It was October 2004, and I was a relatively innocent, fresh-faced 18 year old from a Welsh country town, about to be let loose for the first time in my life, in central London.
It always had to be London. I’d spent the previous year studying insanely and generally foregoing a social life, in order to obtain those three A grade A-levels, and my joy hit the roof when I opened that envelope to discover I’d actually managed it. I knew before this that I wanted to aim at getting into a top university to study Archaeology, but I didn’t think I was good enough for Oxbridge. I’d been to London before and loved the place, and so this seemed like the obvious choice. I relished the idea that through my own perseverance and hard work I could hopefully escape the trappings of my working class background for good. “What’s wrong with Aberystwyth?” my grandparents would enquire, “what about the terrorists? London is dangerous you know” I would sigh and dismiss all their concerns, while insisting this wasn’t about finding the nearest place to home. This was about getting the best education. I could be pretty insufferable about it to be honest, but I think that was my way of fighting to be understood.
My interview was terrifying. I’d been suffering from a debilitating anxiety disorder for a number of years that I was still in total denial about, but I must have said something that impressed the guy, as he gave me a relatively low acceptance offer of three B’s. So this thing was really happening. I had a few months to attempt to mentally prepare myself, before whizzing away on the train with my huge suitcase containing my life. To say I was nervous was an understatement. I didn’t know anyone else there, nor the room-mate that I’d recently found out I’d be sharing with.
I’d been allocated a room in a cheap student accommodation house in Bloomsbury, which cost a mere £50 a week back then, but it still felt like a lot to me. Here is a photo that I took of the house from the outside.
Do not be deceived by it’s palatial exterior. For there is a reason I am simply going to refer to this place as ‘Chaos House East’. It seemed to be the last of the student houses waiting to be modernised, and while I was pleased to be saving so much money, I had no idea what I’d just let myself in for. But on the plus side, it has provided me with much material for this blog. My first week was happy, nerve-wracking chaos. What with everyone having to adjust to this new, unfamiliar abode, and grappling with that first taste of independence, it was surprising how quickly we all made friends. In many ways, friendship was the glue that helped us get through it all. Many people there were from abroad and having to adjust to a completely new language and culture. I was only from Wales, but it felt like a massive culture shock to me too, as I had to have been one of the least worldly people there. My family never really travelled anywhere and the only times I’d been abroad had been with school and college, and that only extended to France and Belgium. I recall noting in my diary, my amazement at the fact that my Belgian friend ‘speaks English like an English person’. I genuinely assumed that all Europeans were as bad at languages as we were. So they must have all thought I was incredibly naive, especially when I managed to get myself lost in Bloomsbury one evening, trying to find my way back home after meeting up with a friend. She had babbled some directions at me and then dashed off, and that was it, I was on my own in London, surrounded by traffic, noise, the general hugeness and what seemed like a million strangers. “Oh look”, I thought, “here is a row of big posh houses. I can’t be far away now”, and so I turned the corner to find another row of big posh houses, and then another corner to find even more posh houses, and so this went on for some time. After a while, the sky grew dark and the street lighting made all the posh houses look tall and gloomy and all the strangers that passed by became even harder to discern. London suddenly got scary. After wandering for what seemed like forever in the identical maze of Bloomsbury’s streets, I finally plucked up the courage to ask someone for directions to Euston station, as I knew I could find my way home easily from there. My relief to finally get through the front door was immense, and after trudging up all six flights of stairs to my room, I flopped my weary self down on the bed, much to the amusement of my room-mate (who I shall just call ‘Arlene’ here, for anonymity purposes). I think she must have sussed fairly early on that I was – in the nicest possible way – a general clueless oddball, but we were on the same Archaeology course and so found we had much to talk about and bond over. She had come from Wyoming, and so was probably my first ever international friend. I learned so much from her, though I’m not sure to what extent that went both ways.
I’d sensed that I was different from the start, but I tried my hardest to fit in. Most of the other students had high-earning parents in top jobs. Some had been to private school. I couldn’t believe my ears upon hearing that some kids got to go to the Himalayas for their school trip. We felt lucky to go to Water World. However all such class differences were put to one side, when in the first week of the course we were all whisked off to a remote corner of East Sussex to spent five days in a tent in a muddy field. The purpose of this was to enable us to live the Iron Age life on a reconstruction site, in order to get a better understanding of how ancient people had lived. In hindsight, this rugged, survival-based camping experience was a kind of preparation for the next 3 months of life at Chaos House East. Actually I think a tent in a field may have been preferable, as I began to find life as a native Briton to be rather nice. Sitting out on the grass, chatting to your friends, nothing but birdsong in the air as you carefully crafted yourself a flint knife or weaved a bit of fabric. Communal meals in the evening, as we laughed around the campfires, ghost hunting on other people’s private land at night after drinking one too many Barcardi’s at the tent-based disco… wait, what? Well, we had lots of fun anyway, but were very grateful to get home and have a shower nonetheless.
One of the first things that struck me about life at London uni was how fantastically intelligent everyone was, and without wishing to sound like too much of a snob, this was wonderfully refreshing. We had a shared kitchen in the house, and we’d often sit around the table eating our meals, debating world politics and current affairs. I remember having a particularly deep discussion with a guy on a placement from Harvard, and a guy from China, on the subject of America’s place in the world, what with China’s rising global influence and how this may play out in the future. “How amazing is this” I would think, as I munched on my staple diet of the Nutella and peanut butter sandwich, “to be able to spend each day partaking in such intellectual, worldly discussions. They would never understand this back home”. I soaked up so much knowledge in such a short time, and yet in many ways we were still kids, learning the very basics of how to live. Because of this, communal living could get pretty frustrating at times – shampoo bottles wedged down toilets, mouldering dishes left in the kitchen, blatant theft of my personal cheese. I couldn’t help but feel that while these were supposed to be some of the brightest students from around the globe, actual maturity was just one of those things that had to catch up in it’s own sweet time.
Another thing that was especially chaotic about Chaos House East was the fire alarm that would go off in the wee hours of the morning. This happened quite a few times during the three months that I lived there, and it soon became apparent that the cause was a handful of pot-smoking students chilling out in the basement. Nevertheless, every time this thing would go off, we’d have to go through the full evacuation rigmarole, no matter what time of night it was. The fire alarm was one of those awful, old, head-rattlingly noisy types, not unlike my room-mate’s alarm clock. “Turn it off Arlene” I would groan, half-asleep, “turn it off”.
“IT’S NOT MINE. IT’S THE FIRE ALARM AGAIN”
And so I’d have to drag my semi-conscious ass out of bed, put on my trainers (screw the laces), fling on a coat over my pyjamas and traipse down 6 flights of stairs to assemble outside the building in the cold winter air with everyone else for the roll call. On one of these occasions we even had an actual fire engine summoned, ready and waiting to tackle the blatant non-fire. It was at times like this I would stand there shivering, muttering under my breath about how they probably never have to go through all this in Chaos House West. That place sounded like a paradise compared to Chaos East. They even had internet there, the jammy so-and-so’s. And then of course would come the inevitable announcement of ‘false alarm’, and we’d all traipse back in again, up all the stairs, go back to bed and entirely fail to get to sleep.
If there was chaos, it was also balanced with fun. Everybody was extremely psyched to find out that our freshers ball was to be held at London’s Ministry of Sound. I couldn’t wait to finally be able to go and party like the 18 year old that I was, and so I got myself dressed up in a cream coloured skirt covered in multicoloured illustrations of electric guitars, paired with a black polo neck top that entirely failed to match, some tights and the only pair of shoes in my possession that weren’t trainers. I thought I looked the business, but it was quite likely that I was in fact the worst dressed person there. I’d never been to a nightclub before in my life, so this was quite the introduction. Though in saying that, much of it passed by in a haze of rum and coke. I just remember there was a lot of dancing, to very loud music along the lines of Darude’s ‘Sandstorm’, while being bedazzled by some pretty epic lighting effects. The security guards were rather scary too, it was so packed in there and these big burly guys were shoving us around. I have a vague memory of arriving back at 4am in a taxi with my housemates, absolutely spent.
