What is it? The worst thing is that, at some point, someone at VICE is going to ask me to live in one of these places, aren’t they. “Yeah, the slagging things off from afar thing is great,” they say, staring at a graph they’ve printed out (they’ve printed it out!) of my dwindling traffic numbers. “But to really make this sell, we’ve got to put you in one.” But I live in a flat already, I explain. It’s expensive and it’s got damp and the fire alarm keeps going off at erratic hours. My life is already quite bad. “Yeah, but we want to make it worse,” they explain, gazing at the graph again. “Get in there, cook meals, sit in the damp fug of those meals, watch TV on a little laptop propped up on a chair. Have some really shitty furniture. Barely be able to get out of the shower. Live the life.” Will you pay me extra to live the life? “We’re not paying you anything extra—”
Where is it? So this is how I inevitably find myself living for a month here, in this, in Acton, isn’t it. I can see this unfolding in my future like a prophecy foretold to me through smoke and dreams by a witch. The WiFi signal is so patchy that I have to go to the EE store and buy an overpriced dongle just to get online. I’ve had to selectively choose three base outfits and one pair of joggers that I wear on a loop because there’s no storage for my clothes when they are dry, and even less when they are being laundered (I live currently in a reasonably-sized flat, and if I mistime my weekly laundry loads – cram two overlarge loads too near to each other that they both have to dry at the same time, for instance – I use a fairly large swathe of my usable space because it’s just taken up by damp T-shirts, and I dread to think how much that problem is compounded in a space like, for example, this). I am cold and I am miserable and my curtains don’t reach the bottom of the window, so I wake up when the sun comes up, whether I want to or not, and when I leave the house I am still in: Acton.
What is there to do locally? I can just see this being my reality in 2021. “People don’t trust you anymore,” they say (another meeting – the article I wrote in the first month didn’t “do enough numbers”). “They know that you don’t live in a shit-hole.” But I live in a rented flat in London, I say. When I try to cook food on more than one hob, the top of the oven just starts beeping and both pans sizzle in useless pulses, doubling the time it takes to cook each thing. Somewhere, in a deep bank account held onto by a landlord, close to two grand of money I don’t really have is being held, and I’ll be punished via it if I make a single mark on the floor or walls or carpet over the course of 14 months of living here. Is that not good enough? “That’s not good enough,” they tell me. “The audience basically needs you to— well, not die. But be unhappy.” I have to go back there. Slowly, I learn that Acton has half-price sushi after 5.30PM and a reasonably well-reviewed crazy golf course. Another meeting. “Yeah, that one didn’t do so well,” they say. “How do you feel about living in a car for six weeks?” I sigh. What make and model—
Alright, how much are they asking? £725 pcm.
When I was a kid, I always seemed to be haunted by the ambient luxury of the BBC travel programme Wish You Were Here…? – Judith Chalmers shuffling into view, bronzed orange on a beach somewhere, firmly telling me to go to Marrakech. I do not know why a ten-year-old with no dreams of travel and no passport to do it with would watch quite so much of this show, but my pet theory is, simply, I could not be bothered to turn the TV over to one of the other three channels in the hazy scheduling half-hour after the evening news while my dinner was being made. The reason doesn’t matter. Only the reality. I spent my formative years watching Anthea Turner sarong her way around a piazza out of sheer lethargy.
Anyway, on Wish You Were Here…? – or maybe it was Tomorrow’s World? Maybe it was Tomorrow’s World, the Philippa Forrester Years – every year or so I seem to remember being shown the futuristic marvel of Japanese pod hotels, where everything you need to live – a single bed, a television, a charging socket and maybe a curtain – was within easy reach of your thin mattress.
This was good, the TV explained, because really you don’t need anything, do you, you fucking shit, you just need to lie down and fall unconscious, and maybe have a shower and eat out of a vending machine the next day, and all those wants and needs you think you have – space, natural light, a healthy source of food preparation, any storage beyond a cold metal lock-up – is actually you being a little fucking diva, and perhaps you should shut up and crawl in your pod.
In the future, the TV explained, everything will be like this – shit painted gloss-and-chrome to make it feel like a gift – and you’ll be happy for it. Trade in your home and your space and your food for a little tube you try not to cry in before you sleep, and chew down on a thin grey gruel of nutritional paste, and if you do all that we’ll let you take a flying bus to your job at the robot factory. Stop sobbing! Sobbing is outlawed in the future!
A lot of people think I just do this for a joke, but actually what this column offers is a pH test on an ongoing thought experiment London landlords are currently playing on our lives, which is: how many needs, feasibly, can we take away from someone before they die?
This room feels like the current endgame of that (though I am perfectly willing to predict it will get worse): in terms of furniture you have a single two-drawer cabinet that is falling apart in that wonky way that only fibreboard ever manages to, and your windowsill, which somehow operates as a desk and a dining table and a TV stand and a bedside table. Your kitchen has two hobs in it, because realistically you’re never going to need to make food for more than one person in this room, so why waste the hob space (the hob is also fully reachable from your sofa, which is also your bed: it folds down uneasily from two halves into one big surface, and you can just about type on your PC from it). You have a fridge, but no washing machine (“just febreze it” — a text I am 1,000 percent certain the landlord sends you whenever you mention this to them).
And then, I mean, that’s it, isn’t it: you have a room that is too small to be a kitchen, and too small to be a living room, and too small to be a bedroom, and too small to be a bathroom, but inexplicably is all of those things, at once.
Again, I am forced to consider what this room actually “was” before it was ghoulishly transfigured into London’s worst ever attempt at a pod hotel, and… I genuinely can’t tell? It only has one window (the outside shot of the flat shows a tasteful, if unkept, bay window – this flat does not have it), so I am assuming it was a side room in someone else’s flat, once.
Was it an office? It’s still a little small even to be an office, or a kid’s bedroom, so maybe it was just one of those spare rooms for junk that your parents have – a whole room with an ironing board in it, and the old TV box, and a single bed your dad has to sleep on once a month when he talks over Strictly too much and starts a big row, and various wrapped Christmas presents that have been completely forgotten, and all the old screws that were leftover from previous IKEA builds, and a single grey teddybear with its name sewn into the belly (“Why do you have this, mum?” “In case a kid wants it” “What does that mean?”) – only instead of filling it with junk, whoever owned this flat remodelled the entire property at great cost to carve out this little shit-hole, en-suiting a pathetic little spare room and cramming half an idea of a kitchen into it, and charging someone £725 a month to live in it, in Acton.
The future that Judith Chalmers promised us is here, everybody. It absolutely fucking sucks!