Pervert phone callers, nosy landlords and dodgy plonk... you can’t top bedsit life!
AH, bedsits. To the generations whose first taste of independence came with the distinct tang of ancient bacon fat, mildew and long-dead socks, the very word is all it takes to transport us back across the decades.
Mention ‘bedsit’ and you conjure up corridors of brown lino, electricity meters you could hack with a spoon handle if you were short of a 10p piece, two-ring Baby Belling hobs, and unannounced visits by creepy landlords.
The return of the outlawed bedsit – basically a single room, usually in a large Victorian redbrick in Ranelagh or Rathmines in my student days, with a shared bathroom – is one of the options that has been flagged as a solution to the annual student accommodation crisis. With urban rents skyrocketing, and families being forced to find €200 a week, or more, for a small room in a shared Dublin apartment, bedsits don’t look like such a purgatory any more.
Rental properties with shared bathrooms were officially outlawed four years ago, but given that many cashstrapped tenants end up taking a room in a rented house with strangers, sharing kitchen and bathroom facilities with people they don’t know, it’s hard to see any real benefit from a law that simply slashed the availability of student accommodation.
And anyway, bedsits had a character-forming effect. You learned valuable survival skills in confined spaces, after which a spell in an overcrowded Peruvian jail would feel like a sojourn in Gorse Hill. If you ever passed a winter in a bedsit on Dublin’s South Circular Road, you’ll have watched Midnight Express and thought, ‘Luxury’.
At least they didn’t have to dry their damp clothes by tucking them between the bed-covers as they slept. And they didn’t have to listen to the rats in the cupboard beneath the sink, rustling through your bag of spuds.
Bedsits, too, were often listed as such in the phone book, and provided a happy hunting ground for heavy-breathers and nuisance callers who reckoned on getting a naive and lonely country girl on the other end of the phone. A particularly ingenious chap once rang the flat I shared with my friend Elaine, and claimed to be a garda who needed help. He had a pervert on the line, he told Elaine, and he wanted someone to keep him talking for five minutes or so while they traced the call.
She was more than happy to assist – at one point I heard her asking if she’d have to supply her own boots and whip – and kept the poor old pervert talking for so long that he ended up making an excuse to get away. It must have been one of the few times, in the history of obscene phone calls, that the perpetrator was the one to say, ‘I’d love to stay and chat, but I think I heard the doorbell.’ We didn’t have a telly, you see, so these little diversions helped to pass the long winter evenings.
The 2013 regulations also abolished ‘landlord-controlled heating’, which, in practice, often meant ‘no heating’. Super Sers that ran on bottled gas were the height of sophistication, even if they stank and had to be moved by forklift. Two-bar electric fires, reeking with the fragrance of incinerated flies and smouldering dust, were the more usual recourse in bedsits where the radiators were strictly decorative.
Not that landlords didn’t make their presence felt in other ways, usually by launching sneak attacks to check that you weren’t breaking the rules by having boys to stay or failing to keep the bathrooms spotless. We rented one flat from a pair of unmarried, middle-aged sisters, who worked in the civil service and referred to themselves as ‘girls’, and whom we considered obsessive to the point of psychosis on the matter of cleanliness.
As they showed us around on our first day, they lamented the fact that the last ‘girls’ who rented the place ‘didn’t even know where the scrubbing brush was kept’. Fortunately they didn’t hear one of their prospective new tenants asking, sotto voce, ‘What’s a scrubbing brush?’ She wasn’t kidding, either.
Depending on the level of discomfort you were prepared to accept, though, bedsits weren’t hard to find. They’d never have passed the most basic inspection – we lived in one basement with stripped walls that looked like a stage set for Riders To The Sea – and they wouldn’t have been any mammy’s choice for her fledglings. But they were cheap and low-maintenance, and most landlords didn’t really care about the decor, or the parties, or the noise.
At one party in the set of Riders To The Sea, the drink had all but run out when my guests opened a cupboard found a demijohn of partially fermented wine – the winemaking kit had been a birthday present from Philip Nolan of this very parish – and drained every last drop. Imagine the delight of the guests at the Wedding Feast at Cana when new supplies arrived, except on this occasion we’d save the worst, most lethal wine till last.
The next morning our landlord arrived to collect the rent, stepped discreetly over the unconscious bodies strewn around the floor, picked up the envelope from the kitchen table and left without a word.
We bedsit-dwelling students might have been the envy of our Dublin-based pals, who lived at home and couldn’t brew their own wine in wardrobes, but we envied them their home comforts. The parties, in reality, were few enough and most nights were spent hunched over the electric fires at rickety kitchen tables, studying or writing essays, while most meals involved toast and packet soup.
Once the novelty of your own place wore off, there was a lot to be said for a warm house, a cooked meal, a functioning washing machine, a sofa without cigarette burns, a decent TV and clean bed linen. And so it may be time to consider a middle ground for student accommodation that fell out of fashion when bedsits became the norm.
The 2013 regulations saw off bedsits, and made students fair game for unscrupulous and profiteering landlords. Many families now face into another autumn of anxiety as students return to college, desperately trawling the overpriced, overcrowded rental market for the near-impossible combination of available, affordable and inhabitable.
But bedsits, in their turn, had seen off ‘digs’, where students stayed in family homes, with their own room and key, coming and going as they pleased. Now, there’s a move to revive that market – to the potential benefit of all involved. Empty-nesters, or even younger families with a spare room, are being encouraged to take students into their homes and earn up to €14,000 tax-free per year. Student leaders hope a new internet ad campaign will source hundreds of beds this autumn, and homeowners already working the scheme have nothing but praise for the young people they’ve met.
Since students who opt for ‘digs’ are unlikely to be major party animals – in reality, few are, since most work hard to keep up with assignments and study – and many return home at weekends, the householders’ experiences are almost always positive. For older people particularly, a student around the house brings life and energy as well as security, and you’ve always got somebody on hand to sort out your Wi-Fi or set up a new phone.
For the students, there are all the benefits of home life, with the advantages of independence: the landlady might cook your meals and wash you clothes, but she’s not your mammy and she won’t ask where you were when you’re doing the walk of shame at 8am in last night’s glad rags.
And, fear not, first-time digs dwellers – your college circle will always include some pal who has a suitably dingy gaff for those wild parties that you fantasised about all through the Leaving Cert. Check the wardrobes, in fact, and you might even find a demijohn of rocket fuel lying about.