Tuesday, 25 November 2008

I Dreamed I Dwelt in Dovecot Towers

To mangle and conflate two separate curses: “When the fates wish to punish writers, they grant us interesting times to live in and write about.”

Before I moved to Dovecot Towers, I was largely ignorant about both the enigmatic world of urban newbuild flats and the harrowing effect of mass buy-to-let. Like many others, I had even walked by Dovecots blithely believing them to be comfortable, even vaguely glamorous, upmarket apartments. Now I know better.

The very first weekend I lived there, I heard a truly horrific domestic assault in one of the flats below. I was the only resident to call the police, who had trouble locating the building. There was plenty more to come.

Many memories will haunt me forever. Davey’s death is the worst thing I’ve ever seen anywhere, and afterwards I found it very hard to live here. I hope Sarah escapes the horror of that night, that she finds peace of mind and happiness in the future. Imagine how she’ll feel if she sees Dovecot Towers in the distance through the window of a speeding train, or is inadvertently driven past. The flowers on Davey’s shrine were never stolen (somebody tidied the wilting memorial and left fresh blooms.) New tenants moved in to the flat last week. I wonder if they know what happened there. I hope nobody tells them.

Elsewhere, the ‘murder’ mystery is still unsolved, but police eventually described the flat as containing a crime scene with forensic evidence but no body. They suspect (or rather, have concluded) that something terrible happened. Meanwhile the incident file on Dovecot Towers gets bigger every day.

I always thought that when I left, I’d have my revenge on Dovecot Towers (especially its more irksome inhabitants.) Thumping Techno Boy beat me to the door. Many nights were spent watching my breakables and crystal dancing to the sonic impact of his tunage. I planned to visit at 5am, and press on his doorbell to wish him a cheery goodbye. I also wanted to install a powerful sound-system underneath Georgie the posh 24 Hour Party Girl, and serenade her with recordings of bagpipes or wolves howling for an entire weekend. Unfortunately she left before I did.

Sadly, in the previous few weeks, several friendly tenants moved in, people who would chat and pass the time of day. One couple even had a baby (this might seem strange, but hearing the baby crying was a welcome taste of humanity.) Then there was Yuri and Lev, the affable, upbeat Eastern Europeans who skilfully negotiated their rent down with their landlord when he tried to increase it, as living here was so, well, challenging.

As for my landlord, William, well he’s incommunicado, and never gave me a reference, never even told me when or whether the bailiffs were due. Mending my credit rating and retrieving the money stolen from my bank account is the next task in hand. Something as simple as a block of flats has devastated us both.

Moving out was easy. I was already packed, and didn’t have the flat professionally cleaned (it’s being repossessed; the bank can pay.) Despite my best efforts, the bathroom still looked filthy as mould was rapidly colonizing the walls. Tiles were put up from top to bottom, instead of the usual (i.e. non-cowboy) practice, from bottom to top. Consequently the tiling crumbled and collapsed, providing a handy gap for damp and spores. The day before I left, every light bulb in the kitchen/diner/lounge died in unison, which could have been a sign. I turned off my music, and listened to the building for one last time. Silence. Now there’s a first.

I sincerely hope the management company from hell keep their promises. They assured me there would be improvements, and I hope they keep the occupants of Dovecot Towers happy and safe, a hope which diminishes with every passing day.

The night before I moved out, the people staying below me (in a hotel apartment) sang rugby songs until 5am. I closed the door and drove away, without looking back. I dreamed I dwelt in Dovecot Towers. It was a nightmare.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Smash It Up

Certain message-boards are speculating about the true identity of Dovecot Towers, which is missing the point. With generic new buildings everywhere, the actual name is irrelevant. Sorry if I sound tetchy, but I am consumed with Japan envy. I need to live in Tokyo, and I want to be Japanese.

I expect you’re wondering where that came from. Before I explain, allow me to me reiterate that in most cities, rabbit-hutch developments monopolise valuable brownfield sites. Judging from your comments and emails, the problems within these walls are endemic: wherever there are Dovecots, trouble is guaranteed, but still nobody in authority questions the wisdom of their ubiquity.

However, Dovecot Towers is unique in one respect: its design is nasty, nadir-skimming, and miserly. Between blueprint and completion, anything pleasing, comfortable or humane was summarily excised with a callous red pencil, creating the bleakest of empty shells.

Meanwhile, greedy, deluded, wannabe property tycoons were ramping up rents throughout the land. Their faith in an infinite supply of occupants able to pay over-inflated prices was short-sighted (i.e. stupid.) Landlords learned that affluent young professionals usually move as soon as possible, buying homes if they can get a mortgage.

Dovecot Towers and its clones are occupied by workers in Nulabour world, where politicians brag about wage restraint and creating a flexible, mobile and as a result, highly insecure workforce, where potential employees must demonstrate their dedication with months of unpaid work experience, and the majority of recent graduates earn below the threshold to start repaying student loans. Reality has bitten hard, and lower rents might allow more of the target demographic to live here.

Along with my neighbour, I am one of the longest established residents. We’ve both lived here for just over two years. Lev was one of the first people to move in. He stayed because he’s an overseas student; Dovecot Towers met his basic needs and in just a few months time, he’s returning home for good. Everybody’s passing through.

What’s my point, you’re wondering; I’ve said this before. It’s just that I’ve noticed a large crack running the height of one interior wall, and it runs along the same spot on every level of the entire structure. Considering the dodgy building standards hereabouts, this might be a harbinger of disaster, although I am sure the management will maintain it’s something to do with plaster shrinkage. I’m concerned that one clumsy passer-by leaning against an outside wall could send Dovecot Towers crashing down.

