Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Roomie Nation

A few weeks ago I moved into a shared house, something I'd thought for a long while was a good idea in general but which was imposed upon me due to circumstances at the time rather than being the result of a conscious choice. While moving into the room which is now my home I came across a book I hadn't read for a few years and whose setting is perfectly apposite to my current situation.

The book is John Brunner's 1968 Sci-Fi masterpiece "Stand on Zanzibar" and the title of this entry is actually one of the book's chapter headings. The full story is too complicated to go into but there's an in-depth description on wikipedia for those who are interested. The reason the story relates to my current situation is that it's set in the early- to mid-21st Century and the Earth's population is 7+ billion people (not that far from our current 6.5 billion), causing overcrowding on a massive scale and therefore making house-sharing with strangers practically mandatory. I remember thinking when I first read the book that house-sharing was a good idea and now that I'm actually doing it I'm pleased to say that I was right but I'm well aware how lucky I've been.

I've heard a few minor horror stories about previous occupants here and other people's previous landlords and housemates. There's the usual melee of people who don't bother cleaning up after themselves even though the kitchen/bathrooms etc. are also used by 5 other people, and the folks who think that as the fridges are shared, some of the contents are also fair game. Of course there's always someone who has their music up loud at all times of the day and night with no thought of the effect it has on other people. Funnily enough, one of my current housemates called the council about a neighbour making a lot of noise through the night and that's when I learned that the house next door is actually several bedsits and the other occupants wanted the noisy one out too. One of the previous housemates here was a borderline basket-case and she got away with all sorts of nonsense because everyone else was scared of her - apparently she'd regularly get into fights with guys in town just because she felt like it. Our newest housemate said her previous landlord was the sort of person who'd buy the cheapest possible item for the house and then hurl verbal abuse at the tenants if the item was broken.

So given that this house is now full, the other 5 tenants are decent people and our landlord is a professional who's not just out to make a profit, I've been pretty lucky really. If there were more nice people who wanted to house-share and more landlords prepared to provide a decent environment for tenants, house-sharing would be much more popular and would go a long way to sorting out the ridiculous housing 'shortage' we have in the UK. Before I climb onto that particular soapbox, here's a bit more background information.

Apart from living with family my home life in chronological order is: a shared room in a student hall of residence, a student flat, a student house, a flat with my best friend, alone in my own flat, a house with 3 postgraduate students, alone in a rented a flat, a flat with a girlfriend and now a room in a shared house. Being a quiet, reserved, over-serious kind of guy who's not terribly gregarious I can honestly say that living on my own was the worst thing I ever did, both times. If you're out seeing friends a lot or have people visiting a lot then living on your own can be great but I've never been that sociable and ended up spending most of my time indoors alone watching films or reading while listening to music. None of that is wrong per se but it's incredibly easy to devolve into a Norman No-mates recluse who hasn't a clue how to interact with other people. The great thing about a shared house is you can hide away in your room if you want some privacy or you can hang around in the kitchen (there's no lounge in this house) and talk to whoever is there. One of the guys here put it in a nutshell: some days everyone's in their room, some days we're all in the kitchen all evening, talking, eating and drinking.

Soapbox time! I've just had a look on the national statistics website to get some information. The UK population mid-2006 was approximately 60.5 million people, a rise of 8% since 1971's total of 55.9 million. The number of households increased from 18.6 million in 1971 to 24.4 million in 2007. Note that we have around 4.5 million more people and 5.8 million more homes but there's still a shortage! Now, the number of people living alone doubled - 12% of households are single occupancy - that means there are 2.9 million households containing only 1 person. Speaking from personal experience and having known various people who've lived alone, having your own place can be an intensely lonely experience, yet around 3 million people are doing it! Here's another bit of info gleaned from t'internet: the government has commited to building 3 million new homes by 2020 to ensure there are enough places for everyone to live. Obviously there's no direct link between those stats but it makes you wonder.

Digression: A while ago there was a TV documentary made about the street the film-maker lived in. It highlighted how little people know their closest neighbours and how rife loneliness and melancholy is in the faceless grey streets of many British towns. It occurred to me then, even though I only caught the last 10 minutes of the documentary, that if you looked down the average street you could probably find at least two lonely people who'd love to spend time together just to have someone to talk to. In fact it's quite likely you could find two people who'd be compatible in a relationship and therefore be much better off even if all they did was occasionally have some mindless stress-relieving sex or go the platonic route and just sit around chatting. If only there was some way of getting them all together...

Anyway, the point is: why is there a housing shortage when we have more homes per person than ever before? Daily Mail readers will go on about immigrants, asylum seekers and other 'temporary' residents taking up space that should be reserved for us Brits. However, it's well-known that immigrants tend to live in smaller cheaper accommodation and house-share in relatively high numbers - anyone around in the 80's will remember the jokes about letting out your spare room to a Bengali family. So if it's not the influx of international immigrants, what is it?

Simple: the steadily rising affluence of the majority of the population, coupled with the ever-increasing displays of ostentation that are now such a large part of pop culture, has created a lifestyle-worshipping generation who crave ever more material wealth. In most countries, the most important display of wealth is in the choice of home or, for those with enough money, homes plural. Advertising and television love to make us believe that the 3 spare bedrooms, ensuite bathroom and acres of open-plan living space are luxuries accessible to everyone. Realistically it's only open to those with lots of money but, rather like the way the slew of reality TV shows has made half the population think they could be a celebrity, too many people now think a spacious designer home is within their grasp.

Let me ask a question: why do you want a huge house? Are you never going to leave it? Are you going to spend the rest of your life cocooned in comfortable surroundings decorated to the latest trend but never actually set foot outside? In an age when people spend more time txting and emailing 'facebook friends' than they do interacting with their real friends and family it really is time to reverse the trend. Or, more accurately, push through the current cultural cycle until it once again becomes fashionable to be sociable in person. Then people won't sit around talking or playing with mobile phones in cinemas because they'll recognise the fact that they're in a public place surrounded by other people and not just sat in their own lounge in front of the TV. Then people won't be so badly behaved when they're drunk because they'll empathise with everyone else and understand the impact of their behaviour on others. Then... oh forget it - just move into a shared house at least for a while and learn the value of tolerance, understanding, taking responsibility for your actions and proper communication.

PS If I'd said all that in a public place everyone would be looking for the bottle of cheap cider I'd been swigging from since breakfast and wishing they didn't let people like me back into the community so soon...

No comments: