England Memory #6 – Down and Out In Earls Court and Brixton

The cost of living in London proper is astronomical. Even back in the 80s. I was making £114 a week, which translated into about $250. Of that, nearly half went to my rent. Half of that half went to transportation. The rest went to food. I wasn’t saving anything.

One week, we were so broke we ate popcorn for dinner three nights in a row. Dry toast was a staple and if we were celebratory, some jam with that. Around Christmas time, many of the RAC members would provide “gifts” for the front-of-house staff in the way of liquor and food and I managed to get a $75 Brie wheel from a clubhouse member who would later ask me out on a date (I refused). Liam and I got bread and had cheese sandwiches for weeks. When we were down to the last chunk we got adventurous: we made macaroni and cheese. The most expensive mac&cheese I have ever made.

Speaking of mac&cheese, I would plead with my father to ship me regular boxes of Kraft Dinner. I could sell it to homesick North Americans I knew for 4 times what it was worth back home. Once I got $5 for one measly box. Harrods sold the jumbo “family” box (with the can of pre-made cheese sauce) in their “International food court”, but it was $13 a box. It was an easy sell to just-out-of college kids, dreaming of escaping beans on toast.

At least I had a great flat. Located in Notting Hill Gate, it was a slightly mildewy basement with slugs in the shower, and I had to share the only double bed with Liam (we were totally just friends) but it did have a nice patio out to the back, it was steps from a local gay pub called The Champion, and we were able to chop up the rent into bite size weekly payments for the uber-gay landlord who “liked our faces”. Prior to that, I lived in my brother’s back room, in his flat in Brixton. Before my arrival there were race riots a block away from his flat. By the time I moved in, the area was a solid year into gentrification by gay yuppies.

But the worst was Earls Court Road. My second day in London and my “free” hostel chits were expiring the next night. I needed to find a flat fast. Our last orientation class a gentleman came into the room and announced that he had 3 spaces available at a student flat in Earls Court. “Near Princess Diana’s original London residence!” he boasted.

Diana must have been a serious heroin baby before falling into royalty…

The flat was a one bedroom with separate living room on the third floor of a nondescript row of houses. The back bedroom held a sister team who would share the double bed. The front living room had a couch and two pull out foams with sleeping bags. 5 of us in a one bedroom flat no bigger than 400 square feet. There was one key, which was thrown down to all who visited. Organizing who was the last out/first home was hellish. My first night there I was serenaded to sleep by a crying girl who was in London one day longer than me and, like myself, had never been out of Ontario before. But unlike me, she was having none of this bohemian lifestyle. She was so homesick, the CDC would have quarantined her.

It wasn’t that bad, really. One night I was sitting on the floor in front of the couch and I felt a vibration. I dug under the couch, through the discarded food wrappers and found … A PHONE! The ringer was off and the flat had such high turnover that no one ever knew that it was there. What made it glorious was that it was registered to …someone, not us. FREE PHONE! See, in London in the 80s, land lines were comparable to Timmins in the 40s. Everything was manual (that’s another story) and somewhere along the lines this phone should have been disconnected. But someone at British Telecom hadn’t thrown the switch. Homesick Girl was all over that receiver like a basset hound on a wounded rabbit. She spent 3 hours with our new discovery, talking to some poor slob back home who had to endure her sputtering and slobbering about how awful London was.

I left that flat after a couple weeks. I invited my brother over to see it and within 24 hours, I was in his tiny back room in Brixton. I wanted to be independent, but there’s only so much inconvenience a person can take…

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