Monday, 31 October 2011

When Flatshares Turn Bad.

Frosty looks at breakfast, hostile notes, slamming doors and sitting for weeks in the same room without saying a word (friendly or otherwise). Arguments with flatmates are as bad, if not worse than those with your own family, except with no formal ties, there is little reason to try and sort things out. The options are mediation and reconciliation, or just get the hell out, and then the only question is, who will go and who will stay.

There are several ways that people fall out. There is creeping coldness that ruins any warmth. It happened to me once when one girl stopped talking to all her flatmates: seems she had decided she simply didn’t like us much. An extreme case of this was the two blokes who just stopped talking, and didn’t exchange a word for about eighteen months, which is surprisingly common.

Then there is the full on blazing row: hugely cathartic and entertaining for eavesdroppers, but usually as destructive as hand grenades. I’ve been there too, when a flatmate moved in her vile, snide and parasitic boyfriend. We all tried to be tolerant, but eventually, when we realised he’d been cheating on her by bringing women back to our house the shouting started. It ended with them both moving out.

Then there is unacceptable flatmate behaviour. This can be as harmless but vexing as the flatmate who always lost her key and banged ferociously on the door to be let in (“…but I was in the bath!” “Sooooooorry”) to the friend who’s flatmate’s boyfriend stole money before disappearing, although mercifully, that’s an extreme.

It hard when any relationship ends; people grow apart, and for example, someone who waits isolated, bitter and forlorn at home while you are out with friends, or one brings back random strangers who use the ‘romantic’ encounter to do a recce and return to rob your house, or steals your food are quite simply bastards. Sorry: I slipped there. All of those have happened to me, and talking doesn’t help. People find it hard to change, and usually, just don’t want to.

But what if you like your house or flat? And what if you want to stay, or have good reason to remain, such as work or family just round the corner? Deposits must be salvaged and moving is tricky. Or what if you have other people who’d like to move in, and want to negotiate a truce so that weapons (snide looks and hateful, passive-aggressive post-notes) can be abandoned, and truth, reconciliation and your tin opener can be shared.

If you move into a house, and guards are dropped, and all that civilised turning the other cheek, smiling sweetly, trying to make the best of it passes, and violence breaks out (I’ve heard of actually fisticuffs which is no laughing matter) then here’s an idea: what about Relate? They’ve embraced the modern world, helping gay and unmarried couples. Now someone needs to help out when flatmates row, as it’s really hard to find a new home.

Monday, 24 October 2011

When Will The Spanish Fly The Nest?

A joke circulates constantly in southern Europe. How do you prove that Jesus was Italian/Spanish/Portuguese (delete where applicable). Answer? Because he lived with his parents until he was 32.

I have in the past been flat-hunting in Spain, and it’s a nightmare. Not because of the prices (fair) or the apartments (frankly breathtakingly lovely at times) but because nobody shares, or even rents a room. The idea of a flat-share is bizarre to people, as people leave the family home clad in either a coffin or a wedding dress (or suit – you know what I mean.)

It’s a source of fascination to Americans and northern Europeans, who leave as soon as possible, and parents act as guarantors to profligate, unreliable offspring and even cash in savings and re-mortgage houses to ease junior’s path out of the nest. Over here, it’s a national scandal: people can’t get on the property ladder, and questions are in Parliament, and everything.

There are many reasons. Firstly, people seem to study in their hometown, and parents pay fees, so the whole student flat-share thing is less common.

Also, where people live in apartments (and many do) they are large and open, with several bedrooms, not the poky little huts on stilts we see still in the UK. There is often a dining room, and a lack of open plan living, which means that privacy is still possible, with different people, even generations pursuing varying activities and alternate hours in different rooms.

I also wonder if they simply like each other more, or are more tolerant. The sexual revolution has reached worldwide, and I doubt that those thirty-two year old Spanish brides wear white for the old-fashioned reason. Yes couples live together, but parents must be accepting of their older/adult children’s lifestyle choices. I’ve heard of a Spanish gay man, out to his family since he was sixteen who didn’t leave home to live with his partner until he was (yes!) thirty-two.