In fact, being young, independent and let loose in the big city with a bank account full of student loan felt like every 18 year old’s dream. My roommate and I made sure to do all the touristy things early on, visiting places like Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace and Knightsbridge, and going to see theatre performances like The Lion King and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. It amazed me, to see real life celebrities on stage in front of me. You didn’t get that in my little hometown. We also went to the Remembrance Day service at the cenotaph. I was deeply moved after studying the poetry of WW1 in my English Literature class earlier in the year, and we’d also been on a trip to visit the battlefields and war graves. This had left such a lasting impression on me that I felt very strongly about going to the memorial service. Incidentally, the Queen and the other royals were there to lay their wreaths, but being so short, I couldn’t see more than the heads of the people in front of me, so I never did get to glimpse any royalty. We all stood and clapped, as a near infinite line of aged veterans marched past with their medals on. Most of them looked very sombre, and clapping felt inappropriate somehow. I posted my poppy back home and asked my grandad to pin it on my great-grandfather’s little cross on our own cenotaph.
One good thing about having a roommate is that they will never allow you to be bored. When not indulging in our new-found pastime of reading broadsheet newspapers and pretending to understand them, we spent many an evening sitting on our beds watching episodes of Red Dwarf and 1960’s Batman. The main downside to having a roommate however, is that whenever you need to get on with the business of actually writing an essay, they are usually more interested in watching Red Dwarf or 1960’s Batman. I’ve always coveted my personal space and so shared living became strained for me at times, even with a roommate I really got along with. I would often find myself sneaking off to the little toilet at the bottom of our staircase, just so I could finally have some alone time (oh the joys of being an introvert). It was during one of these toilet escape sessions that a small crisis occurred.
I entered the little room, as I always did and casually flicked the lock across. I must have flicked it a little harder than usual however, as the bolt part of the old lock seemed to detach from the handle part, only to wedge itself in the locked position. I stared at it for a moment in horror. I frantically turned the handle… the bolt didn’t move. That piece of metal was properly wedged. I took a moment to breathe, and reassure myself that if I am trapped, I am at least trapped in a room with a toilet and a tap, so it could be worse. But I had genuinely no idea what to do. No matter how much I fiddled with the lock, I could not make the bolt move. It then occurred to me that I could just unscrew the whole thing from the wall, if I only had a screwdriver-type implement… which I didn’t. I realised I had to get creative and so quickly undid my watch strap and attempted to use the little protruding metal clasp to untwist the screws.
And that was the end of my watch. I sat down feeling doubly defeated. With this, it began to dawn on me that I was thoroughly incarcerated and so needed to think very carefully about this. What would 1960’s Batman do? For about two whole minutes I actually entertained the idea of climbing out of the 5th floor window and scaling my way down the scaffolding that was on the outside of the building. But fortunately I abandoned this idea, in favour of the more sensible notion of calling a passer-by for help. I just needed to wait for a passer-by. Then, after a little while I heard footsteps echoing up the stairs. I braced myself against the door to call out as they passed, but I just couldn’t do it. I felt such a tit. Suddenly they were gone and the panic set in once more. I briefly contemplated the scaffolding again, before realising that I had no choice but to insist that I get a grip and call the next person who passed. And so up the stairs the unassuming girl came.
I gave the door a little knock. “HELLO”
“HELLO. Erm… I’m… I’M STUCK IN THE TOILET”
“You are stuck?” It was a girl, she sounded like one of the international students.
“YES”. I said, trying so hard not to laugh at my own ridiculousness. “I HAVE ACCIDENTALLY BROKE THE LOCK. CANNOT GET OUT. I THINK I MAY NEED SOME HELP”
“Oh! I will help you!”
