My lowest housing ebbs
Dale ShawFollow author @MontyBodkin
Dale Shaw is an author, television and radio writer, journalist, performer and musician. As well as having a number of scripts in development, he has most recently written for several series of Russell Howard’s Good News, Channel 4’s Anna & Katy, The Impressions Show, Mitchell and Webb and School of Comedy series 1 & 2, as well as features and articles for The Guardian, Huffington Post, The Quietus and Sabotage Times. He is currently writing a series for BBC Radio 4, What the Future, to be broadcast in late 2014. His first book, Letters of Not, will be published by the Friday Project/Harper Collins in the UK and the US in October 2014.
Once, while flat hunting, an estate agent showed me a terrible, terrible place in Finsbury Park. Far from being in a viewable state, the current inhabitants were still in residence and were actually having their tea as we invaded their home, unannounced. ‘Quite roomy isn’t it?’ the dimwit agent said to me as a number of the current occupants stared daggers in my direction and one openly wept.
A brief vignette to illustrate the fact that looking for a place to live is often difficult, frequently frustrating and riddled with compromise. Some form of ‘voodoo curse’ may also be attendance, as I have had some alarming lapses in luck when it comes to domiciles. I didn’t take the place in Finsbury Park, but it was a palace compared to some of these bizarre places that I’ve called home.
Imagine a full-sized snooker table. Place a single mattress, a slender chest of drawers, a sink, a single cooking ring and the smell of vintage cabbage on the snooker table and that’s basically what I had in Harlesden. This was my first ever flat in London and I assumed it was normal to take your own toilet roll to the bathroom that was two floors away (and if you left it in there, forget it baby, that shizzle was gone). This was in 1989 and I think I paid £40 a week. Pretty much all I had was a small black and white portable TV which had previously lived in my boyhood bedroom, a bowl where I kept my spare change and some beer in the tiny fridge. All of which were stolen during a break-in. Even the investigating officer was surprised at the size of my room and that anyone would be so desperate as to burgle it.
This was the name of a hotel in Brighton which was pretty much entirely occupied by the unemployed and unemployable (like me at the time). It was more like a hostel where your very meagre room rate was covered by housing benefit. It was, without doubt, one of the most truly depressing places on the planet. The carpet should have had its own show trial at The Hague. It had an all-encompassing odour that still comes back to me in my bleakest moments. Occasionally you’d see the horrified expressions on a frugal tourist family who had accidently booked a room there and come face to face with the absolute dregs of humanity. But there was a complimentary toaster in every room.
BEHIND THE SOFA
I have lived behind people’s sofas twice (I was horrified to realise) and actually on a sofa once. The first time was in London when I was technically homeless after being unfairly gazumped over a room in a shared house. Rather than accept my gazumping with good grace, I moved in anyway and set up shop in the living room. Eventually I shamed my gazumper out. When I first moved to the States, I lived on the couch in the Embassy, the legendary Washington DC punk house. It was summer time and regularly 100 degrees with 100% humidity – and I’m from Wolverhampton. I had to be peeled from the sofa every morning. A few years later I washed up in Olympia, Washington and lived behind my second sofa in a group house living room until I graduated to…
I moved from behind the sofa to the porch. It offered rudimental protection from the elements but still always felt slightly like camping. Even though my rent was miniscule, I was hideously poor at this time. I can remember using the bathroom at the local Safeway and rifling through the employee coats hanging up for loose change. However, there were free magic mushrooms growing in the field opposite, next to the fire station. A couple of years ago I went back to look at it and there was just a large singed hole where it used to be.
I was subletting a room in this infamous Oakland, California punk collective from some guy who was heading off on tour. It was hard to tell how many people actually lived there. Twelve? Twenty? There was always people milling about and unconscious on the couch. Bands played downstairs which doubled as a printing factory concern where local gutterpunks were vaguely employed. I remember my room having a dirt floor for some reason, even though it was it was several stories up. There was great deal of graffiti and a chore rota so complex that Stephen Hawking was drafted in to give it the once over. It was utterly overwhelming. Trying to deal with a couple of new roommates is bad enough, but when there’s enough to start a Rugby League team, it’s difficult to cope.
This was actually an entire apartment to myself, in San Francisco, which seemed far too good to be believed. And it was. Its relative cheapness came from the fact that it wasn’t really an apartment at all, but more of an elaborate art project or prank gone wrong. It featured a collection of hastily assembled plywood walls, nailed haphazardly to the area behind the garage of an actual house, with a few cursory nods to plumbing and power. Because of this, whenever the owners parked their car, my bedroom wall would bulge ominously next to my sleeping head. It was a spooky place and I eventually abandoned the bedroom altogether and slept on the couch. Passing vagrants loved to poop in my doorway. This didn’t help.