Or do people simply behave in a different (as a veteran of many drunken escapades I won’t say better) way. Perhaps coming home drunk/stoned is less of an issue. Perhaps they don’t indulge. Perhaps their parents join in.

Maybe European parents have learned to back off and keep out of their children’s lives, although I doubt it. I think they are positively indulgent of their children, washing their clothes, with dinner waiting on the table? If so why would they leave? (Oh right, that happens in the UK as well.) And what about Scandinavia, the low countries or Germany, where people also race for the exit asap.

I suppose this is a question: can anyone explain what’s happening here? Southern Europe has got something right. Or is it stifling and people only stay at their parents because they can’t afford to buy, or are younger buyers excluded from the market?

Either way, everybody rents, and when they move, baby will rent as well. I’m just curious, that’s all.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Furnishing The Unfurnished

Some friends recently found an unfurnished flat. I am surprised this isn’t more common, but most rented flats are still furnished, no matter how trashed and tawdry the alleged furniture is in reality.

They placed requests on social media for donations of spare or unwanted furniture, as they even had to find white goods, which is unusual even in unfurnished places. There’s Freecycle of course, but people in the UK seem to use it instead of abandoning collapsed, stinking mattresses in a layby.

Ebay works of course, but for larger goods, The Salvation Army and Emmaus sell reconditioned fridges and repaired beds, (although I’ve heard of problems when buying white goods from the former) and you get the glow of not adding to the world’s fridge mountain.

Second-hand shops are so overpriced that even pre-owned (that’s the buzz word now) Argos stacking chairs are priced as antiques of the future. Then of course, there’s the trusty IKEA catalogue. Ever wondered how much it would cost to fit a small one bed from scratch with their cheapest products? By my calculation it’s about £3000.

You might need a telly, and all kitchen stuff like saucepans. And don’t get me started on carpets – god, add that on to the IKEA list and it rockets off into space.

For people in low-pay/no-pay lifestyles, it is technically possible to equip a house for nothing. Friends might help with moving stuff, but there’s national glut of man and van companies, so you can hire one of those by the hour (just help with heavy lifting, they operate alone, usually.) There is a whole world of ways to upcycle newly acquired old things. Planks of wood and brushed bricks can make shelves, and decorating tables can stand in for their permanent cousins.

Then there are skips – you can usually find something in a house clearance. In Germany there is a sub-culture of leaving unwanted furniture and household items in the street for others to rescue – fine unless it rains. In fact, in some circles buying new things is frowned upon, and trains usually have one person lugging a chest of drawers back from flea-market.

Auctions are good as well – they sometimes sell cleared house contents when an elderly resident has died (that’s fine as long as you don’t believe in those haunted bread-bin urban myths, and I know you’re all too wise, aren’t you?)

But seriously, if there’s one thing I will always buy new, it’s a mattress. I’m not fussy about a bed-frame (although it’s nice) but the frame you can hoover diligently and then scrub (and apparently should regularly in case of bed-bugs) but a mattress….

I shall tell this story again.

I visited a house with view to moving, and wasn’t impressed, but when I saw the bed I was horrified. It looked like that Anish Kapoor had been practicing his paint gun but with germs. I said what anyone in their right mind would say: “Uuurrrgh! Yuk! It’s horrible!” The landlord sagely nodded his head: ‘Art students,’ he explained.

Mattress covers. People: we need mattress covers.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Sheila McCechnie Was Right

I once interviewed the formidable and humane and amazing (but now sadly departed) Sheila McCechnie of Shelter. We were discussing one of the many instances that Tories had suggested relocating homeless people from the South of England, perhaps forcibly, to the North.

She worried about the effects of this, as do we all, where jobs and opportunities are found in the South, whereas the North has space and housing (a vast over-simplification of course). The situation was not as harsh then as it is now, and Sheila came up with a stark phrase to describe the possible consequences.

The South will become a concrete hell, I said, with people crammed into increasingly small homes. And the North? ‘Vast Bantustans of poverty,’ Sheila suggested, whip-smart and accurate.

