There was a report on the news this morning about the worryingly large percentage of people in the UK living in substandard accommodation. They showed a couple living in a damp and cramped room with poor heating and facilities. My heart went out to them and the report gave me a little knot in my tummy because the room looked just like the one we used to live in.
Laurie and I spent many years in what might be termed substandard living accommodation. We lived in multiple occupancy properties for twelve years. It actually shocks me to read that back to myself; I can’t believe that we stuck it that long. We were struggling musicians and cherished a very romantic view of what it meant to follow ones dream and be true to oneself. I still believe this to have been a worthy aim but poverty can undermine even the most resilient and idealistic ambitions.
We once lived in a single bed-sit in a large Edwardian house in Southsea. On the plus side our one room had a ridiculously grand marble fireplace. Your eye would move along its elegantly angled mantle but the illusion was rather shattered by the plastic coal effect, two bar electric heater in the grate. There was a mango and brown sofa which had supported many a bottom but had long retired, its seats plunging low enough to expose a long wooden bar of pure back torture that would eventually leave even the youngest and fittest with muscle spasms. Because of the sagging cushions it ate anything and everything: hairbrushes, money, items of clothing, books, magazines…self respect…
The first night in our little room we spent hunched over a Baby Belling cooker with a single hot plate, staring into a pot of mushroom soup that took a mere hour and a half to heat up. There was one shared bathroom and one toilet for the whole property. Technically there was a second bathroom but this amounted to a small cupboard big enough for a tiny bath with a boiler that had obviously taken lessons from the Baby Belling and took half a century and a week’s wages to heat. We had an ancient meter that only took five pence pieces. We would need sack loads of these once the bar fire and boiler over the sink were on – the wheel on the meter frantically whizzing around. Landlords could make profit from meters by charging more per unit of electricity. It is true that the poor cannot afford to be poor! Some settings bordered on illegal. In the shortest time possible the meter would fill up to capacity and we would be left without heating or electricity until we could contact the landlady to come and empty it. The room was only meant to be a temporary home until we could find something better. We soon discovered that, financially speaking, there was nothing better. We ended up in that room for almost a year and a half.
In the basement lived a well-known local heroine dealer with his steady stream of ‘visitors’. After we left, he moved up from the basement into our room and not long after died there from an overdose. Most of the house was occupied by a group of men who worked the fairground rides at Clarence Pier. They were all in their late thirties but would bring home extremely young girls that they had picked up on the waltzers (some of them clearly hadn’t even left school), flattered by the attentions of these men they obviously were not fully aware of exactly what was being expected of them – they were incredibly vulnerable.
Above us, there was a tiny attic room whose size would have challenged most people’s sanity if they had been forced to live in it for long. It was home to an alcoholic called Sam. He was a bouncer by profession and would stumble home in the early hours and proceed to jump up and down on our ceiling, screaming at the top of his voice - over and over - that we were ‘fucking bastards’. This happened almost every day that we lived there. He would pee out of his tiny window letting it drip down on top of our bay window below. He loved Bat out of Hell, playing it at ear-splitting levels at three in the morning. Despite yelling at us through the ceiling on a regular basis, if we met on the stairs, he would be perfectly civil. We christened him ‘Flat Foot Sam’. For a time, his girlfriend and their baby joined him; one of our most awful memories was hearing him regularly beat her.
The shining light in all of this was a guy called Nick who lived on the same landing as us. He was a six foot Goth bedecked in black and red silk with full Goth makeup, his dyed jet hair backcombed to within an inch of its life. He was a total joy to be around, one of the funniest people I have known and made living there bearable. We would take refuge in each other’s rooms when the house kicked off – as it often did. On one such occasion, the young man who occupied the other tiny attic room had what we presumed to be a bad acid trip or some kind of psychotic episode and proceeded to destroy all his furniture, punching holes in his ceiling and throwing a double deck music centre through a closed window, letting it fall four storeys to its death. His rather devastating finale was to kick over his bar fire whilst it was still on and thereby set fire to his carpet. He was in such a frenzy that night, bits of plaster were falling from Nick’s ceiling! Nick went on much later to become a dot.com millionaire! The twists and turns of life never fail to amaze.
When we left that room, we went on to another M.O building where we spent the next ten years. There are so many stories from that time in my life, some that make me smile and some that knot my stomach even now; no one really wants their life to be a series of anecdotes and the frequent coming and going of souls in M.O s – a great deal of them, damaged and struggling – inevitable means that you collect more than your fair share of tales.
In my honest opinion, no human being should have to live in an M.O. Cramming that many human beings in such a small space is wrong but what is worse is that it lowers people’s expectations of life, their sense of confidence and aspiration can be eroded as they start to believe that this is all that they are worth. I had some shocking landlords, ones who openly called their tenants ‘scum’. One woman used to freely let herself in to people’s rooms and snoop around their stuff while they were not at home. I caught her one day. For her it was her right – it was her property; she had no concept that it might actually be someone’s home too.
There is no doubt that many folks who live in these places are on the fringe but I am of the opinion that if you leave these folks in what is effectively a housing ghetto, the fringe is exactly where they will remain. Many disreputable landlords make a great deal of money from the benefits system by filling properties with as many people as is legally possible and doing as little to the property as they can get away with. I have come to have little respect for these kinds of landlords but I think that MOs encourage this behaviour. If I ruled the world, we would kiss goodbye to them – they are Dickensian.
Everyone deserves a home; warmth, shelter and food are basic human rights. As a society, we should feel that we are failing if we believe that MOs are adequate housing. Some of my ancestors lived in the cramped tenements buildings of Tooley Street in view of Tower Bridge. These were built to accommodate the vastly overcrowded slums that backed on to the docks at the turn of the 20th Century – the ‘warren’ as it was then called. My ancestors also lived in the slums of White Chapel and Stepney in Edwardian London – life in the East End at that time being shockingly cheap. As is so often the way in our own time, the poor were blamed for their own predicament then too. It wasn’t acceptable then and it shouldn’t be now. Home and dignity are intimately linked – no one should find themselves forced to live without either.