Bloody students and their luxury flats
Clair WoodwardFollow author @Clairywoowoo
Clair Woodward is the Arts and Entertainment Editor of the Sunday Express. She lives in the basement of a Victorian Gothic pile which is 150 years old, and was shocked to calculate that the house is only 100 years older than her. She wonders how much longer she can cope with the steps.
A new student residence, edgily called The Edge, has just opened in Leeds. Its developers describe it as having ‘seven-star’ luxury, and it delivers in spades. There’s a sumptuous private cinema, a well-equipped gym, concierge service, laundry room without strange people and a funny smell, plus study rooms featuring inspirational quotes from student favourite Richard Branson on the walls.
The accommodation looks like a swish hotel, very modern with pictures of international cities on the walls; you can even book yourself a cleaner if the strain of looking after somewhere so posh is a little draining (£14 a week). And as it costs from £140 to £190 a week upwards (including bills), then the cleaner, plus a welcome pack of basic groceries that cost £21 (as opposed to my rough calculation of £15 if you bought them at a large supermarket), won’t worry your student loan too much.
It’s all a long way from my shared student house in Queens’ Head Road, Birmingham, in 1984. I paid £14 a week for a room in a house that, after we vacated it, was discovered to have an electrical cable from the boiler running directly under the bath. There’s an exclusive design feature for you; thank God the tub was made out of plastic, otherwise I wouldn’t be here writing this.
Unlike rooms at The Edge, mine didn’t have “dynamic storage soutions”, it had a wardrobe. And not even one qualifying as “vintage”, a term we didn’t use then. It would have come from the estate of deceased relative of the dodgy landlord, as did my original bed, which was propped up for several months on a sleeping bag when the leg fell off. I didn’t have a sweeping panorama of the New York skyline decorating the room; instead there were various postcards made by friends, a picture of Morrissey I’d cut out of the NME, and a poster for Speed Your Love To Me by Simple Minds.
The décor in the loo was more eccentric. Painted knicker-pink by the landlord, with vile green mock-tiled flooring, we brightened it up by putting a poster of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley from Wham! on the inside door, which soon became covered with felt-tipped comments, increasingly rude ones.
Smash Hits magazine was the must-read in our house, and over the terms, provided a lot of visual stimulation. I put a picture of Morrissey with a kitten on a plate on the fridge, with the comment “Oh, no, not kitten again”. It stayed up long after the joke had worn off, alongside our free Vesta ready meals calendar (mainly featuring the Taj Mahal and curry) on which the cleaning roster was dutifully recorded.
I was always amazed that the windows didn’t fall out, as they were held in place by putty that hadn’t been replaced since the place was built in the Thirties. I recall my parents frantically nailing up pieces of opaque plastic at the kitchen windows as half-hearted double-glazing. It may have kept the odd draught out, but the most important purpose was that we couldn’t see the terrible garden, which had a shed in it that was so scary that it could have been a location in a Stephen King novel. I think I only sat in the garden once in two years, it was so overgrown. I found a rusty hammer in the long grass, merely adding to the American Gothic atmosphere of the place. Now that is edgy.
On a student grant, I couldn’t afford to spend £21 on a handful of grocery items, so it was either off to a terrible cheap supermarket for a basic weekly shop, or the Lo-Cost store near college, a store so basic that it would have made a shop in downtown Minsk during the Cold War appear like Harrods’ Food Hall.
That house was horrible. But it was also brilliant. Learning to live somewhere totally unlike your own comfortable parental home and just get on with it; to share a house with people you may not particularly like, and just get on with it. It’s all part of growing up, and I was really lucky that I got to do it. It was a darn sight more entertaining than sitting in a plush Study Room and looking at a big picture of Richard Branson before swanking off to watch something on your big telly in your expensive apartment.
If you live in luxury student accommodation, you won’t get the fun of filling the attic with every milk bottle you ever had delivered, as a friend in Newcastle did in the Eighties, and a few years later hearing that the ceiling had collapsed in a hail of glass (not funny really, but…), or another mate whose house organised a big, boozy lunch before breaking up for the Christmas holiday, and left the clearing up and leftovers until they got back in the New Year. On their return, they opened the kitchen door, and if you’ve ever read Will Self’s short story Flytopia, you can imagine the sight they were greeted by.
Student life thirty years ago was grotty, grubby and glorious. Whilst we didn’t live like The Young Ones, I know people who did, and they’ve all grown up alright and without too much permanent damage. Even today, as I live in a basement flat, I get the occasional slug on the living room rug, and years of living in a semi-slum mean I don’t run off screaming. Living in a broken home made me the woman I am today.