I Walked Around London, Knocked On Strangers' Doors and Asked If I Could Stay the Night
Where in London is friendliest to a strange man with a beard and a backpack?
The home is sacred. Who passes through your doors and who you keep out in the cold is the last form of socially acceptable prejudice. Which actually makes a lot of sense, because it's your house, and therefore your PS3 controller, or your fancy candle, or your set of commemorative Pogs that goes missing if you let the wrong person in.
Thing is, with the rise of apps like Air BnB, Couch Surfer, Tinder and Grindr, the likelihood of some Jane or John Doe getting all up in your living quarters, creasing your sheets and leaving strange indentations in your furniture is probably higher than it's ever been. But has this gold rush of stranger-meeting services actually normalised the idea of housing people we barely know, or do we just do it more now because it usually ends in either sex or an online bank transfer?
I decided to answer my own question by visiting a cross section of London neighbourhoods over a period of five nights. I'd knock on doors. People would (hopefully) open them. I'd ask if I could sleep in their house.
The idea was pretty simple, but I needed a convincing back-story that would minimise any external influence on the host's decision to let me stay (i.e. "Hi, I'm a journalist writing about whether people in this area are kind and accommodating or selfish and fucking horrible. Which one are you?").
Eventually, I settled on this: I was visiting London (I'm from Australia) and had organised to stay at a family friend's house who I didn't really know all that well, and they hadn't turned up. Plus, I couldn't access my money until the following morning. If they accepted, I'd come clean.
This is how my week went.
WEDNESDAY - WHITECHAPEL
Knocked on: 37 doors
Had: Five conversations lasting more than five minutes
Weather: Drizzly and generally quite shit
Whitechapel was tough. There were a lot of no's very early on, all of them expressed in a way that didn't instil me with much confidence for how the rest of the week might go. After a while, I did manage to get into a conversation with one lady, who wasn't able to host me but did very kindly pawn me off to a neighbour three doors down. "It's a student house," she explained, promisingly.
A guy named Jack opened the door. He was around my age and seemed sympathetic to my fictitious cause. We built up a bit of a rapport and he told me to keep looking, but to come back in an hour or so if I had no luck, with the vague commitment that they'd sort something out. I went to the chicken shop next to the station, ate some chicken and walked straight back.
This time, Jack's roommate answered the door. I asked if Jack was still home and whether this guy was aware of the conversation I'd had with him earlier. He informed me that no, Jack was no longer home, and that he was unaware of any conversation that had taken place.
I pictured Jack in his room, playing Call of Duty with the sound off, trying to escape the consequences of his poor decision making.
I tried to turn his housemate around with an offer to both pay him £20 (the following morning) and to leave my passport and laptop as insurance. He wasn't having it, and I was left to continue my sullen traipse around E1.
After a few more rock solid no's I met 28-year-old Xavi from Barcelona, who listened to my story for about two minutes before inviting me inside. Straight away he offered me cigarettes, food, clean clothes, hash and beer. We spent the night smoking, drinking and talking about our respective homelands. It was great.
"You knock on my door and you look OK, but worried," he said. "And you tell me your story about having no place to stay. I let you in to stay. I thought, 'He is probably very stressed and I am not doing much tonight, so we can just make it fun and he can relax and not worry.' I offer you hash and beer. I thought we can have a fun night."
Xavi was one of the best guys I've ever met – instant affinity, immediate Myspace Top 8 levels of brotherhood. We chatted about his job in the fish markets, his life away from Spain and his girlfriend, who was studying abroad in Germany. I asked him if he felt he should consult his housemate about me staying there. "Ah, yes, she is pretty open-minded – I don't think she'll care too much. But maybe her boyfriend might care," he laughed.
Xavi was intent on making the experience as positive as possible. I figured that him being away from his girlfriend and his homeland was probably why he seemed to appreciate the company, as well as explaining his empathy for my being alone.
"I've been in your situation before and I myself am not from here. I'm not from London. I'm from Spain. I can imagine how you must have felt," he said. "And you can't steal much from my place because I don't have much, so I wasn't really worried about that. I don't know – I like to be a friend with every brother ."
THURSDAY - SHOREDITCH
Knocked on: 42 doors
Had: Three conversations longer than three minutes
Weather: Still raining and cold
One big problem with Shoreditch was the lack of homes with front doors. Soliciting a bed through an intercom is always going to be a no, unless you happen to chance upon a psychopath who wants to take your skin and use it to wallpaper their top floor flat. Which isn't really ideal in the grand scheme of things.
Knocking on any door I could, one lady told me through the letter slot that she'd call the police. Another kept saying that she really wanted to help, but that because she worked from home it would be difficult. I nodded unconsciously, before suggesting that this was actually a pretty ideal situation – she was in, and I was looking for somewhere to be in. And then I stopped mid-sentence. This wasn't a debate. She was a lady living by herself who understandably didn't want some creepy weirdo sleeping over.
My approach changed after that. After failing the entire way along Shepherdess Walk – which I'd got very excited about because all the houses had doors – it began to rain. Luckily, the next door I knocked on was answered by Victoria, a teacher and single mother of three teenagers, who invited me in for a decaffeinated vanilla-infused tea. I didn't feel great about imposing myself on them, but, you know, I still did.
I sat at their kitchen table for about 15 minutes, making polite conversation and trying to look normal. Not so normal that I appeared too relaxed about having nowhere to sleep, but normal enough that I didn't look like I was going to lose it and start kicking their windows in. I could hear the buzzing and beeps of the girls' mobiles, and a look of alarm washed over their mother's face. I felt really bad.
