In London, I lived for five years in a tiny bedsit with no couch and a single bed. There was no room for a table, either for dining or work; the obliging landlord installed a small benchtop that I used for both. When eating, I lifted my laptop to its assigned space on the shelf immediately above, which I had also requested from the landlord. Japan had accustomed me to compact living, and I was grateful to live on my own, and so centrally.
My landlord, a research chemist, had bought the tiny flat—essentially, a converted landing cupboard in a Bloomsbury terrace—to supplement his pension. He’d also acquired several rent-controlled tenants in the basement flats, all old men, one gnome and two trolls. It was a quirky building that had, so far, resisted gentrification.
Several years after I’d moved on, to Scotland, where one-bed flats were more affordable, rental adverts for flats of similar dimensions around Kings Cross appeared in Metro and on the internet, with shocked headlines: surely this breached some notional human rights standard for living space, if not statutory guidelines? Apparently not, although the ad promptly disappeared. I didn’t doubt that it would reappear on Gumtree and other less censorious venues, when the outrage had blown itself out and moved on.
The confirmation that I wasn’t the only cupboard-dweller in central London was a vindication of sorts: other people were still making the same choice, exercising the same limited freedom in a brutally expensive city.
In the last eighteen months, I’ve occasionally wondered who has spent the pandemic living and working from my old London cupboard-flat, and how much rent the landlord charges now.
The spaces in which we live shape our lives, as architect-philosophers and, more recently, emotional geographers, like to point out. Buildings are not merely modern caves of brick, stone or concrete slabs that shelter us from the elements; they contain, make possible and also delimit our daily activities. From personal experience, a tiny, freezing converted cupboard creates a very different sort of life, one of extremely limited possibilities, compared to a well-heated flat with space for socialising, for spending a rainy weekend alone, for drying clothes on a fold-out rack AND laying out a yoga mat at the same time.
My London cupboard-flat didn’t even have enough floor space for home yoga. I paid £79 a month in membership fees to a fancy gym across the road and attended yoga classes in its spacious basement studio. Living a tiny flat could be insidiously expensive.
As I frequently reminded myself at the time, I chose to live in a cupboard in central London to spare myself the alternative claustrophobias of communal living and commuting.
Not only the geography of domestic, intimate life, but also of working life, is now shaped by our homes. Work seeps into every crack of modern life, and the pandemic has merely completed the incursion. The home office—surely an oxymoron?—indicates the privilege of space. People who work at the kitchen table while home-schooling/entertaining kids work differently from people with studies or spare bedrooms.
Furniture provides the interior landscape of our daily lives. This landscape shapes how our bodies spend the day. Much of this, for the modern person, will be sitting down. In this landscape, the couch looms like a necessary mountain range. A home without a couch is incomplete.
When I was preparing to move into Solo HQ, ordering essential furniture online, I spent a lot of time researching sofa beds. We make many promises to ourselves over a lifetime, and since the London cupboard-flat, I have vowed never to return to a pared-down, couch-free existence. On top of this, I yearned for a sofa bed, so I could offer hospitality to all the friends who couldn’t visit me in the cupboard-flat. A guest bedroom was beyond my means, but at least I could go one better than a blow-up mattress on the floor.
Having a click-clack sofa bed delivered to a third-floor during the second lockdown, when certain ‘COVID-safe’ delivery companies refused to go any further than the street door, was an unwanted additional challenge at the time, but I managed it.
Unfortunately, the sofa bed, which looked so mid-century stylish on-screen, with its woven teal fabric and splayed legs, was miserably uncomfortable. Even for one person, it was narrow and hard, a barely padded bench, like a train seat in the days before the hygiene of arm rests to keep your neighbour at bay.
I held out, but as winter swung around again, I considered the money saved by not going on holiday and the long, recumbent evenings that lay ahead.
A few weeks ago, in a rare and seamless synchronicity, a charity truck removed the failed sofa bed, followed later that day by a new sofa in three separate boxes, delivered right into my front room by two sweating, groaning men. (Surely they should’ve been grateful it wasn’t all in one piece?)
The new sofa has deep, soft seats and well-padded armrests. It is covered in a stain-resistant velvet-like fabric in pine green. (My interior life is coloured various shades of green, with some blue. I’m sure there is a psychological reason for this.)
There is no bed that folds out of this sofa; such models were far too large for my little flat, however wide and deep I roamed the interwebs. The dream of easy hospitality remains unfulfilled, but in the meantime, I have somewhere comfortable to sit and to settle and to be, which, apart from basic shelter, is surely the definition of a home?