Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Welcome to the hovel… please wipe your feet when you leave

As it's A-level results day and some of you may be going to university shortly, I thought I'd indulge in a spot of nostalgia for the best - and worst - aspect of student life: the Shared House. I'm an expert in this: I lived in 6 or so (mouldy bathrooms tend to blur into one after a few years) over the decade I was a student.

The first one was a big old former bed-and-breakfast rented by the university for those of us who arrived through the Clearing process (I'm not proud), to the disgust of the vicious Housing Officer ('you're lucky you've got anywhere… you don't deserve this). Artexed from floor to ceiling, it was a monument to bad taste, and yet strangely cosy. I shared a room with David, who took down the gold lamé curtains to turn them into a shirt. I should have guessed at this point that he was destined for a career in the priesthood, if you get my meaning. I once returned home to discover that the house's party girl had not only become a fundamentalist Christian (and somehow a virgin once more), but was holding a prayer meeting in my room. Other highlights were the lad who'd leave the room if tampon adverts appeared on TV and once fired an air rifle at next door's noisy kids, and our rather unenvironmental solution to the overworked central heating: switching on the gas rings and opening the oven door. The awful housing officer also accused us, mystifyingly, of removing the bits of stained glass from round the front door. As student houses go though, it wasn't too bad: warm, dry, bathrooms fairly decent when not drenched in one colleague's purple hair dye. The doors were a bit problematic: various people would drunkenly lock themselves out of their rooms and the bolder amongst us would dismantle (or 'break') them to regain access before piecing the asbestos fire retardant panel back together with sellotape and covering the damage with posters.

The next house was both danker and more fun. Shared with several goths, rats and a tarantula, it featured a garden which resembled a glass recycling bank thanks to several generations of student parties, a minuscule kitchen, and a living room which had no outside window, meaning that it was permanently lit with a 60w bulb. One wall served as a Wall of Shame on which I posted pictures of people I didn't like (this was 1994, I hadn't yet discovered the internet) and the Stygian gloom hid vast numbers of ashtrays filled to the brim with old joints ready to be mined for unsmoked nuggets of cheap weed. The goths were very lovely people, mostly postgrads, all vegetarians and dedicated stoners. They found us younger drinkers hilarious, and we returned the compliment. The floating population was a microcosm of post-Withnail student life: drug dealers, strangers to washing up, space cadets, a psychotic Swede who was once memorably persuaded that the nuclear attack 3-minute warning had just been given (he'd been playing X-Wing for a week solid and never had many social skills in the first place) and various other oddities. Key amenities included a pub which tolerated us, a curry house run by friendly Swedish Bangladeshis (I occasionally helped with homework in return for Bindi Bhajis), a real ale emporium and Kwik Save, provider of Broken Biscuits. My room was in the attic: skylight affording views of the harbour and mountains, incredibly dangerous stairs, a trapdoor and friendly mice to whom I'd give biscuits. Being 5'8", I could just about stand up in the middle of the roofspace, but that was about it. I was happy there.

I left that establishment for a smaller and yet infinitely stranger house, courtesy of a friend who'd inherited enough money to indulge her psychological problems. She had a George Orwell fixation (with tattoos and first editions to match), and a taste for massive, very old men with whom she'd have very, very loud sex, the screams penetrating the paper-thin walls without hindrance, to the extent that I'd go for a walk, whatever time of night it was. It wasn't just screams which penetrated the walls: whenever anyone had a shower, the water would come through my wall until it looked like some kind of Feature. Not a problem in winter, of course: through some kind of oversight, the concrete pre-fab house had no heating of any sort, and so the shower water would freeze in a sheet on my side of the wall, leaving anything leaning against it stuck hard. Romantic encounters were off the agenda, of course: night attire for consisted of a full set of clothes, a dressing gown, my German army sleeping bag, two duvets and all the towels I owned piled on top.

Back I went to the previous house, and thence for the last term of my BA to the cheapest hall of residence, which charged £28 p.w. and was frankly paradise. It was indistinguishable from the hospital room Alex has in A Clockwork Orange, which was filmed at a university built around the same time, though once my burgeoning book and record collection was installed, space was at a premium. I do remember proudly having a bottle of Bristol Cream sherry on the windowsill, which passed for sophisticated to my malnourished and confused brain. Life in halls was a bit odd, coming to it late: my fellow inmates were heavily conditioned and simple exchanges ('hello, I'm your new neighbour') were beyond their capabilities. But most of the furniture of student life was there:  milk bottles with names and level marks drawn on them, holed saucepans, and underpants draped over the corridor radiators all featured heavily.

