A shithole that’s yours for £475 pcm

“Hello mate” he burped, greeting me on the doorstep of a 7-bedroom house in Brighton, smelling of Carling and looking like a Harry Enfield caricature of a cowboy builder. His clothes were splattered in paint and his smile indicated he had been visited by the Tooth Fairy so often he was probably having that cheeky pint of Carling with her. I didn’t know whether to smile back or offer to play ‘Candle In The Wind’ on his gnashers.

This was, potentially, my new landlord. He could have been the person entrusted with my sumo-sized deposit, in charge of making my tenancy a happy and agreeable term. You know something’s up when the first three things that a landlord tells you are accompanied with the words “sorry” and “it’s not usually like this”. The first was fair comment, as Brighton’s binmen have reacted unkindly to having a £4k wage cut. Brighton is approaching a sort of seaside dystopia, with rubbish piling up in the streets. One creative type taped a bin shit with cardboard notices asking “please take your trash home!” A passing pedant was seen stuffing a crisp packet in the tiny gap between duct tape and bin, saying they’ve got “rubbish!” not vulgar, Americanized “trash!”

I was willing to let the mounds of rubbish go. The interior however, was another matter. It was a proper, old-fashioned Victorian terraced house but one which has clearly suffered decades of student abuse. If distressed houses had a helpline, you’d need the most experienced member of staff dealing with the call. Even then, there would probably be no stopping it jumping off the nearest cliff. Cracks ran up and down the wall, making it look like an Underground map made entirely of Jubilee lines.

There was a musty smell emanating from the very walls themselves and the threadbare carpet looked like a decade’s old welcome mat. The six current occupants seemed to be oblivious to my presence. From each room, the faint tinkle of music was seeping under the rattling doors. Clearly, this was an extremely social house. As I entered the kitchen, which would struggle to accommodate a family of friendly bacteria let alone six adults, I finally came across one of my potential housemates.

“Chris, this is Ryan” the landlord wheezed and Ryan gave me a cursory nod before disappearing behind a fridge door, emerging ten seconds later wiping his upper lip of milk. As the fridge door slammed shut I saw the semi-skimmed cow juice he had been slurping. There was no identifying markers or other cartons. He was drinking from the communal milk while a guest eyed up a double bedroom upstairs.

Ryan cut the most pale figure. I wasn’t even sure if he was standing in front of me, such was his ghostly white pallor. As he headed back to his room he told his landlord he was “going out tonight” for Pablo’s leaving party. Ryan said this with all the excitement of a parish clerk reading the minutes from a previous meeting. He couldn’t have made it clearer that he would rather be eating enchiladas off the perma-stained flooring than seeing Pablo off.

“Who’s Pablo then?” I asked.

“Pablo’s great mate” he began, flicking globules of warm beer spit in my direction. “Yeah, he’s a real livewire. Actually he’s my longest tenant”.

“How long has he been with you then?” At this point I expected the answer to pre-date the Millennium, alongside a blow-by-blow analysis of his upbringing in the grimy house, the first room he came across in 1993 after boarding a plane from Madrid in search of a new life. But no.

“About eighteen months mate” he casually replied, with a confidence that he clearly hoped would be encouraging, as if having the tenant turnover of a geriatric ward is the sign of a happy living community. With Ryan’s marble white complexion, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was an imprint on the mortal world, having left the confines of his hellish house days after arriving in favour of somewhere more convivial, like an abattoir.

We climbed the stairs to the second floor and he pointed me into the bathroom, an assortment of random colours and styles with a healthy dose of damp in the far corner, an unpleasant shade of teal.

