From my never-to-be-paid-off mortgage prison, I miss the devil-may-care disgustingness of a manky rented flat. The freedom of the six-month lease, the not giving a toss about the neighbours, the psycho housemates. I even miss that weird mouldy thing in the living room.
I’ve lived in some crummy, glorious, flyblown crapholes. I would waltz in and shout “I’ll take it!”, then spend the next six months wondering why my whole body was coated in a layer of mildew. But even so, I loved them all. In fact, I had some of the best times of my life in places that would make a cockroach vomit.
Take Brighton Grove in Newcastle. This charming three-bedroom Victorian property was painted by its previous owners, who were a bunch of hippy stoners. They weren’t very good at art, but that was OK, because no amount of flowers on the wall could cover up the fact that this house was where dogs went to die. I lived there happily for a year with three joyfully disgusting women. Boys from the notorious nearby estate would regularly kick the front door in “for a laugh”. When we inevitably got burgled, the whole place was trashed and the thief did a POO on the chair – and that actually improved it. In fact, it was so dirty that the fingerprint man broke his brush and had to buy a new one. (Sorry, Northumbria Police.)
Then there was Kersland Street in Glasgow, a bedsit that I imagined reflected my status as a penniless writer. It had a meter that – in exchange for several thousand 50p pieces – would burp out three minutes of heat from the ancient gas fire. I sat next to that weak flame, shivering through my first Glaswegian winter in a leatherette chair, reading Trainspotting. Oh, it was romantic. I was basically a living, breathing not-very-good Belle and Sebastian B-side. But after a burst pipe that nobody bothered to fix flooded the bathroom and my room, destroying most of my possessions, it wasn’t evocative – it was just crap. In fact, it was so horrible that there was an article about unscrupulous landlords in the paper, featuring me pointing at the pipe and looking sad.
Oh yes, and I can’t forget Athole Gardens, where I fled after Pipegate. One flatmate was a part-time techno DJ, part-time drug dealer. (It took me ages to understand why the phone was always ringing and tense-looking people with enlarged pupils kept coming to the door.) My other flatmate was a genial alcoholic builder who was often found face down in a plate of Kraft Cheesey Pasta with a happy, faraway look on his face. My room was a lovely garret, only slightly marred by the fact it was infested with moths and had previously been occupied by an artist whose life’s work was to recreate the smell of her own vagina.
Still, those were some good times. From the relative comfort of my own home, I can look back at all the rental-lols I had and smile. The bedbugs, the gas leaks, hiding from the landlord… Standards were low, toilets were encrusted with brown stains, but for some reason everybody was happy and nobody gave a toss.
And even though I now know how to clean a toilet and wouldn’t dream of sharing my living quarters with a stranger’s intimate artificial secretions, I sometimes miss that squalor. For me, it represented freedom from drudge. That smell wasn’t just dead badgers, damp and mouldy spag bol. It was the powerful stench of freedom.