|Crouch End, 1979|
In the 1970s, London was full of optimistic youngsters facing the future with open minds and good hearts. I was one of them, and, like many in that crowd, I was looking for somewhere to live.
I had left my family home in rural Staffordshire to take up my first job, just off Fleet Street. The start of this great adventure saw me sharing a room with a stranger in a YWCA hostel. This didn’t strike me as odd. During my six months there, a variety of people passed through my life and, with what I now realise was incredible luck, we always got along.
Breakfast was served in a communal dining room and clean bedding provided once a week. There were washing machines in the basement, two TV lounges (one BBC, one for ITV) and a reception area from where sour-faced advice could be sought.
But despite its lovely location opposite the British Museum, the hostel had its drawbacks. There was the small matter of the cockroaches, for instance. I had to make as much noise as possible on entering my room to make them scurry away. There was also the lack of privacy of shared bathrooms, and the tiny kitchens in which it was near impossible to cook anything more elaborate than Bachelors Cup-a-Soup. Then there was the creepy porter, looking as though he had stepped straight out of Scooby-Doo. He was the only male allowed over the threshold and, like Mrs Danvers, seemed to appear out of nowhere.
And let’s not forget the curfew. Anyone expecting to be out beyond lock-up at 11pm was required to say where she was going and whether she would be back at 1am or 3am. I found out the hard way that 11 meant 11. One night I was banging on the door at a couple of minutes past, but to no avail. I was forced to call on a friend for shelter. After that, I always said I wasn’t going to be in until 3, regardless of my actual plans.
It was clear that this situation was far from ideal for a girl about town, and so I began scouring notice boards and trawling through the local papers for something better. With what can best be described as a scant regard for my personal safety, I set about visiting prospective homes from where I could reach the City. My confidence was high.
First came the opportunity to share a flat with a chap from work. It seemed too good to be true: on the right Underground line, reasonable rent and shared use of the garden. But even in my naivety I could see that he had more in mind than a platonic housemate. I politely declined.
Looking further afield, I saw a place above a dry-cleaner’s premises where the landlord assured me I would get used to the smell of chemicals. No thanks.
Then I had a narrow escape when I viewed a room in a house in Tottenham. It seemed very nice and met all my criteria: clean, spacious, reasonable rent – hot water included! – and just round the corner from the Tube station. It would have been perfect, had the landlord not casually mentioned that he liked to keep a key to the rooms of all his tenants: ‘just in case I fancy dropping in’.
I began to realise that decent flats were scarce and those that were around were taken almost as soon as they were advertised. Often I had to submit myself to a selection process whereby I would be interviewed by the existing tenants to see if I had the right credentials to join them: How much do you earn? What hours do you keep? Do you have any noisy habits? Do you use a lot of garlic in your cooking? Do you mind snakes? What are your views on free love? And even: Would I be able to borrow your clothes sometimes?
I started to despair. Was I doomed to spend the rest of my life in a bug-infested room in the cheaper end of Bloomsbury? Then, at last, a friend of a friend had a bed-sit to rent in a house in Crouch End. Would I be interested? Would I ever!
These days an N8 postcode is quite the thing to have, but back then its glory days were still ahead of it. The room in question was at the top of an Edwardian house that had seen better days. The paintwork was peeling and for lack of a bottom hinge the front gate was wedged not quite open, not quite closed. And yet… I rang the bell.
Half an hour later, the deal was done and I had found my new home.