“I will be putting an extractor fan in shortly” the landlord said, clearly not finding time in his busy schedule in the past ten years of his ownership of the house to do that very thing. At this point I knew for certain I wouldn’t be living there. If I wasn’t put off by the abundant fruit flies buzzing around the rubbish in the garden, or the kitchen which would have made a coffin feel spacious, or the walls which seemed to be solely supported by a thin layer of wallpaper, not architectural security, I was certainly put off by the fact I didn’t like the landlord. He was a shyster, a charlatan, a bleedin’ rogue. If he was recast in classic literature, he’d be a knave from a Dickens novel, made successful from his exploitation of others. He wouldn’t ask for “more porridge, Sir”, he’d steal it off the other orphans, add a kilo of sawdust and pass on the result at a ludicrously inflated rate.

If I was being polite, I’d call the bedroom ‘poky’. It was a loft conversion, so the ceiling was heavily sloped, meaning that taking one step inside necessitates a bowing of the neck: given six months I’d be walking around as if I was facing a permanent gale-force wind. There was a double bed manoeuvred into the far side of the room (I say ‘far side’… When the far side is within arm’s reach, it surely cannot be described thusly) but it was cosy in the extreme.

Happily, I’m not too naïve. The location was perfect so if I was a little less cynical I might have chewed off, if not a limb, then at least an appendage to live there. Just for giggles, I asked which deposit scheme he made use of. I was met with a predictable barrage of sighs and tuts. “It’s more hassle for you and it’s more hassle for me” he opined, preferring a system of mutual trust and a bit of paperwork which his “best mate” could rustle up if he was feeling generous. You really couldn’t make it up.

Admittedly I am a newbie to the world of deposits, landlords and rent but I’m trying not to get taken for a ride. During my student years I stayed at home, spending the couple of thousand pounds saved on those essential amenities of modern life: records and premium cider. I suppose witnessing the dire pits of sub-‘Young Ones’ revoltery prepares me well because everything I see from now will seem like paradise. A linen closet which is colder than an Arctic tundra, surrounded by cohabitants who make Norman Bates look like a Balamory character, would be a marked improvement. The search continues.


When 1 vote in 20 is good enough

It’s hard to think of a more pointless folly than supporting the Labour Party in East Sussex. Excepting Hastings, which according to one unkind friend looks like “Croydon-by-sea” and has been relentlessly poor for decades no matter how many cathedral-sized shopping centres they erect to cover the baseline poverty, East Sussex is a no-go for red rosettes and ex-Trade Union members looking for paid employment in the House of Commons.

Despite numerous requests and invites to events, I am hesitant to meet my fellow Eastbourne members because as far as I can tell, they would comfortably fit in a Ford Mondeo. The ‘Eastbourne Labour Party’ Facebook group has fewer members than the ‘Jimmy Saville for sainthood’ group and makes only marginally more sense. Every year I’m sent details of the constituency party’s Annual General Meeting and they’re always begging for people to take up more responsibility. The current chairman has been in position forever, and I doubt whether death would impede his bid to win re-election, especially as his wife seems to make up 50% of the voting members.

I have not become embroiled in local politics in the years since but in 2010 I was full-heartedly attempting the impossible; getting Labour elected in Lewes, county town of East Sussex. You see, I was going through one of my rare phases of direct political involvement. I’ve always been politically aware but I sway violently between two positions. One side of me wants to get out there in people’s faces, thrusting leaflets through letter boxes and making speeches to Trade Union conferences, coming across like a left-wing version of William Hague’s Tory address when he was a wheezy teen. I am now a recidivist of this kind of high-level involvement, wincing whenever I see it being practised. I have adopted more tokenistic gestures such as the time the BNP were handing out leaflets in my local town centre. I walked by, took a leaflet with feigned interest, then ripped the thing to shreds and threw it in the nearest bin, making sure the boot boy who was dispensing the vile literature could see me clearly.

As much as I despise the likes of the BNP and English Defence League, I am torn when I see anti-fascist demonstrators quarrelling in the street with these hoo-ligans, as they come across as rather snobby and elitist. One chant adopted by the anti-fascists goes “read some books”, an appallingly vague command. No wannabe Nazi is going to be turned to the good side by a Jona-than Franzen thriller. Besides, I’m fairly sure the most committed of eugenicists will have read at least one book. I would start a protest to protest against these protesters but then I would be heading the anti-anti-fascists, which would invite a collective shrug of the shoulders from the population at large.

