have instructed workers to stand down, pausing only to make any half-completed blocks waterproof (you mean, they don’t already do that?) Builders are biding their time while this buy-to-let boom crashes into a seething hell-pit (nobody mentions the property developers, so I imagine they’re feeling no pain, bless ‘em all.)

Across the way on the building site I use as my exemplar, nobody’s in much of a hurry. The newest apartment blocks back on to each other; you could easily shake hands with your neighbour across the gap between them. I doubt that tenants will be foolish enough to live there and with so few mortgages, buyers are scarce. What will become of all those empty buy-to-let flats and half completed housing schemes?

Surely it’s not practical to mothball an entire block. Cities like Leeds, Birmingham, and Manchester feature interlinked systems of dubious, half-empty or semi-finished developments with no night-time security. Within months these behemoths of uselessness will be overrun by burglars, drug dealers, and pimps (to be honest, it’s already started to happen.)

One council is thinking ahead, albeit with the assistance of this site, which they quote copiously, verbatim. Greenwich Council in London has published a report detailing problems associated with the property downturn. They worry about derelict building sites and empty newbuilds becoming dangerous, improvised playgrounds and magnets for crime.

Perhaps Greenwich should have thought of this before they granted permission for the bloated, lumbering white elephant that is Thamesmead. Was every council so blinded by greed for council tax revenue that they too allowed their precious brownfield sites to be paved over with newbuilds, teetering already and poised to collapse like Jenga? Did they honestly imagine that Britain needed yet more tiny, jerry-built rabbit hutches rather than generous and robust family homes? And why are they so surprised that desperate landlords, unable to sell, are turning a blind eye to dodgy tenant references (that’s if they bother at all)?

This isn’t some hysterical, disproportionate fear of crime, or even simple snobbery. There will be a disaster soon. Vandals will break into an empty flat in a semi-occupied block and start fires. I have already written about the lack of safety procedures, like fire extinguishers and well-lit exit signs for escaping a smoky inferno (of course, developers made certain that these properties are thoroughly - and lucratively - insured. Didn’t they?)

Do I sound cynical, or melodramatic? Perhaps even apocalyptic? Certain readers felt me gloomy for predicting that new building would slow down. I was right, but take no joy in it. I think I’m right about this as well.

Meanwhile, our ambitious Housing Minister Caroline Flint is still wittering on about another massive scandal: those supposed ‘eco’ towns (which - it turns out - aren’t so ‘eco’ after all.) Has anyone else noticed that Caroline ‘Everybody; Call Me Vlad!’ Flint is the Michael Howard of New Labour? There is definitely ‘…something of the night about her.’ Well, have you ever seen her in the same room as a crucifix?