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9 May 2018updated 28 Jun 2021 4:38am

I thought I was at the vanguard of middle-class homelessness – but we’re everywhere you look

In a month’s time, K— and I will be competing for sofas around the country. 

By Nicholas Lezard

And so farewell to Stamford Hill, maybe for good. I had gone there to keep K— company while she packed her things up. Her landlord, a very well-known and not much-liked lettings agency whose name begins with an F, decided she wasn’t paying – as a rude, snotty and devastatingly uncaring letter to her put it – “anything like the market rate”. So they put her rent up by 50 per cent.

That’s a big hike, and it’s even bigger if you’re a poet. You may say that she should get a proper job, and indeed she teaches poetry classes and does what freelance work she can get; she used to work for NGOs until George Osborne unleashed the so-called bonfire of the quangos in 2010. If you think this was a good idea then I suggest you are reading the wrong magazine. All it did was make a lot of people broke, and, as the records show, has not done very much to ease the deficit.

Anyway, now that K—’s rent is, I suspect, actually higher than her income, even with a lodger, she has to start packing up 13 years’ worth of accumulated possessions, not counting the stuff she had already. Her lodger was away for most of April, and she wanted someone around the place to stop her from falling into despondency. She knows me well enough to know that she can’t rely on me to do any actual help with packing but I can provide amusing company and cook. I may be an utter slob but I confine my mess to a small blast radius – to wit, the lodger’s bedroom – and tidy the kitchen while and after cooking.

It is all a very different set-up to the one I had been offered in Olympia. That flat was elegance itself, the expression of a sensibility with no obligations to anything except its own somewhat pampered aesthetic. If it came to a clash between utility and good looks, utility went out the window, as I’d often reflect bitterly while trying to get the impossibly chic but unco-operative electric hob to work.

K—’s place is not like that. It’s up three flights of stairs in a rickety and insalubrious red-brick, turn-of-the-(20th) century mansion block that is not too far off being describable as a tenement. Still, what it lacks in bon ton it makes up for in character. People live cheek by jowl here, and as most of the tenants are Haredi Jews, who are encouraged to have large families, there are a lot of cheeks, a lot of jowls. You are never very far from a newborn baby in Stamford Hill, even less far from a young child. The close proximity to such burgeoning family life makes living here a different experience from that in much of the capital. I wake to the sound of crying babies; during the warm spell the children ran, played, rode their scooters, and played with skipping ropes.

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Skipping ropes! Who plays now with skipping ropes? Well, they do in N16, and I have to say there is something very comforting about looking out of your window and seeing a group of kids playing so timelessly. I realised what it was making me think of, and rushed to tell K—, who was able, as she had thought it herself, to finish my sentence for me: “It’s like being in Brooklyn in the 1900s.” A close neighbourliness (although the Haredim tend not to mingle; but that doesn’t stop anyone from being civil, or holding doors open, etc, etc), a sense of unstoppable life; and, with the strict dress code of the religious, a sense that the contemporary world is actually only a temporary one.

Anyway, I don’t know what will get me back there, now I no longer have somewhere I can crawl into at three in the morning or later, after shooting the breeze at the Mascara Bar. I can’t not go there again. Maggie would call up almost every day to see if I was coming in. That’s customer service for you.

But there you go. In a month’s time, K— and I will be competing for sofas around the country. It is going to be harder for her than for me. I always suspected that my time in the Hovel had a limit on it, and so was reluctant to add anything to the place much larger than a framed print, or a lampshade. K— has a fantastic library, a table, a huge mirror, a bed to get rid of or store somehow. (Storing, it would seem, is only marginally less expensive than renting.) She has a thing for typewriters, which is both great and understandable; most of them are going.

Watch out, though. I like to think that I was at the vanguard of the new trend for middle-class homelessness, by virtue of having one of the most precarious jobs imaginable; but look around, there’s going to be more of us. Alistair in The Archers is having to kip on his father’s sofa, and he’s a vet, for crying out loud. It’s everywhere you look these days, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. If it gets better. 

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This article appears in the 02 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, What Marx got right