Blessay 21: High Rise Living

I am fortunate to live in social housing. My high-rise block estate is in Swiss Cottage, seven minutes walk  from Primrose Hill – an enviable location for most people. The building is 22 storeys high. I live on the 20th floor. However the lift only goes to the 21st floor. To get to the very top you have to take the stairs. This is because in the early sixties the building project was privately financed. The company ran out of money to complete everything (goodbye, lift ascension!) and the building, along with four other high rises along the road, was purchased by Camden Council.

High-rise housing was heavily criticised in the seventies and eighties. Some very cheaply made and poorly insulated buildings were demolished. My building, first generation high-rise, is built of sturdier stuff. 10 years ago it was refurbished by the Labour government under chancellor Gordon Brown’s PFI scheme. The tenants have new bathrooms, kitchens, heating, double glazing, better communal areas and new lifts. Whilst the exterior cladding has given the estate a smart apartment look.

I like living high up in the sky with my spectacular views of clouds, sunsets, sunrises and changeable weather. My one bed roomed flat allows me to tap into the dreamer inside me. The sunsets can be of a Casper David Friedrich intensity. The rain running down the window, on a winter’s day, creates a Monet like impression. And storm clouds can be positively Old Testament Hollywood epic. Yet though I am a writer and poet my feet manage to stay firmly on the ground. Daydreaming is strictly for the tea breaks.

Sadly I can see very few stars in the night sky. A telescope would be a waste of money as there’s too much light pollution. If I were Minister for the Environment I’d drastically cut down on restaurant, shop and hotel lighting, and encourage people to experience a fuller, and still safe, night-time. Still I do have the moon. if I were prone to be affected by it then the position of my bedroom window would have pushed me into lunacy long ago. (Waking up at three in the morning, to go to the toilet, a full moon can bathe my room with its light. But I’ve never howled back at it.)

Noise travels up. If the window is open a cry from the street can disturb me afpter midnight. Though it’s rarely a single cry but several.  A conversation ensues. ‘Gerry! / Hello! / You’re going the wrong way / What?/ The wrong way / I’m not / You are / No way! / You are, man. You are!  Thankfully Gerry does find the right way and he, and his friend, stagger on to Chalk Farm or Camden Town.

When there are drilling noises, tapping or knocking I open the window to filter the sounds with traffic noise (my urban ‘sea sound’). If the noise persists or gets louder than earplugs are at hand. I’ve spent a little more money on better earplugs now. They work well enough. So I’ve resisted ordering personalised designer ones. Occasionally I have to trace the origin of the noise. But where noise comes from can be very deceptive. I’ve been convinced that persistent manic banging came from one floor above, only to later discover it was actually three floors down. If you strike the walls hard enough then the plumbing reverberates sound throughout the building. It takes detective work and patience to track the source.

The windows are large and give me much light. My panorama of the seasons, played out against a terrific view of North London, is affirmative. Of course, in the summer it’s too hot in the living room ( I don’t bother with curtains or a blind. ) The bedroom, plus a fan, is my cooler option. Actually I wish they’d retained the old pre-refurbishment window, for you could pull it down to let the hot afternoon sun shine in. Then I could apply sun cream lotion and sunbathe just from lying on the floor, propped up by cushions against the bed.

I am not a complete fan of minimalist decor. But anything too heavily antique would look a bit out of kilter here. Still next to my modern sofa is the top half only of a Victorian wash stand, rescued from a skip, that I enjoy for its oval shape and green tiles. Behind the PC, is a stained glass window of 1930’s sun-ray design. My coffee table is plain and round. I try out arrangements of things in a room – moving them about every few years. It’s a changeable balance of the old and new, wanting to emphasise curves and circles to mitigate against boxy, over-square rooms.

Books, cds and dvds are an expression of my taste and identity. But I don’t want them to dominate a room. So I utilise the space of the flat’s long corridor next to the living room, kitchen and toilet. Here the artefacts cover the wall. This prevents sunlight fading their spines and covers and stops me, from being distracted too much by their titles. Only my bedroom contains some left over books.

But here there’s less of a problem with the sun. And because all the fiction’s directly facing my bed I don’t seem to mind too much about titles. Whilst sitting on the bed only a handful of names are in my sight-line. Camus, Borges and Perec are the threesome.  And my over familiarity with their titles, Carnets, A Personal Anthology and Things has blunted any urge to open them up again very soon.

The kitchen could be bigger but it’s fine for one person. My bathroom has a few ornaments but nothing precious. And I have a small storage space in which I keep my bicycle and the cardboard boxes for my hi-fi, as I sometimes fantasize about moving. A lottery win, that Georgian looking house in a street next to Primrose Hill with Italianate back garden et all. Yes, well my cardboard boxes will probably grow very old with me!

Twenty years ago I had a story published in a paperback anthology. In the short bio on me, it said ‘Alan Price was born in Liverpool but now lives in a Swiss Cottage in London.’ I never contacted the editor to correct the error if the book was re-printed ( It wasn’t.) A high-rise Swiss Cottage chalet would be really bizarre.

Last week I took the train to Rochester. Charles Dickens loved the town and asked to be buried there. He wasn’t. That was Westminster Abbey. Dickens used a Swiss chalet as a summer study for his writing. It’s in the garden of Eastgate house in Rochester. So I like to think I have a tenuous alpine link with the great man. And what would he think of my view of London, knowing the Mayor had recently authorised the building of over 200 new skyscrapers, mainly offices and highly expensive apartments. A few containing a tiny gesture towards  ‘affordable housing’. But no more big social housing estates. ‘You live in a social dinosaur.’ Dickens might declare.

In the opening page of Bleak House, Dickens describes a foggy and muddy London where ‘…it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.’ Climatic changes killed off creatures of that length. Market forces have killed off council flat housing of my great height.

I stare out the window. Dubai like high-rises will approach. Soon I will be surrounded. Yet one day my home and London’s capitalist architecture will all be extinct – lying under a thick Megalopolis mud alongside of the Megalosaurus.

3 thoughts on “Blessay 21: High Rise Living

  1. My essay on high rise living was written to counter the predictable bleak and distopian depictions of urban life in the sky. How many grim films and series were once made depicting the disfunctional poor in run-down estates. The most cliche image always being the filthy conditions of the lifts where muggers and a drug crazed underclass seemed to always hang out. Every time I saw that I felt that the writers were being deeply patronising to to the kind of people who lived in high rise buildings. Of course that’s fiction. And the stereotypes persist. But you can have both views. Ordinary communities and disturbed communities. The vision of Price and the vision of Ballard.

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