Sunday, 3 July 2011

Life in the London housing sandwich

Here in London, space at such a premium that any old building will do to live in.  Warehouses, factories, and most commonly large old Victorian terraces are frequently chopped up and turned into flats.  The majority of us live with a neighbour above and below, like we're residing in some sort of house sandwich.  (Unless you are a Russian oligarch with an entire Belgravia mansion to yourself which you visit but once a year.  I do resent the buying up of potential full-time homes by those who intend on using them rarely, while so many Londoners struggle to find somewhere to live.)  Inevitably when you live in quite such proximity with your neighbours the sounds from their flats drift up or down into your own, and with those sounds drifts also some eye-opening insights into their lives.  With only one potential noisy neighbour down below, and no one above, top floor flats are thus highly prized in London.  
At my first London address (the flat I shared with uni friends in Putney) we were the top-floor neighbours, and yes, we may have been those neighbours; the ones with the oversensitive smoke alarm and an inability to close a door quietly, who hosted endless parties of a slightly rowdy nature.  Our downstairs neighbours were not our biggest fans.  (Even less so after one housemate popped a note under their door at 1am one night, profusely apologising for the noise and signing off with much drunken, over-friendly love.)  When I left Putney I lived for a few months above a restaurant, the trials of which I have documented in an earlier post.  It was pretty noisy at times, and for several weeks the restaurant had a hazardous wiring problem which made our flat's lights flicker wildly as if we were on a sinking ship.  But to some extent that is what one expects.  If you move in between homes you would be a fool to imagine you will live in undisturbed, blissful silence.  In fact, if that's what you're after, I'd suggest a nice, single-storey stone croft somewhere in the isolated highlands of Scotland.

Recently my downstairs neighbour moved out.  From the first week I moved in, she had complained endlessly about the noises she could hear from my flat - music playing at 9pm on a Sunday (playing mind, not playing loudly), the television, the radio, people laughing.  I learnt the former owners of my flat had been forced to lay down carpet to muffle the sounds of their feet on the beautiful (but now hidden) floorboards beneath, after her complaints.  Sure, I heard her yelling at her son from time to time, and her neurotic dog barked through the night at random foxes, but not once did I complain to her about it.  One day I bumped into this Accidental neighbour in the street and she began to deeply apologise for my being disturbed the other night by her houseguest playing loud music; she hoped I'd not been too bothered.   Having actually not been at home that night, I had not been remotely bothered but seizing my opportunity for some moral highground points I fixed her with a long-suffering stare and said "Well, it's just what you expect if you choose to live in a flat, isn't it?"  She never complained to me again.

I did sympathise slightly, for I too hear the muffled actions of the person who lives above me.  My upstairs neighbour, who I have seen but once in the year I have lived beneath him, returns home pretty late every evening (I gather from other neighbours he works in the theatre) and proceeds to crash around a bit.  One becomes inured to such noises however if they are regular, but at first they can be quite alarming.  Three weeks into my new occupancy, as I lay in my brand new bed in my empty flat in this big, old house, I was awoken at 2am by a series of peculiar sounds overhead.  Paralysed by fear I lay corpse-still in my bed, listening to the anguished grunts, dragging noises and occasional entreaties to God from above.  My overactive imagination convinced me that a gang of burglars had broken in, tied up my neighbour and were right now ransacking his home, occasionally pausing in their thievery to beat him up a bit.  For 45 minutes I panicked, unsure what to do, terrified that they would come crashing down the stairs and start on my flat next.  Should I call the police?  Or the Accidental mother? (She always knows what to do, although at 2am, miles away in the Midlands, with nothing but my paranoid mind to confirm what was happening her ability might be diminished somewhat.)  Eventually after securing all entrances to my flat and leaving my neighbour to his fate, I fell back asleep, worn out by my own fears.  Only in the cold light of day did I realise that the noises I had heard corresponded to those of someone frustratedly playing a computer game (probably one of those move-around-the-room-with-a-controller-attached-to-you kind of things).  Now when my neighbour is busy killing zombies or playing championship tennis I never waken.
Part of being a true Londoner is the ability to sleep through anything, from the sounds of sirens to drunken youths carousing beneath one's bedroom window.  But even harder to block out are the noises which come from within one's own house - the consequences of living in the London housing sandwich.  


  1. Ah, London flats & houses! It is amazing the stuff we have to share with our neighbours. As for us, we have a couple always shouting at each other on the other side of the patio. His name is Kevin and I have been on the verge of calling 999 a couple of times. He moved out a month ago after a mighty fight. I do enjoy the new-found silence on our street...

  2. 'signing off with much drunken, over-friendly love' - just brilliant!

  3. Amazing isn't it, how one learns one's neighbours' names without ever having spoken to them, simply via their blazing rows, Muriel?

    Thanks, Twad'dler. Yeah that drunken letter was not one of the housemate's finest may also have been scrawled on the back of an old bill/piece of kitchen towel or something equally unsuitable if memory serves!


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