‘I’m not going to your place, it looks like a crack den.’ It’s not exactly a vote of confidence when your mother describes your home that way. Admittedly, the bedsit I have lived in for ten years is tiny. There is no central heating. The white blinds have faded to yellow. It’s not much good for house parties: I could fit four people, five if I sat between the sink and the microwave.
However, I would like to defend living in bedsits. Whenever I hear people complaining about housing in London, I wonder whether they have considered a bedsit. I’m autistic and work as a part-time carer, but even on my salary I was able to go on holiday abroad four times last year, thanks to my living arrangements.
In London, rent is my biggest expense by a huge margin. It comes to £80 a week. Tobacco was my second biggest, before I gave up smoking. But my rent is a bargain. I live in zone three, just ten minutes’ walk from the nearest train station and one hour on the train from Islington, where I tend to socialise. The rent includes council tax and use of the light and taps.
Almost everything else in my life is dirt cheap. My mobile broadband is just £20 a month with unlimited data, so I have never needed a TV or landline. The only water bill I have to pay is for showers: 20p for six minutes. Most astonishingly, my electricity bill for the whole of last year was £24. Admittedly I charge my gadgets at work, but it is still astonishing that a year’s electricity could be cheaper than half a week’s rent. As for food, a nutritious jacket potato can cost 25p; steak and kidney pies are 50p.
My friends tell me they would go stir–crazy living in one room. I probably would too if I spent all day in it, but that has been the case just three times in a decade and then only because I was ill. True, I don’t have a garden unless you count my cacti. But in London we are spoiled in terms of green space and I live right next to a park teeming with very loud foxes. I would never be able to raise a family in a bedsit, but I have never had the desire to raise a family. I am only upset that my room is too small for cats.
People wonder how bad this room must be to cost so little. In fact, it has only been uninhabitable once, when the roof was leaking. I placed a bowl under the leak and fortunately the landlord had it repaired in three days. The lack of central heating has never been a problem for me (maybe this will change in the future — I am only 35). In winter I simply have two duvets, drink soup for supper and wear my coat indoors.
I can’t decorate as such but I do the next best thing: I print every article I have written and stick them up with Blu Tack. I also print pictures of my favourite scientists, animals, fictional characters and so on.
I’ve actually shared this tiny room on three occasions. Once was with a colleague who had grown fed up with renting a room from a man who had a long list of rules. She had also become fed up with England and was planning to migrate to Ghana. I let her share with me for two months before she emigrated. It worked out well, apart from when she had laser eye surgery. She put black bin bags over the blinds and kept the lights off.
On the night of the Brexit referendum, an Estonian woman came to stay. She had split up with her boyfriend and had nowhere to go. I had only met her a few days before but I could see she was autistic. She had ADHD too, which explains why she never stopped talking. I was thankful that she kept my mind off the result.
The third person was a friend who had been evicted and was facing homelessness. We shared my room for two months. It was cramped, but we saved enough for us to afford a week in Amsterdam.
Bedsits are not for everyone, but they give you the freedom to take full advantage of this beautiful world.
Edmund West writes a blog for British Deaf News and has also written for Wired, Military History Matters and Press Gazette.