So here’s why I envy Japan. It’s not the seafood, the scenery, or the art. It’s their attitude to architecture. Even large expensive structures are routinely demolished for practical, aesthetic and financial reasons, once they’ve outlived fashion or a useful life. Faulty or superfluous buildings are destroyed when society, architects and occupants acknowledge that a replacement is justified.

Brits are inappropriately sentimental about any old building (even a bad one) but this is my dream. With owner-occupiers having deserted Dovecot Towers, and since buy-to-let is dead, could somebody buy it, demolish it, then start again, ensuring better, larger flats designed for humans to live happy lives? Please? This newbuild thing just isn’t working out, but an accurate Japanese wrecking-ball could make it all better.

(NB: Last night, the main door was pulled from its frame, and left lying in the corridor. That shouldn’t be possible.)

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Please Try Not To Be Stupid

Some people are so astonishingly, blisteringly, face-meltingly stupid, they make me want to cut off my own head with a blunt penknife, as maybe that would hurt less than reading the cretinous comments they make when rounding up their three remaining brain cells (or mustering the one charged with rational thought) to understand the challenge caused by newbuilds.

My personal favourite came recently from somebody I refuse to dignify by naming. This particular lump of wood with porridge swirling in his cranium actually, genuinely, really, said: “…if the flat’s so bad, why did you move in?”

It’s such a stupid thing to say, that seeing it again made my finger nails ache. Really; it’s up there with “Is Africa a country?”
I’m trying to remain calm. I’m counting to ten, I’m stretched like an elastic band in a yoga pose conducive to tolerance and I’m taking all the tablets. Here it goes; here’s my answer.

Dovecot Towers was brand new. I was the flat’s first accursed occupant. It should have been perfect. I was innocent then, and full of joy. Why the hell would it have occurred to me to interrupt the dismissive, contemptuous, abrupt and intermittently oleaginous letting-agent to ask if the building is falling down? Or is the management company utterly inept? And is design so shamefully impractical and standards of construction so abysmal that thieves force the door and enter at will?

Prospective home-owners have the right to ask vendors about nuisance neighbours, and are permitted, indeed obliged, to have the building surveyed for major structural faults, and problems like damp. Prospective tenants, however, lack the opportunity, the money and (disgracefully) are denied the legal entitlement to ensure that property they pay to live in reaches even minimum standards in sound-proofing or building quality before signing a contract.

Having said that, I learned the hard way about the importance of googling an address to check it’s not listed under the ‘young and funky, party-no-problem’ section on some dubious hotel-apartment agency website, which would never have occurred to me before. I also know to check the post-room is sufficiently secure, but, hey - guess what? All post rooms are virtually the same, so pre-emptive research is pointless. As I wrote recently, brave tenants who ask about the ratio of owner-occupiers during their hasty ‘viewing’ will be misled or lied to.

Should I demand to know if my seemingly sturdy front door is actually so flimsy that my gran could kick it down? Or (you’ll love this: my latest best discovery) were the locks fitted the wrong way round? Perhaps I should dispatch the agent upstairs to piss in the en-suite bathroom, to see if I can hear?

I can’t. I want to. I wish I could; I wish I did. But I can’t.

(NB: The lift has been broken for weeks now. The new caretaker told me that ‘someone’ dismantled the machinery and piled vital components quite neatly on the steps outside. Should I have predicted that as well?)

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

With Reference To Landlords

Despite his promise, ‘William’ still hasn’t given me that reference, which set me wondering: how come there’s no way for tenants to appraise our landlords when we leave? There are after all plenty of ‘rogue tenant’ sites and databases (some of them cheeky enough to link with this blog.)

Before taking a new flat I must bare my soul, providing financial guarantees, actual guarantors, references, deposits and one of my kidneys to keep in the freezer in case I do a runner. But things being as they are and times having a’ changed, I demand similar documents and assurances from future landlords. After all, we need to formally evaluate their financial stability in case they forfeit the property i.e. our home.

I was once badly let down by a landlord. He agreed to let me a flat but changed his mind the night before I was due to move, and so, to even things out, I will need a non-returnable holding fee while deciding whether or not to formally take up residency.

I’d also like a bank reference confirming owners are financially secure, that my rent will cover the mortgage, or written proof that they earn enough to make up the shortfall themselves. Oh – and they can pay for their own credit check, same as me. I also require, randomly, for my own entertainment, a character reference from “…a responsible, professional person.”

The worst of all property overlords are creepy, lazy, strange, abusive, bullying, elusive and perversely, disturbingly over-attentive. Or intrusive: P’s landlord let himself in while P was in bed with his wife (P’s own wife, not the landlord’s.) This landed charmer intended showing some prospective replacement tenants around P’s bedroom, suggesting jauntily: “…just pull the covers up over yourselves.”
Indeed. You’re absolutely right. The correct response ends in -off.

Tenants are especially vulnerable when landlords keep a key. A small minority of landlords are openly and unrepentantly malicious. They delight in making renters feel powerless before exploiting them.

The man who moved into the spare room and terrorised his blameless occupants intending to scare them out is the worst example I’ve encountered hereabouts, although elsewhere a friend awoke to discover that her leering landlord had occupied the room next to hers. Like a coiled spring, she was gone (he also kept her deposit.) Can we have their door key please, to use if they misbehave?

My own particular landlord-from-hell deserves more than bad references or financial penalties. He should be frog-marched through town with someone hollering: “Unclean!” then publicly tattooed on the forehead with ‘W’ for weirdo, and afterwards shunned forevermore.

I was living in a large, shared house. While home alone, I heard someone moving around from room to room; I was stranded upstairs and petrified. With the intruder approaching, I hid in the cupboard, peering through a crack in the door.

Astonishingly, my landlord and not a burglar wandered in. Furtively, he glanced around, before pulling back the bedcovers to ‘inspect’ my sheets.

And before you ask: yes, that really happened.