"I thought it was my duty to ask and see what your circumstances were before turning you away," said Victoria, when I asked why she'd been so friendly. "I could tell by looking at you that you weren't a mass murderer. I asked you in and got the girls to ring around their friends to ask for a place for you to stay. I also called two friends, but they didn't pick up.
"We were out of options, but I didn't know what to tell you – I didn't want to send you back out into the rain. My girls started texting me, pleading with me to just let you stay on the floor. I was thinking you could have maybe slept in my car, or that I could drive you to my cousin's and say you were a friend from work. I didn't feel comfortable lying to her, but it was an option I considered."
I suggested sleeping between the radiator and the back door. Victoria accepted. I thanked her. That family reaffirmed my faith in humanity.
SATURDAY - BRIXTON
Knocked on: One door
Weather: Mild and dry
My Brixton door-knocking experience was very brief; I was only on the streets for a total of seven minutes.
The first house I went to belonged to a 28-year-old IT systems manager who didn't want his real name to be searchable, so let's call him Bill Peterson, because that's a kind-sounding name for a very kind man. I was knocking on his neighbour's door when he opened his. I explained my made up situation and he let me in.
"I saw you skulking around and thought, 'Who is this chap?' My initial thought was aggression," he told me. "You were standing there looking tired, distressed and emotional. I guess hearing your story and seeing the way you looked changed the situation pretty much straight away."
(Not to negate Bill's incredible generosity, but I don't think I looked all that awful tbh.)
"I thought, 'OK, he's probably really going to struggle getting anywhere in Brixton.' So I said, 'If you can't find anywhere and it's late, you're welcome to crash."
I asked him if there was any initial hesitation about letting me stay. "Yes, definitely," he said. "There's been a bunch of guys who regularly come down here and smoke crack on our porch. Just last week our window was smashed, so I've been a bit touchy."
Bill was heading out for a couple of hours, so told me to come back at midnight to crash on his couch. Once we'd both returned we stayed up until 3:30AM chatting about politics, him explaining China's corporate espionage into global server networks while his girlfriend slept in the bed next door.
He double-locked the front door before we went to sleep, "Just in case you try to take off with the telly."
I took the remote out of my back pack and returned it to the coffee table, disappointed.
SUNDAY - GOLDERS GREEN
Knocked on: 49 doors
Weather: Cold but generally kind of fine
Golders Green was always going to be difficult. It was a Sunday, a night where it's traditional for people to be gearing up for a week at work / not hosting strange men in their home. It's also a residential area with a lot of families, so I didn't have high hopes for coming across many from the demographic that had so far been the most receptive: single men my age. The area did, however, have a lot of front doors.
My first conversation was with a doctor of some description, who had an in-house practice. He invited me into his office for a consultation. I declined. He suggested I try a Buddhist commune down the road.
I kept knocking for three streets, until I reached the home of a Japanese family. The door was opened by a 12-year-old boy and his mother. His mother seemed uncomfortable, which was understandable, and told me that it wouldn't be possible to have me to stay. I thanked her for her time and started walking away.
As I knocked on their neighbour's door, I heard the boy running up behind me.
"Mister, are you hungry?"
"No, I'm OK. But thanks anyway – really appreciate it."
"No, you have to eat something. My mother has lots of food for you."
"Thanks, mate, I'm OK."
He grabbed me by the arm and marched me back to his front door.
After two minutes in the doorway, he came back with a shopping bag full of food. It's that type of selfless kindness I'd hoped to find. I explained what I was doing, gave the food back, thanked the boy and his mother again and carried on my search.
After close to three hours of door knocking I was ready to call it a night on Golders Green. However, in a last ditch attempt I rapped my knuckles on the door of a man who wasn't all that happy to have been interrupted late on a Sunday evening. He didn't let me in, but he did offer me £40 for a B&B. Turns out Golders Green is home to some very charitable people.
The man told me he could tell I wasn't a conman. "Good nose," I said. "I'm a journalist."
I asked why he'd offered someone he'd never met the equivalent of quite a decent meal for two.
"I have a son who's a similar age to you, and if he was in your situation in a foreign land I would like someone to help him," he explained. "The fact that you're Australian helped. If you had a local accent it's unlikely I would have helped."
TUESDAY - KNIGHTSBRIDGE
Knocked on: 18 doors
Weather: Cold, windy and shit
By Tuesday evening, my last day, I was fully over the door-knocking challenge. My knuckles were bruised, my confidence shook, my guilt at the lies I'd told countless strangers starting to become slightly overbearing.
I was also certain that nobody would help me in Knightsbridge. Bar your odd tech tycoon or hippie aristocrat, the kind of people who live in Knightsbridge aren't exactly known for their benevolence. Also, a lot of the buildings looked like embassies, and I figured it probably wasn't going to be in anyone's national interest to let a bearded man in chinos kip on their couch for the night.
I walked around for 20 minutes trying to find residential front doors. The few I did find didn't open. I found a close that looked promising. I knocked on all the doors. Nobody answered. To be honest, I was kind of relieved.
I kept on walking. The streets were dead. After one final hour, I gave up completely. I was done.- - -
If my five nights taught me anything, it's that London is full of benevolent souls. And that all those listicles about Londoners being rude and unfriendly are dumb.
Plenty of people turned me away, of course, which did make me feel kind of shitty about myself, even though – in retrospect – it likely had nothing to do with my personal character and everything to do with people just wanting to enjoy the comfort of their own home without some Australian alien making them feel incredibly uneasy all night.
But for those of you who did let me in, thank you – it's amazing to know people like you exist.
More times we've gone out and done stuff: