What is it? Once there was silence and now there is this. Once this was just grass, and trees, and wilderness and beasts, and insects fluttering lazily through the air. Once this was rivers and swamp and reeds. Then we came and stomped it all down into our shapes: paths grew out of caves, which grew into roads wound into hamlets, villages, towns, cities, skyscrapers, airports. Once, this was something, and then we tamped it down to mud and gave it a name, and then it grew, grew, ever winding, the roaring feet of the Roman army, the Nordic invaders, layer upon layer of civilisation, settlements, battlegrounds, death. We grew limbs and crawled from the swamps, and now, thousands of years later, we evolved to the endpoint of civilisation, which is “having a big Spar just a short walk away from a little Spar”. How did it ever end up thus?
Where is it? Do you ever consider – when you are stood on the ground, or occupying a space, or lying in a hotel bed – do you ever get the intrusive thought: how many people have died on the exact spot I am in right now? I get it, all the time. Plague sufferers. Peasants worked down to the nub. Lords who partook of too much food and succumbed on the trail to gout. Billions of people have come before us, and all of them have died, and there are so few places to ritually do such a thing (die) – which might, if you think about it, explain some of our cultural resistance to assisted dying facilities: we evolved a lifespan longer than nature ever intended, but socially we never caught up, and we have a ritual for when we are born and when we are married and when we are buried, but we don’t have a ritual for dying; we resist flying to Switzerland to be demolished because we do not have hundreds of years of death tradition underpinning it; we need to invent our own at an astonishing rate – that they have, naturally, overlapped and died where you are now. The house you are in: do you think anyone’s died in it? It’s been around for a few decades at least, probably. You are unlikely to be the first person to live in it. Did someone die in the corner? Did someone flop dead in an armchair? Did someone spasm every muscle in their body at once and rise from the bed, stiff and long and dead? You never know, do you. Something to think about, though, every second you exist, for the rest of your natural life.
What is there to do locally? I suppose I am staring into the existential abyss, because a VIP mezzanine flat in Notting Hill does not, simply, “happen”. A house was built here, once. It was grand. People lived in it and grew wealthy in it and died in it. Society evolved. The population of the city stayed the same, but the need to segment space – protect it for the wealthy, and slice it down into tiny portions for the un-wealthy – became apparent. Landlordism became more rife. Houses were segmented into floors, floors became flats, addresses were amended from “111” to “111A” to “111B thru D”. We created smaller spaces for ourselves. And, little by little, it emerged, in Notting Hill: a tiny flat with a tiny balcony and a tiny special shelf for your bed to go on, clocking in at—
Alright, how much are they asking? £2,362 pcm. Every bad decision you ever made was built upon the bones of the dead. You check Tinder in the shadow of a battlefield.
Friends (you are my friends) familiar with this column will know of the emerging existence of the “mezzanine bed”, a property trend that swelled in the late terror of 2018 and sustained, ever more popular, through until now.
Mezzanine beds right now are “hip”. In 2022 – when I will still be cursed to write about hideous rental properties in London from my own hideous rental property in London – I will look back at the mezzanine bed craze with a wry smile, mezzanine beds just a distant nostalgic memory to me, like those Topman T-shirts with the coloured button-up collars, because mezzanine beds will have long been replaced by some new horror – “Why Renters in Dalston Sleep Inside Large Industrial Washing Machines to Save Space” – and the idea of sleeping on a double mattress flopped on a shelf looming horribly over your own front room will seem novel, luxurious, elegant even. But right now mezzanine beds are just mezzanine beds, and they are shit and they are everywhere, even in west London, where they are trying to charge you two-and-a-half grand (think what you could do! With two-and-a-half grand!) to sleep in one.
The thing with this mezzanine bed is it is the world’s poshest ever mezzanine bed, which means, strangely, it passes two of my most acid Rental Opportunity tests: The Airbnb Test, and The Shag Test.
First, The Airbnb Test: say you rock up to an unfamiliar continental city for a three-day mini break, and your skin is shrunken to your flesh from the air travel, and you’ve been up since 4AM, somehow, and the three celebratory breakfast pints of Guinness you had at the airport Wetherspoons have long since worn off, and in the cab you started to actually feel quite queasy as a result, and your partner is marvelling out of the window at the sheer wonder of a new world – a colosseum, look! An ancient temple! They drive on the opposite side of the roads here! – but you’ve had to put your head on the cold glass to try to cool down your forehead so you don’t throw up.
You unlock the door and this is your Airbnb. It’s nice, right? It’s actually really fucking nice. When you have exactly half a suitcase of belongings to store in it, a room like this is simply gorgeous. Quick shower to freshen up. That new shirt you got that you’re not brave enough to wear at home is on. Out into the piazza for an early evening Aperol Spritz. Later, you’ll come back here, and be slightly too drunk to successfully intercourse, but you’ll try it anyway. This house has: passed The Airbnb Test.