You might not know what a Bantustan is. In apartheid South Africa, semi-independent states were formed, where people were kept deliberately poor and powerless, but lived under the lie that they were empowered by being dislocated from the state. Most foreign governments saw through the lie, and did not recognise these Bantustans as sovereign states.

Back in the present day, Housing Benefit changes are making life impossible for impoverished and jobless occupants of Southland. Unemployment is disproportionately high in Northland. Buy-to-let chancers even invested in The North, buying three flats in Rochdale, rather than stumping up for much needed homes in London, because investing in London and surrounding satellites was too dear, for all the good it did them when they went bankrupt.

An impossible situation is emerging. Are you vulnerable, and employed but still effectively homeless, due to precarious housing either through overcrowding or expense? Well, meet jobless but housed. Shake hands and say hello, as you might be compelled to swap places any day soon. It’s ridiculous. Where, if you are poor, are you supposed to live? What are you supposed to do?

Perhaps employers will start providing homes, or deposits. Maybe people will again live on site, like they used in Victorian times, with apprentices permitted a futon in the larder. Maybe homes in the North will come with jobs attached. Then we get to the state of tied housing as suffered by agricultural workers, where dismissal and redundancy means the loss of your roof as well as an income: back you go up North young fellow-me-lad. Another can of worms, and another battle fought and won heroically in the olden days, soon to be fought again and lost.

And what about family and neighbourhood ties, or the Condems and their beloved BS (big society)? How will a stable community run libraries and youth centres competently and for nothing, or summon sufficient spare concern to care for incomers, or organise their neighbours, when every so often everybody ups and moves in either direction?

Did you know the North of Britain, especially Scotland is, geologically speaking, rising up, while the South is sinking. Facile and flat-earthy to suggest it’s all those extra people moving in or vacating, but a tempting parallel to draw nonetheless.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Continental Dovecots

I’ve been travelling around Europe a bit recently – sort of a research expedition, in a way. I have to say I was amazed to see in every town, a version of Dovecots.

For those of you who have forgotten, or who are new, Dovecots was the term I gave to nasty developer designed, low-rise newbuilds, because when they are being built they look like Dovecots: as if layers of humanity should live on top of each other in purpose built boxes, which of course they do.

But here’s what I have noticed about European Dovecots. They are larger inside, that is, they have more than one or two rooms – sometimes three, or four.

Outside is where the biggest difference can be seen: they have playgrounds. In the UK, you could easily imagine the Pied Piper of Hamelin, or the child catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang had been round to hoover up all the stray toddlers. I saw children playing. I saw older people looking after the children. I saw knots of people outside having a natter.

People rent for years rather than months, which gives a sense of a stable community, not of folks just passing through as they strive, hopelessly to become owner-occupiers. They have children, and become grandparents in the same block. There is a sense of continuity.

The other difference is, they are taller (those of you who said: what, taller people? Hang your head in shame.)

I know developers are on a mission to concrete over the south of England with nasty, mean-spirited little Barrett-boxes, but surely, adding a few extra layers is more economical, and might even permit higher ceilings, so you don’t bump your head. Seriously, I had friends whose flat was so small that I thought they had spiked my tea with the potion from the bottle in Alice’s Wonderland marked ‘Drink Me’ and that I’d end up with all my limbs poking out of the windows.

These Euro Dovecots were sited both in suburbia and city centres. I know I am repeating myself, but most major cities have varied and diverse urban population, with schools and sheltered housing and everything, so why can’t we build this into Dovecot development meetings?

I know that overseas and even continental architects now associate the massive estates of brutalistic flats dreamed up by Le Corbusier with heroin and deprivation, and dread their export to places like India, but when done with diligence, care and foresight, they could be the perfect solution to space and cost issues.

The difference might also be in the acceptance of urban living: that is people need to live within cities if we are to avoid having the world seen from space as a massive concrete island with green dots which are pay-to-enter private parks that is all that remains of the green-belt.

Don’t get me wrong: there was still so much to despise about these places. They were bland, and anonymous, and had no design philosophy they weren’t little boxes, they were BIG boxes, and they do all look just the same.

Euro-dovecots are far from perfect. All I’m saying is: they got something right.