Friday 28 October 2016

David Diebold: Stay living at home, kids. Independence is largely overrated

Smiling happy teenage girl sitting in front of her parents
Smiling happy teenage girl sitting in front of her parents

David Diebold on why independence is largely overrated.

WON'T be long now," is what I'll often hear, usually accompanied by the sort of sucking sound made by teeth to the inside of a cheek, something meant to connote the rueful inevitability of it all.

Won't be long until what? Until my middle-age spread gets planning permission to join the bay window to the back porch and I begin to look like I'm walking around wearing an inflatable pool toy?

"Until they're all-lll grown up and moved out," they'll say.

Oh, you mean the slowly increasing number of strangers that have been taking over the rooms where our four children used to exist. Them? Really? They're moving out? 'All-lll' of them?

"You'll both be rattling around a big, empty house on your own in no time."

Honestly, the only things that ever rattle around our house are the ice-cubes in my cocktail glass, but I'm in no hurry to see our kids out the door. Hell, they can stay until they're in their 40s, so long as they don't mind seeing an old man shuffling around the house half-naked someday, as he tries to get amorous with the old lady who's batting him away with her slipper.

Even if that seems un-liveable to them, I'd still say think twice before rushing out to rent, because I've been there, it wasn't that long ago, and honestly, putting up with your father's household displays of semi-nudity, though a close call, is quite probably the lesser of evils.

For a start, independence is overrated. Kids may have the idea that independence is not having to do dishes and being able to stay out late without someone yelling at them when they come in after midnight.

Well, I can tell them, independence usually means scrabbling for loose change from a low-paid job to pump into an electricity meter, just to heat a can of meatballs in the 'bachelor kitchenette' next to your bed (but hey, you can stay up as late as you want).

I'm quite sure the rental market has changed since the age of plasterboard bedsits crammed into crawl spaces above every other dilapidated shop. But I'm also sure the ratio of rent to wages still leaves little room for luxuries for newly 'independent' young tenants.

I recently revisited an episode of comedy series Black Books, where Fran wakes up to see the walls of her tiny room slowly moving towards her as the landlord steals the space to make another flat. While this didn't quite happen to me, I did once wake up to the sound of banging and opened the door to find the landlord constructing a bunk-bed 'studio dormer' in part of the hall.

I passed that flat for the first time in years the other day. It looked like the same net curtains were still hanging behind those draughty first-floor Georgian windows, one of which was in the only bedroom I've ever had that was taller than it was wide. It was like sleeping at the bottom of a cereal box.

At least I had a window. My flatmate's room, the same dimensions, had nothing more than a shaft of light emanating from a sort of hatch the size of something a prison officer might pass a food bowl through. It made Withnail and I seem like Beverly Hills 90210.

Comfort came in the form of a two-bar electric heater, given to us by the elderly lady caretaker downstairs who thought we were priests. It doubled as a toaster but ate through the fifty-pence pieces needed to power the meter, until we discovered that we could steal electricity by way of a complex and dangerous sequence of humming taped-together cables, from a socket on the first floor landing. Free heat and toast. It was life-changing.

In the end, we left not because living conditions were so abysmal, but because we received a final notification on a video that had disappeared under the derelict sofa months before, when the video player, a crackling behemoth the size of a suitcase, expired in a puff of acrid smoke. Seems you can't make toast on the back side of a video player, no matter how hot it gets.

Since the money we owed on the video was greater than the rent, we just packed up and left, bringing our two-bar heater and 35 feet of extension cable with us.

I'd like to be able to say that this was the last time I ever lived somewhere terrible, but it wasn't; or that the standard of flats has improved in the intervening decades, which I sincerely hope it has. I'd also like to think that my own first shots at independence were character-forming or taught me lifelong lessons.

I don't know about that, but all these years later, I do like to keep the heating on all the time; I have a habit of hoarding tinned food; and if our kids ever do decide to move to their own place? Put it this way - there's plenty of electrical cable in the shed.

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