But back then I was right in the thick of it, albeit with fewer scuffles than your average protest march. By default, I became the Lewes candidate’s campaign writer. This was down to a mixture of good luck and an entirely unbiased piece in an online journal which sug-gested that given half a chance, Hratche Koundarjian would become Prime Minister in about three years. He took this endorsement in his stride and co-opted me to his team, surmising that if I can churn out a thousand words about how marvellous he was, I should be ideal to type endless waffle about why the residents of Lewes and Newhaven should vote Labour.

And that was one of his key campaigning points. The seat is called ‘Lewes’ and Hratche proposed changing it to ‘Lewes and Newhaven’, which would doubtless surpass the Magna Carta as a landmark moment in modern British history. Problem was this alienated the half of our electorate that lived in Lewes, diminishing our already tiny core vote due to Gordon Brown’s leadership, which in retrospect proved as people-friendly as asbestos. The policies were made so ad hoc that if a farmer in a tiny village said he was considering vote Labour, Hratche might have changed his pledge to make the seat ‘Lewes, Newhaven and Piddinghoe’.

It was a classic campaign run by people who had no chance of winning. Anything remotely controversial that sitting Lib Dem MP Norman Baker had voted for would be turned in to a Lewes Labour policy. Hratche was a decent man but it was his first campaign and it felt like a jigsaw made of molten wax. Nothing really fitted together. If Norman Baker sneezed, Hratche would have pledged to set up a task force to investigate the whereabouts and condition of the dropsicules of phlegm that escaped Baker’s nose. We also faced an insurmountable problem: Norman Baker was a rea-sonably popular MP. Alright, he looks like a vole but that never stopped anyone from being successful. Just ask Michael Winner.

The most memorable moment of the campaign came as the results were being announced. To stop any old loony challenging for a seat (well, Lembit Opik still gave it a shot so the system’s not perfect) the Electoral Commission require you slap down a £500 deposit. To get this dollar back, you need to poll at least 5% of all votes cast. While the Lib Dems and Conservatives were locked in a relatively tight race, all we were fighting for was our £500 and tattered pride.

When you’re enmeshed in the hub of a campaign, you do allow yourself a few moments to picture a mythical outcome, where Hratche’s heroic traipsing around the dodgier areas of Newhaven might pay off and the electorate finally comes round to your way of thinking, rewarding you with the biggest shock of election night. You imagine David Dimbleby turning to his panel of talking heads and saying “Well, we have a shock result coming in from the south coast”. As the campaign writer, my ego whispered seductively in my ear, I would be sure to be catapulted to the top table of Labour speech writers, like a real life Sam and Josh from The West Wing. Reality soon hit when we were asked by a Brighton candidate to help his campaign because – and he said this so matter-of-factly – “I actually have a chance of winning”.

Knowing that victory for us was impossible, we watched anxiously as the returning officer stepped to the podium, clipboard in hand. After various mathematical algorithms were entered in a highly complex machine (Hratche’s Nokia mobile) we knew that 2,807 votes would see us pass the 5% mark.

“Hratche Koundarjian, the Labour Party…” she began, and we fell silent, hopeful but fearing the worst.

“Two thousand…”

“Come on” we collectively thought, clenching fists and closing eyes.

“Eight hundred…”

“Seven more” we pleaded.

“And seven”.

You’d think we’d have won the World Cup. A mighty cheer arose from our corner and we all high fived each other with grins spreading ear to ear.

“We did it!”

Yes, we did it. We won 5%. No more, thankfully no less. Victory was ours, even if the seat is still called Lewes, I’m writing this for nothing and Hratche Koundarjian is still not Prime Minister.