But passing The Airbnb Test is also failing The Airbnb Test, because the point of an Airbnb is you wouldn’t want to live there for more than three days. The situation is this: your flight home is cancelled and the host allows you to stay until all this coronavirus stuff settles down. Once you’ve stopped existing solely on charcuterie boards and those little ramekins of snacks Italian waiters bring you with your drinks, and you actually have to cook a meal, then all you really have kitchen-wise is a lone sink, a kettle and an oven–hob combo that is also directly next to your TV.
I suppose it’s kind of novel to watch TV while you cook, exactly once, but then after nine or ten days here – your partner is trying to watch Bake Off, and keeps shushing you when sizzling sounds get too loud for them to hear the Matt-and-Noel patter, and there’s no extractor fan, so slowly a fug of chorizo grease envelopes the room – and suddenly cooking in the same room you relax and sleep in feels less chic, less exciting, more wearying. You clatter in to the bathroom for a bit of peace and quiet, but you can still hear the TV booming alongside you, and then your partner sneaks upstairs to get what they call their “comfy socks” out of what’s left of the clothes in the suitcase, and you can hear every step, like they are walking on top of you personally.
There’s no washing machine here, so you have to lug all your clothes to wherever the nearest laundrette is, and the Citymapper app says, bafflingly, it’s 0.8 miles away. Slowly, the exposed brick wall and the sofa being six-feet away vertically and horizontally from your bed, and the tasteless metal wall art that just says the names of major cities, starts to feel less like a holiday and more like a prison: you wake up in the night, choking, and rush out to the 18-inch deep balcony to catch great, deep, lungfuls of air. The Airbnb app pings. The money already left your account. You are paying two-and-a-half grand for this.
And then there’s The Shag Test, which re-centres our imagined life in this room: you are back in Britain now, and single, and the night has gone well – one of those gorgeous summer evenings where the light sits high in the air until deep midnight, and you waltz and move around a basement club like you own the place, clothes slicked to you with your own dance-sweat, cider then beer then cider then cider then poppers, you feel sublime, you feel unstoppable, you get off with two separate people in the smoking area and take one home, fingers in the Uber, jacket off at the door, your keys skitter along the floor and then the lamp comes up— Oh, they say, is this it?, and you say, “What, is me sleeping on a bed that hovers ominously above my own kitchen a dealbreaker?” and they say Well, uh, let me— let me look, and they untangle themselves from you, and say Can I use the bathroom?, and you say, “It’s under my bed,” and they say Actually, I’ll leave it, and you go upstairs to the bed-shelf – they have to crouch slightly to get into the bed underneath the low looming ceiling, so they have to lie perfectly horizontal to get their top off, which loses a lot of the thrill of the allure of getting naked with someone new, and yes, yes, I suppose you do pass The Shag Test here – as if to say, you get it in – but they get quite nervous and skittish afterwards, the claustrophobic nature of the bathroom stall clearly spooked them, and they say I think I’m gonna go. I think I’m gonna go. I’m gonna go, and you go, “Oh,” and they go Can you get my Uber? I got the one here, and you begrudgingly say, “Yeah, I guess,” and actually the same driver who bought you both here picks them up, and you watch them drive off from your little balcony, then trudge upstairs above your own bathroom and sleep (due to the unsuccessful nature of the intercourse, there’s not even a wet patch), alone on your bed on the floor.
So it passes The Shag Test in a way that it doesn’t pass The Shag Test, which I suppose is, ultimately, not passing The Shag Test.
So: you see how this flat is “not very good”. It’s a premium-luxury version of the shitty mezzanine bed flats we’ve seen before – it’s newly done out, immaculately clean, you cannot argue with the heart-of-west-London location – but it’s also still a bed hovering above your own kitchen which is also your living room and the bathroom beneath it is technically structural at this point.
This flat, to me, is the VIP section of the club: you’re still in the same club as everyone else, with the same threatening aura club-people and the same £12 vodka-coke – you’ve just paid a bit extra to feel like it’s special to sit down. What are you paying for here, exactly? The tastefully exposed brickwork? The un-tasteful wall art? The fact that the furniture it comes with is exactly two steps beyond the generic cheapest-pine-shit-we-could-find landlord runoff flats normally get?
What premium are you willing to pay to have your mezzanine bed flat be “nicely decorated”, rather than “actually big enough to house a human being for a week without them going mad”? If your price is “slightly less than two-and-a-half grand”, then I invite you to dig in to this. If it’s anything else, probably pick somewhere else and think about how many people might have already died there.