Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Talking To Strangers

Knowing your neighbours is a really lovely idea. In streets with proper houses, you can see people come and go, even speak first without them looking at you funny and backing away slowly.

You rarely see other people in my new block (nickname urgently needed now, btw.) It’s not like Dovecot Towers, where alienation was born of fear. In my new block, things are different. The inhabitants cross a broad spectrum of society: young, old, owners, and some, but not too many tenants. There are students, a few creatives working from home, teachers and business people. And unlike Dovecot Towers, where people ignored each other or stepped back inside when they hear footsteps on the corridor, we rarely see each other.

Whenever I write about modern urban social dislocation, some wiseacre usually comments, well, do something. I don’t want to be mates, but I would like to know who they are. I do talk to people when I see them, but it’s hard to do without sounding needy and a bit creepy.

Neighbourly interaction can be kick-started by random events. In one former flat I was having a clear out, and packed a box of unwanted, but readable paperbacks, too heavy to take to the second hand book or charity shop, so I left them in the corridor by the stairs, where everyone passed, with a sign saying ‘Help Yourself.’ Not only did people take them, but they donated books of their own. Still nobody spoke. We didn’t even see each other, but for a while, there was an informal book swap network running. People even borrowed the books temporarily, and then replaced them.

Back home, I have seen some of my neighbours, from the balcony on a sunny day, so I know they exist. One man was sunbathing, eating tomato soup for breakfast (each to his own.) I have joked with the caretaker about the man living below me. I’ve never seen him, and the effective sound proofing means I never him, either. I asked the concierge, who hasn’t seen him for a while. He joked that if smell anything strange to let him know, which made me think of Dovecot Towers.

There is a tenants association here, but here’s the funny thing: it rarely meets. Since the building is well managed, and complaints are rare, there’s no need to convene a gathering. The worst building I lived in, we only ever met at furious tenants association meetings, where we would be thinking: “…so you’re the bastard shouting in the foyer at 4am.”

At the moment, I can’t alter my hot water timer, and it’s costing me a fortune; I’d like to ask my neighbour how to reset it. In my heart, I suppose I’m worried about the things our elders warned us about: don’t speak to strangers, and the memory of Dovecot Towers, where every front door hid a problem. So, when you’d like some help, how do you summon the courage to knock on a the door?

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Flatmate (un)Wanted Ads

Over the years, my experience of flat-share ads has shown them to need extensive interpretation. Either deliberately deceptive, or in code, they disguise the neurotic, slap-inducing tendencies of your prospective co-tenants, so pay attention.

Beware the word ‘executive’ in all its guises. Only a complete arse would describe their home (or themselves) this way, and consider it a positive. ‘Executive’ means they have done the Alpha course, and will try and winch you in. They own the flat, and regard you, their lowly sub-tenant, as a loser for not racing up the property ladder from the age of fifteen. While their room is ensuite, they will continue to vindictively use your bathroom. They return home late, bitter, tense, coke- up and spiteful. They will go home to Wigan for long breaks, claiming to have been in Chicago. On ‘executive’ business.

‘Gay friendly’ can be a minefield. It might simply mean that gay people live there, and are preferred. A frightening alternative is that residents will assume the same frantic, and altogether terrifying mental state of the characters in ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme,’ compulsively re-enacting key scenes, screeching with mirth. For a friend of mine, it meant a lovelorn lesbian housemate who looked like Wee Jimmie Krankie.

‘Friendly, lively house’? The devil in disguise; it’s all back to mine, gone mad: baked beans everywhere, lager cans in the sink, no cleaning at all, ever, and friends on the sofa, in the hall, and in your bed if you get home a minute after midnight. After weeks spent ankle deep in take away cartons, and the same track will boom and thump courtesy of the bedroom DJ in the next room, until your eyes swivel in time to the music, and the pores on your forearms bleed spontaneously.

‘Communal House’ Hmm… with the rest of house populated by skunk loving anarcho vegan hippy eco warriors who don’t believe in mousetraps, and threaten regular weekly and accusatory house meetings/denunciation sessions, you will emit a whining sound. Then you’ll go mad, but find redemptive sanctuary in a pond.

‘Creative’. That means cacophonous, gurning, experimental musicians rehearsing in your kitchen. Arty types, such as fashion students will cast a critical eye over the design values of your knickers on the line, and decode the aesthetics of your shoes. In a flashback from my student days, I still view sculptors as violent thugs, because they were, leaving a trail of giblets, blood, ears etc after nutting and gouging each other on the dance floor. I don’t know why; they just did.

‘Quiet.’ Another loaded phrase. ‘Quiet’ means a passive-aggressive, forlorn shadow who will hiss “shush!!!” you if you watch anything other than the Antique’s Roadshow, and judge you as a harlot for having overnight guests. You will live your life under a solemn ticking clock (a prize possession) every beat of which marks the passing seconds of your life.
Until you run screaming from the house.
And the whole, hideous cycle starts again.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Talk To Us

All across the land, those ubiquitous cranes, which once bestrode the cityscape like robotic daddy-long-legs, have vanished. Weak building firms are insolvent or merging with rivals. Construction has all but stopped, but with developers currently so quiet, I’m wondering what they’re up to. What are they plotting? What evil plans are they dreaming up?

