A landlord will want my bona fides – but what if they read one of these columns?

As my impending homelessness looms, I remain at the mercy of estate agents and homeowners. 

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Little depresses the soul more than impending homelessness – and that’s even if you can scrape together just enough money for somewhere to live. I saw a property last week which was quite breathtakingly awful. I felt optimistic while waiting for the estate agent to turn up. The sun was shining; the property had old-fashioned sash windows, which I like. The estate agent, when she arrived, was a charming young woman. It all went downhill from there.

What is it with the common parts of some houses? I suppose it has something to do with the fact that they are liminal places, to be negotiated as quickly as possible, shunned by tenants and property owners alike. You can also intuit the philosophy of whoever divided the house up into flats in the first place. Here, we were clearly in the presence of a mind more than usually devoted to the principle of squeezing every last drop of cash from the place. There were two doors to flats on the first floor, but – and I don’t think I’ve seen this before – they formed an angle of about 60 degrees, as if each were trying to elbow the other out of the way. And the general decor in the lobby and on the staircase bespoke decades of indifference; enough, indeed, to prompt thoughts of suicide. One could not imagine unlocking the front door and walking in with a spring in one’s step.

Inside, things weren’t much better. The first thing to strike me was the smell. I’ve been smelling things for over half a century and have a pretty good olfactory library, but I was baffled by this one. Top notes of some kind of industrial disinfectant, with hints of mildew? Might something have died about six months ago, too?

I strolled over to the front window. The living room was small, so this didn’t take a lot of time. The sun’s force was considerably dimmed by a thick layer of grime. Beneath the window was not a radiator, but a furred metal plate connected to a plug socket. The window didn’t open. We both tried, one at each side, but then I noticed that it had been painted shut: no one, I suspected, had opened it since the turn of the millennium.

“You’ll be able to get someone round to open this?” I asked the estate agent.

“Oh yes, of course,” she said, but I have a hunch that, even as I type these words and you read them a week afterwards, that window will be maintaining its status quo.

The kitchen wasn’t too bad, I suppose. The bedroom… well, at least it had a bed with a clean mattress on it. The only problem with it was that it took up almost every square inch of the room. (The window opened, though.) As for the bathroom, it wasn’t, it was a shower room. Windowless, of course.

Pausing only to take my Swiss Army knife out of my pocket to slit my wrists, I said, “I’ve seen worse”, in a cheery manner, but the estate agent and I both knew that never had I told a more barefaced lie. And for all this, someone was having the brass neck to charge £900 a month.

At least its location was a slight improvement on the property I’d seen a couple of days before, which was a mile and a quarter up the road from where I am now, and in an area of such staggering suburban dullness that for a shocked minute or two I thought I was in East Finchley again. Only this time, an East Finchley without shops.

Actually, yesterday I saw a place I did like. Unfurnished, tiny, but there was something cute about it; it was in a nice part of town, the windows opened, and from one of them there was a glimpse of sea, the wind turbines visible in the far distance. I said “I’ll take it”, and the estate agent told me to ring up her office, who then told me to write an email telling them a bit about myself, which they would then pass on to the landlord.

I did it as soon as I got back. A young couple, squeaky clean and not exactly reeking of poverty, were shown in just as I left, and I wanted to jump the gun. But as I fired off the email (“I have a long-standing column in the New Statesman”) I suddenly had a moment of misgiving. There is a chance that the landlord might google my name in order to check out my bona fides. And then there is the chance that he or she might read something I’ve written.

I have a feeling it might not be one of the 1,500 or so book reviews I’ve written; it might, instead, be something from these pages, and suddenly the unwisdom of writing a weekly bulletin of inertia, drinking too much and smoking struck me with great force. To which I can only say: look, I exaggerate for comic effect, I have a cleaning lady and I don’t smoke indoors. Give us a break. I have yet to receive a reply. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 25 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The autumn of discontent

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