After graduation, I spent a few months chez parents, working a nightshift at British Gas (I worked as badly as they paid me), before returning to do an MA. For a few months, I commuted before getting a place with my friends James and Matthew. I had the entire loft space of a place on the High Street. On first viewing, it was lovely: a washing machine in the house, a TV with satellite dish, a dishwasher (!). By the time we moved in, they'd all gone: the story got round that the landlady possessed exactly one set of these things, and moved them around on viewing days to lure in the foolish. Anyway, I used to arrive mid-week to exactly the same sight: my friends unconscious from drink on the floor of my room, with a Smiths record (always) spinning on my record player. In the summer months, the ritual was slightly different: they would hang my speakers out of the window and lie drunkenly unconscious on the flat roof. I once appeared to find them in this prone position insensible to the torrential rain and thunder.

From thence, we moved twice more, though I've forgotten the order. The darkest period was our foray into Upper Bangor, nearest the university. One guy already lived there, and he clearly had psychological problems. He took against Matthew for no apparent reason and started vandalising his stuff - first kitchen equipment, then his car. Then things belonging to James and I - which is why a sizeable number of my records have knife scratches on them. At one point he stole James's credit card details and sent Matthew's parent's neighbours gay porn with crudely forged 'coming out' notes attached   - poor Matthew dropped out of university and we left the house. Why nothing further was done, I can't remember. The other house was… my old one of trapdoor fame. Sadly the fire department had condemned the loft room, so I used it as my library/study (which was fine except my housemates would work up there then leave the skylights open in rainstorms, wrecking my books), while renting the ground floor room. I shared with two Irish guys: one from Ennis, charming until he turned violently criminal, the other an easy-going but astonishingly smelly IRA fan from Galway. Neither saw any reason to share paying the bills with me, and they got into a series of more or less amusing scrapes with the law and university authorities. I've always assumed the economic crash had them at its heart. But my main memory of that period in the house is computer-mediated exhaustion. I'd made the mistake of buying myself a very bad computer (TIME, IIRC) and getting quite keen on Civilization II. Unfortunately, so did my friend Richard, who would regularly play on my machine for 2-3 days without leaving, even when I begged for sleep or the opportunity to do some work. We did have some fun though… cutting 3000 index cards in half and addressing them all to the local Lib Dem Freepost address was a bit naughty but amusing at the time.

My final student house was here in The Dark Place. A typical Victorian terraced house, I turned my room into a Cave of Books for ten years and let the flotsam and jetsam of overseas and postgraduate students roil around me. I moved in while the couple already installed had a massive and violent fight which I later discovered was about processor specifications. Cat had the ability to program with one hand, have a roll-up in her mouth, and one-handedly roll up its successor in her spare hand. When her volatile Scottish boyfriend needed to take a transatlantic flight, they tried to practice not smoking for the 6 hours or so - almost the unhappiest hours of my life. Rab hated most things - the poor, the homeless, Windows, and one day, the frying pan, which he smashed to pieces on the kitchen floor because his egg was undercooked. A kettle followed it to the great Kitchenware Store in the Sky. Other memorable incidents included the housemate who developed paranoid schizophrenia, which ended up in a bit of a scuffle with a knife, the time a bullet was fired through my neighbour's house, a gunfight on the street outside and the time when I was so tired and floating free of reality in the final few weeks of my PhD that I sat and watched the woman across the road set fire to her husband's car without thinking it at all strange or concerning. It just felt like a late night TV show. It wasn't a bad house, but I didn't like the weird landlord's habit of letting his Rottweiler in at random times, and eventually I got sick of sharing, so ended up in my current flat - cold, noisy but wonderfully solitudinous.

So if you're going to university this year, embrace student housing. Landlords are usually bastards. The houses are often cold and damp. The mattresses are stained and rotten. The kitchens are deathtraps. But they're always better than some corporate hall of residence where you pay massive amounts for bland safety. At least in shared houses you learn who you like, who to hate, what the limits of your tolerance are, how to distinguish between mouldy-fine and mouldy-dangerous food/feet/genitals/clothes and all the other life lessons you won't find in a book. Trust me. You'll love it.

Update: I managed to forget a whole other student house. It was in many ways the perfect one for an English Literature postgrad. Two floors above a bookshop owned by my landlord. Directly opposite a bar, with a pub next door. 50 yards from Threshers' off-licence (their damned 3 for £10 bottles of wine usually meant the weekend started on Wednesday - and it was featured in a Shakespeare play. Well, sort of. The Dean's house is featured in Henry IV Part I, as the site of a nefarious meeting. Our rather lovely flat incorporated the one remaining chimney and wall from the Dean's lodge. I'd like to claim that history and literature oozed from the walls, but it didn't. Mould and hangovers were all that ran down those walls.


Anonymous said...

Seriously, write a book. This is hilarious.

Anonymous said...

No wonder you turned out like you did.

The Plashing Vole said...

Very true! They were all madhouses.