Property development is in a holding pattern, but investors still own land, ear-marked for future use. These brown-field land-banks remain in stasis, often covered in advertising hoardings. Eventually, property developers will wake up their dormant assets, and building will begin again. But what will they build? More of the same? We can’t let that happen. We have an opportunity here. We must stop them while we can.

Here’s a crazy idea. Why not ask tenants how they want to live? Many buy-to-let investors never see the finished product, although I hope that by now, landlords have grasped the stupidity of buying off-plan and then wondering why the end result is a hovel. Then again, if common sense ruled the world, we wouldn’t be where we are now.

Buildings must not be constructed solely for the ease and profit of developers, allowing them to wriggle their slimy way out planning regs and common decency. Landlords should only invest in property they could imagine living in themselves. The flat I live in now has, fortunately for me at least, managed to make humane, civilised use of the allocated space and materials. It can be done, and doesn’t cost so much that managing accountants will splutter and die. So once again, why not ask the tenants how we want to live?

Just gather round those who do, have or in certain cases are destined to live in newbuild flats aimed at buy-to-let, and buy some wine and nibbles. Focus groups can easily distort questions, so none of this ‘…how much do you love your flat,’ and then reporting how these ‘dwellings are adored by all’ business; we’re on to you. And yes, I’ve heard the joke about a giraffe being a horse deigned by a committee, but this is different. We pay for these buildings, and as for the worst examples, well, we’re united in one thing: need better build quality.

Architects, builders, councils, planners, mortgage providers and investors would benefit from accurate research on attitudes to quality, layout, size, numbers of (separate!) rooms and storage. You could be forgiven for thinking that at similar meetings in the past it was decided that tenants actually want to pay extortionate rents for (ooh, yes please!) tiny Spartan matchboxes.

Oh, and soundproofing. In my new home, we can play music at a fair level without noise seeping through. I can’t hear my neighbours cough, or fart (worryingly I could in Dovecot Towers.) If anyone bothered ask us, we’d have told you how important that is. Tenants deserve some consideration, choice, and control over how they live, without orthodoxies like open-plan living being foisted upon them. Developers, builders and architects: are you paying attention?

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Careless Caretakers

In my new home (still no nickname btw) there’s a 24 hour concierge. We’re lucky. Purpose built apartment blocks usually employ a caretaker, responsible for several buildings at a time. Frequently ex-soldiers or recently retired policeman, the bad ones veer between two extremes. Some are niggling, petty, jobsworths, who snoop on tenants. Others are shirkers who lurk in the car park, hiding in a lock-up supplied with tea-making facilities and fitness equipment (I’m not making this up).

The majority, though are diligent and dedicated. They coordinate everything: cleaning, basic maintenance and access for contractors. Work is frequently unpleasant, with housing tied to the job, all for minimum wage. Residents of social housing are hopefully blessed with cleaners, security guards and even an onsite estate manager. Floors reek of disinfectant, which means they are clean, whereas come Sunday, neglected developments like Dovecot Towers stink of human ammonia as floors are mopped just once a week.

Janitors are ideally placed to control lucrative drug-dealing and vice. In central Manchester, gangs once attempted to control the doors of city blocks just as they had the clubs. Residents had an elderly caretaker for protection; fortunately he was an ex para, and bit of a lad himself. His one aim was doing as little work as possible. Gangs would have ruined the peace, so with help from his associates, access was denied.

One work shy caretaker drank openly throughout his shift. When a tenant reported him for being abusive, his revenge was swift. He told everybody, wrongly, that she was a prostitute. I once called the police on hearing a burglary in progress, as he was in the pub. When I mentioned that he had spent all day boozing instead of supervising essential repairs, he wondered ‘...was I was going to make something of it?’

His replacement smirked derisively when a suicidal resident had the door kicked down so paramedics could revive him. This half-hearted agency temp was saving up to travel the world and spent days sneering at ‘the normals’. But janitors often double as stand in social workers. John The Para reminded one tenant to take his anti-psychotic medication, and reliably shepherded another resident with mental health problems towards his carer when the demons came to call. Between John, myself, and another neighbour, we managed to keep him on track.

John was of a different generation, and his confusion when faced with changing social attitudes (or boys snogging on the stairwell) meant he was occasionally sent on a course. He used to call me: ‘Love (Bugger I’m Not Supposed To Call You Love Am I Love?)’ But I said Love was fine by me. Eventually, he grew to appreciate our building’s diversity and accepted the neighbourhood’s trans-gendered and gay community.

John was kind-hearted, but gruff. Initially, he kept spare keys to all flats, and was frequently woken in the early hours to rescue residents who’d been locked out. He personally interceded when my neighbour was threatened with disconnection, took in parcels when his employers forbid it, and reluctantly did the cleaning, mending and all that went with his job. He died prematurely of a heart attack.