“THANK YOU. OKAY, I NEED YOU TO GO GET MY ROOM-MATE. SHE’S IN ROOM 302. HER NAME’S ARLENE. PLEASE TELL HER THAT I’M STUCK IN THE TOILET”
The girl, sounding a little bemused, bounded off up the stairs to find her. Arlene, who was having a nice quiet day in, minding her own business, answered the knock on the door to be greeting by a rather flustered girl declaring “Arlene is stuck in the toilet!!!” There was momentary confusion before Arlene realised that of course, it had to be Carly, and so down the stairs they came to try and establish what had happened. I will cut a long story short, but let’s just say that I spent over an hour discussing my wellbeing with a very concerned member of the Chaos House staff, while various implements were passed under the door to me, in order that I may attempt to un-fuck the demon lock via my own dextrous capabilities. This generated quite a bit of interest in the students passing by, and as time went on, I gradually became aware of the voices chattering on the other side of the door to be growing in number, and that sinking feeling that I had become the day’s entertainment.
Then a miracle happened. Just as the Concerned House Adult declared she was going to have to phone the fire brigade, I somehow, through use of a double combination of a wire coat hanger and a key, managed to force the bolt back to the unlocked position. I had set myself free, and honestly, that thing was wedged so tightly, I still have no idea to this day how I actually managed to un-wedge it, but I can only conclude that a certain level of desperation is helpful when it comes to great feats of human accomplishment. I emerged to be greeted by a group of about 30 students of various nationalities, all clapping and cheering me. I felt like I’d just won the Toilet Olympics or something. It was quite surreal, but wonderful to have my freedom back nonetheless.
As for the resident House Adults, they were killjoys of sorts, I found them to be largely rule followers, pen pushers and needlessly bureaucratic. But entirely necessary I suppose, in house full of incompetent teens. Arlene and I went to some trouble one evening, to cut out several wacky newspaper clippings to stick to the outside of our bedroom door, since we felt the need to personalise our address and brighten up the dull corridor a bit. And most importantly, let everyone know that we were wacky. However we were informed by the House Adults, that this was a ‘fire hazard’ and therefore not allowed. At this point we were tempted to point out to them that it wasn’t a fire hazard, since the pot smokers only hung out in the basement. Nor had it escaped us that doors – and indeed entire houses – are also flammable things in their own right, and so this ruling seemed to make no sense. It makes even less sense to me now to be honest – since when has the presence of paper in a building been a fire hazard? The House Adults told us we could stick our things on the inside of the door instead, as apparently this was fine. I can only presume that a fire contained to one room with only 2 casualties didn’t breach any particular health and safety rules, and so that’s where our wacky clippings ended up.
So we were not allowed to inflict any chaos upon the house, but alas this rule did not apply in reverse. It was one lunchtime, in between lectures, when I trudged up the staircase with my sandwiches and crisps in one hand and a copy of The Independent in the other – my usual lunchtime reading. I unlocked the door and entered my room, only to find the window entirely absent. I stood there for a moment and stared at the vacant hole as the curtains billowed slightly in the breeze. With a little sigh, I did an about-turn, closed the door and made my way back down the stairs. Just another day at Chaos House East. I thought I’d better go and enquire at the office of the House Adults downstairs, in the hope that they could explain to me why my room was missing this vital part of itself. Just as I arrived and began to ask them about this, the fire alarm went off, filling the corridor with it’s usual head-wracking din. Nonplussed, I merely raised my voice to a shout and continued to ask about my window. But it was no use, they couldn’t hear me and I was already being ushered out by the cleaner. I stood outside, waiting for my name on the roll call as the fire engines pulled up outside, the alarm still merrily ringing away. “I am living in a mad house” I thought to myself, as I stood there, helpless. Once we had the ‘false alarm’ announcement, I quickly made a getaway to the relative calm of the Institute computer room, to bathe in the joys of an internet connection. As for the window, it turned out that they were refurbishing parts of the house, including the old windows and the workmen had just happened to be on their lunch break. When I returned to our room later that day, I was happy to see it in it’s rightful place once more.
My term at UCL was so eventful that I’m having to do this write up in three parts. So, coming up in Part 2: Hominid Man, the ghost, beer and Bon Jovi, and possibly things that may actually relate to my education….