Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Songs we love to hate

As you may know, I am a seaside landlady. Well, when I’m not trying to decipher notes from an interview, or crouching over a hot computer, wrestling with words.

The common conception of a landlady, courtesy of Andy Capp cartoons, was of a blowsy lady with curlers and slippers, fag hanging out of the side of the mouth, while she ignored whatever request came her way. In reality I’m about as far removed from that as you could be, and nowadays, with the pressures of Housing Law, it doesn’t pay to be disinterested in your property or your tenants.

This is an ironic twist given that thirty years ago I lived in places of such squalor that one of them was condemned. I was nineteen at the time and found a room in a flat shared with four other people, all in their twenties. The address was Redcliffe Square, a grand sounding mansion block of decaying flats not far from Earl’s Court tube. To enter the flat we walked up a flight of stone steps from street level and up another flight of stairs onto a landing where there was a tiny kitchen.

None of us cooked much, so the bin liner in the corner of the room was a travesty of burnt toast, used tea bags and rancid milk bottles. As time went on rats came to gorge on its contents, and you could hear their muffled squeaks of delight as they found a succulent piece of egg or bacon rind.

The next flight of stairs led to a landing with two bedrooms and a living room. My bedroom was first, and consisted of a huge old wardrobe, a bed with no springs and a bedside table. There was no heating, and no bedside light, so when I wanted to turn the main light out, I crept to the end of the bed, put one foot on the floor in a strange dance that, with luck, turned the light off. I would then dive back into bed and lie there, listening to the mice rustling underneath my bed.

Up another flight of stairs was the bathroom, with an elderly gas heater that is now illegal. You had to keep the window open even in mid winter, to ensure there was enough ventilation, and the bath was so big that by the time you’d run a few inches of water, it was lukewarm at best. For this reason, baths were an ordeal not undertaken too often. I wonder whether we smelt – I never had any complaints but perhaps all my friends lived in similar squalor so we all smelt.

It never occurred to us to complain: we had no idea who the landlord was, and I’m sure they wouldn’t have done anything anyway. Landlords didn’t in those days. We paid rent, we had a gas fire in the living room and warm water, if we were lucky, in the bathroom – what more did we want? But in a curious way those were happy days. We had no expectations so no disappointments.

We were a strange mixture. There was the lanky ex-public school John, who was having an affair with a beautiful girl married to an Arab. She spent most of her time in front of our gas fire, her eyes glassy with opiates. Her friend slumbered by her side, rising only to eat, drink or go out to nightclubs. Another girl with such bad eczema that her hands were always bandaged. Two men who would take me to the pub on Sunday evenings. Nameless, faceless people who hover like stubborn ghosts in the corners of my memory.

On the way home from Earls Court tube there was a pub fraternised by young men clad in black who lounged outside, brandishing whips. Being a naïve 19 year old, I watched these men in fascination, wondering where they got their SS type uniforms from. One evening I was caught short on the way home and nipped into the ladies’. Whereas the pub was dark, noisy and thick with smoke and spilt beer, the ladies’ were spotless. I couldn’t understand it and told John when I got home.

He roared with laughter. “Of course it’s clean,” he said. “No one ever uses it.”

It took me a while to assimilate that.

Several months later we were told by the management company that owned the building that they were going to renovate the entire square and we had to get out because they were changing the locks. No such thing as tenant’s rights in those days.

I had nowhere else to live, so when Simon upstairs asked me if I wanted to move up with him and his six year old son, I said yes. He never asked me to share his bed but was delighted at how well I got on with his son.

Simon was a quiet, pleasant man and seemed grateful for my company but I felt out of sorts, nervy and uneasy. At any moment I wondered whether someone would beat no the door, demanding to change the locks. We lived in almost silence except for the burst of the TV and next door, someone who played Leonard Cohen from the time I went to bed until I got up for work.

His heavy, droning voice will forever be synonymous with lingering depression for me. I would lie there, wondering if the rest of my life would be spent feeling so panicked that I couldn’t move, let alone eat.

I wondered whether Simon could hear it too, and wonder why he was living in such a hovel with his young impressionable son. What had happened to the mother? Where would they go when we were finally thrown out? Did he have any family? Which was probably what he thought about me.

I didn’t last long. I couldn’t stand those heavy, black, sleepless nights. I scoured the Evening Standard and found somewhere else to live; a marginal improvement on the Redcliffe Square squalor. But I remember those months with a strange clarity, and wonder who lives in the flats now? They will have been spruced up, are no doubt eye watering sums in rent. But what about my flatmates, Simon and his son? What happened to them?

I think of it as the last of my innocence. A period of my life that stands out, even now, as unrelated to anything else. I’ve never been able to listen to Leonard Cohen since.

12 comments:

Rebecca Taunton said...

And we complain about our landlord!!
I'm sure your tenants are very glad that they have you as a landlady (and certainly not your previous landlord!!). And it sounds as though you've heard enough Leonard Cohen to last a life time.
RT

Flowerpot said...

RT - yes I certainly have!

Ellee Seymour said...

At the time it was a normal living standard, but it's all changed now. I remember the drones of LC too, btw. Just distantly.

Akelamalu said...

Tenants are a lot luckier now!

I bet that building has been turned back into a grand house now and has sold recently for £500,000!

Philipa said...

Yes Leonard Cohen is music to commit suicide by. I remember my student days - sharing with men was an awful trial but sharing with girlfriends was such fun. Before then, sharing a flat with men was similarly dreadful. Your experience doesn't sound bad at all fp :-) However, during my post grad degree I shared a flat that had mice and remember one awful night trying to ignore the scrabblings when one ran through the space under my neck as I dozed in bed. As he brushed my neck I shot out of bed and that was it - the war on mice had begun! I trapped one in the kitchen by flooding the lino floor with neat bleach and when the fumes got a bit much it shot out from under the cooker and leapt over the bleach. I didn't know they were so agile and virtually impossible to kill with traps but put next to the skirting just around a corner we got 'em in the end *cackles* Nowadays I leave that sort of thing to the cat. A cat is so much more dignified :-)

Miss Understood said...

I read that with a heavy heart, FP. I'm so glad you got out of there...who knows what would become of you had you stayed.

I can still remember the piercing scream of my flatmate when she put some bread in the toaster one morning, not realising there was a mouse in there. It soon let her know, though!

Lane said...

You describe that time so well fp that the memories have all come flooding back - the dodgy heaters, the mice and the shadowy flatmates. It seems like a lifetime ago:-)

Sweet Irene said...

I'm impressed that you were able to live such a life and not move back in with your parents. You really must have wanted to be independent! I don't think I could have done it.

Flowerpot said...

Ellee - droning is a good description!

Ak - it was a huge block of flats so probably £500,000 per flat!

Flowerpot said...

Philipa - yes these men were fine to live with - it was just the rodents!

MissU - yes I was very glad to get out of there I must say. Liked teh one about the mouse in the toaster! Poor fellow!

lane - funny isnt it? Students now would have a fit if they saw those kind of flats. Little do they know!

Flowerpot said...

Sweet Irene - it never occurred tom e to move back with my parents. Anyway they were in Devon and I was in London. A long way away!

Mid-lifer said...

ooh you've brought back memories of all those seedy dives I lived in!

There was one in a beautiful location though in Bedfordshire, however the furniture was awful, the sofa-bed greasy,the kitchen dire, resident rodents and only storage heaters to heat the place. It was SOOOOO cold ice formed inside the house and I used to have to get dressed in bed. aaah memories

xx