Per­vert phone call­ers, nosy land­lords and dodgy plonk... you can’t top bed­sit life!

Irish Daily Mail - - News - BRENDA POWER

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’.

Nui­sance

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.

Nov­elty

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.

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