What is it? It is, as ever, a studio flat in Stoke Newington, which makes me wonder, logistically, how Stoke Newington – which I have always known as a rarefied little knot of about 40 roads that all close every weekend for street parties, and then a Franco Manca, nothing else – somehow is also populated with a seemingly endless number of shitty little studio apartments, as well as the towering 1930s-built three-beds bought up by graphic designers married to lawyers who all spend inordinate amounts of time making sure their children never, ever know what a chicken nugget tastes like.
Where is it? Do you know what I mean? Stoke Newington is not a large place. I have lived in a couple of share-houses there, and they are cavernous, huge places – bay windows, gravelled gardens, attics – which can keep five or six adults in them at any one time. Then you think about all the other houses – the next-door neighbours who practice strange forms of reparative reiki from their basement, for instance, or the ones who make and print flyers to put through your letterbox to tell you about an obscure by-law about car exhaust fumes that they are making the local primary school strike about, and somehow this needs your support – and you can start to tot up the sheer number of people who manage to exist in such a relatively niche locale. How they seem to live lives full of space and light and air and garden, and then there’s you, crammed into a gloomy box-room, looking at Facebook Marketplace to see if you can move out at all, ever, and you see this studio apartment going, and you realise: no.
What is there to do locally? I am circling around the drain of a point: London is a gigantic city, easily capable of housing every single person in it, many times over, in comfort and warmth and joy. But a series of choices have been made to ensure that doesn’t happen. Tiny slum-like bedsits are gleamed to a soulless grey high finish and sold as premium digs. New builds are carved out in tiny proportions – why build a tower of flats if the flats aren’t big enough! You’re making the building! Make it big! – London housing a sort of always-evolving plane cabin interior, the seats at the back inching ever closer every single year, everyone squeezed into a level of discomfort at just a low enough rate that we don’t notice, just so Business Class can have an extra few inches to laugh and drink good orange juice in.
Have you gone off the point a bit? Yes.
Just do “how much”: £1,250 pcm.
How many people have seen you naked, do you think? Not in a sexual scenario, exactly, or via a glowing phone screen (though, if you want to lose a few hours, don’t let me stop you from totting that up), but I mean more a glimpse through a window, a silhouette against a curtain, a flash reflected on a distant mirror. As an eight-year-old, for instance, I once saw two former prisoners grunting and shagging through a bay window while I cut through their halfway-house car park to go and play football on the park behind them, and that has stayed with me more vividly than, for example, more precious and delightful memories of my childhood. Over lockdown, our balcony facing out onto an eerily empty carpark and out into the flats over Iceland beyond, I once looked up from my book and saw, 400 metres away, a big pair of tits. These glimmers stay with you. I think at some point in mid-adulthood you lose this precious idea of your body as this electric, sexual device, a constantly buzzing erotic threat, and instead it becomes this more pragmatic vehicle – yes, you can cum with it, and you can rub it sylphlike against the nude form of another, but also you push pizza into it when you have a hangover and you use it to carry shits from one place to another until you find a McDonald’s or a busy enough pub to get into and use the toilet. Bodies are, of course, magical and forever fascinating, but I think at some point you really get a little less uptight about how much of a towel is covering your junk when you walk past a window. At some point, you really do think: god, who even cares if someone sees, like, one of my nipples.
That said: how many times would you have to show your full arsehole to the neighbours while you try to take a shit before you get used to the feeling? Ten hundred? Ten thousand? Ten hundred-thousand shits?
This is a tiny bedsit gleamed up to a soulless grey high finish and sold as premium digs: yes. But it’s also one of the most erratically-angled examples of these I have ever seen. We can start with the bathroom, sure, where a huge and seemingly completely uncovered window is situated directly next to the toilet and facing on to a main road, so you get to show your full entire hole every time you go and sit on it: cool. If you pee standing up, everyone can see you do the peeing.
But also, the “bathroom” that the toilet/exposure centre is situated in is at an insane slice of an angle – if you look at the floor, the room is less than one big tile wide, so there is actually hardly space for you to put your legs out when you do dare to do a shit. What is that large, ominous cupboard sitting directly on top of the toilet? It is impossible to know, but I assume, inside, there is something important and un-moveable – a valve, or something; a strange meter a silent man in a fleece comes over every few months to check urgently – because the cupboard is located in such a way that you can’t actually fully push the flush button when you need to finish up with your ablutions.
I feel like the way around this is one of those depressing London hacks we all have to live ambiently with: you have friends over, for instance, and, when they ask where the bathroom is, you have to explain that, “It’s in that room to the side: we’ve taped an old sheet to the window so no one can see your arse, but if you need to flush there’s a chopstick on the side we keep there to do the toilet with.” Just 11 more months of this, you think, flushing your toilet with a utensil that came free with a takeaway. Just ten-and-a-half more months of chopstick shitting.
The main room is just a main room: classically, it could have been a very nice front room, if someone hadn’t wedged a bed and a deeply uncomfortable rigid leather sofa and a mostly pointless tiny ugly dining table into it, but they did, and now this is both where you spend your evenings and where you spend your nights and where you eat and where you… well, where you do literally everything beyond shitting in a way that your neighbours don’t get mad at you for (“You do seem to be doing rather a lot of shits,” the printed flyer your neighbours push through your door two weeks into your tenancy says, “and as well as buying some privacy film from anywhere but Amazon, I’d also politely suggest you add more fibre to your diet, perhaps in the form of a soluble supplement”) and having a shower.
The bathroom had a chance at being a normal shit bathroom, but they fucked up twice: someone deliberately installed a sink at history’s most insane angle, and, once again, there’s a full window out onto the road there, so while the neighbours on one side can watch you piss and shit, the neighbours on the other can watch you bathe. There might be a washing machine, but I do not see one. The kitchen is laid out at an angle M.C. Escher would describe as being “a bit fucking rum”.
You do have to wonder how many people stepped into this flat in the past few weeks – the person who owned it, the builder who took the job to renovate it, the lads who came in and played the radio really loudly and put ugly blue tiles in it, the painters, the decorators, the estate agents – and thought: ‘Yeah. Alright, this, isn’t it?’
Keep cramming London together until it breaks, lads. Completely sustainable and a very good plan for us all.